Refugees: Villains, Victims or Us?

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A new exhibition ‘My name is not a Refugee’ at Firstsite in Colchester explores human purpose, choices and morality. Austeja Treinyte took a closer look at the exhibition.

Like many asylum seekers, her family is trapped in the Home Office’s Asylum Process and are moved from place to place, often without a warning. 

She narrates the days of the first lockdown: pregnant, sick and getting more and more scared. 

Recently this year, Refugee Action – Colchester (RA-C), a voluntary organisation supporting refugees, asylum seekers and other vulnerable migrants, has shared a story of an asylum-seeking woman. She has no name or age. But the anonymous account of her life in 2020 Britain should be read by everyone, the organisation suggests. 

The woman sits on one of the two bunk beds she and her family shares in the one room they’ve been provided with by the Home Office, as she writes her account.

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Credits: My name is not a Refugee (2020) Installation view. An Arts Council Collection National Partners Programme exhibition. Firstsite, Colchester. Photo by Anna Lukala.

She says: ‘We did our best not to be a burden on the British government, but it seems the government wants us to be dependent on them and they want to spend money on us rather than allowing us to work even after waiting for 2 years just to have our Substantive Interview. We don’t want to be in this country to steal people’s jobs or take their money. We want to be here to live freely, to work and bring up our children.’ 

The anonymous woman’s story reflects some of the themes explored in a new exhibition at Firstsite in Colchester ‘My name is not a Refugee’. Her account draws attention to the issues of impermanence and life lived by force rather than choice. 

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Credits: My name is not a Refugee (2020) Installation view. An Arts Council Collection National Partners Programme exhibition. Firstsite, Colchester. Photo by Anna Lukala.

Similarly, many asylum seekers and refugees do not want to be a burden or to be marginalised and simplified to only a ‘villain’ or a ‘victim’, as the media has sometimes chosen as an approach to cover the ‘refugee crisis’. Elizabeth Curry, volunteer at RA – Colchester and one of the exhibition’s curators, says: ‘We hope the exhibition shows that refugees are people like us rather than making them ‘other’ and the fact that we have worked together on the exhibition is a practical demonstration of that fact.’

Over the past year, a group of refugees and asylum seekers have collaborated with Firstsite staff and RA-C to create an exhibition of artworks that includes pieces from the Arts Council Collection. Featuring artists Jananne Al-Ani, Peter Doig, Mona Hatoum, David Shrigley and more. 

Elizabeth Curry explains that they started as a small discussion group, discussing the issues that are important to the 4 refugees and asylum seekers in the group. ‘Interestingly they wanted to discuss beliefs and the state of the world and not their own personal situation’, she says. As a result of that, three philosophical questions were developed and were asked of the larger refugee community: 

  1. What is the main purpose of humanity?
  2. Do you live your life by force or by choice?
  3. How do we decide what is right and what is wrong?

‘We reviewed the answers we received and picked out the themes of belief, journey, environment (stewardship of the world) and communication. As themes and ideas developed through our meetings we started to look at catalogues of artworks from the Arts Council and discuss works which appealed to us in terms of our themes’, tells Curry. 

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Credits: My name is not a Refugee (2020) Installation view. An Arts Council Collection National Partners Programme exhibition. Firstsite, Colchester. Photo by Anna Lukala.

‘My name is not a Refugee’ exhibition is not another media story, dehumanising refugees and asylum seekers through homogenising narratives or sometimes depicting them as threatening villains to the host countries. Rather they are us, or like us, as the first exhibit of the show suggests when you enter the exhibition. A large digitally printed banner screams the red painted word ‘Us’, a more inclusive vision of society for the future and also an opposite of the word ‘It’ on the other side of the banner. ‘It’ represents the dehumanising experience of asylum seekers and recovery groups that artist Mark Titchner had conversations with and who influenced him to make this work. 

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Credits: Mark Titchner “Everything that I am not (2019) Firstsite, Colchester. Photo by Ollie Harrop.
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Credits: Mark Titchner “Everything that I am not (2019) Firstsite, Colchester. Photo by Ollie Harrop.

In the case of the most recent world-scale struggle, the Covid 19 pandemic, we have to remember the same, Curry suggests. ‘Refugees and asylum seekers are bewildered and worried in the same way as everyone is and the pandemic has highlighted their problems in the same way as it has the general population.’

The themes of the exhibition are ideas and stories that are meaningful to those who selected them, a view of the world and Britain through their perspective. Among a variety of responses to environment topics, are a selection of English landscape paintings, the picture postcard image of Britain known nationally as well as internationally.

Other artworks include videos, sculptures, ceramics and photography that inspire a different way of thinking, alongside scents that are familiar in the regions from which the group have travelled from.

Talking about the conversations that curators, artists and refugees hope to evoke with the exhibition, Elizabeth Curry says: ‘We hope people will discuss the works and their meaning or have an emotional response to them. We hope in the longer run it will make them curious to know more about the refugee and asylum-seeking situation in this country and to want to know more about RA-C.’

Elizabeth Curry is happy that the presentation of the exhibition developed organically, even with the imposed restrictions of the pandemic. ‘I consider that Covid was an advantage to us as when we reconvened in July we were able to discuss further details and in the interim I had met a calligrapher who we were able to involve in the exhibition and because he could do calligraphy in Arabic, Farsi and Turkish we were able to use local people to translate.’

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Credits: My name is not a Refugee (2020) Installation view. An Arts Council Collection National Partners Programme exhibition. Firstsite, Colchester. Photo by Anna Lukala.

One of the calligraphy art writings on the walls presents an experience: ‘When I lost everything, I found myself in an unknown position. I couldn’t recognise myself, who I am, as everything was upside down.’ To cope with these struggles, communication is one of the most important aspects to refugees. When finding new connections in a different place, language becomes vital.  

Maria Ciechan, a student at the University of Essex and volunteer at the Refugee Teaching Programme (RTP), says: ‘During volunteering, I discovered that they are simple people who simply come here to have a better life, they don’t expect much. For many of them, English is a real obstacle, often they are afraid to go out because it’s hard for them to communicate. Better English is all they need to start integrating with society. And they want to belong.’

RTP together with VTeam at the University are assisting teachers to teach English to the refugees, asylum seekers and migrant workers. This year teaching takes place online, via zoom. So anyone can contribute to a positive change from the comfort of their homes. 

Maria says: ‘It’s a really great experience, it’s very rewarding because you see the progress the students make and you know you’re really making a difference in their life. Some of the refugees are quite lonely and the meetings are the only chance to have someone to talk to, and I can see how happy they are to come every week.’

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Credits: My name is not a Refugee (2020) Installation view. An Arts Council Collection National Partners Programme exhibition. Firstsite, Colchester. Photo by Anna Lukala.

In her account, the anonymous woman, seeking an asylum, wonders if things will ever get better, wonders how long her family will be forced to exist like this, trapped and scared. I wonder when she will be able to wonder about other things, about human purpose, choices, and morality. Only, I think she does. Perhaps, we don’t choose to see that or let her wonder together with us. Rather we put her with ‘the others’, ‘the villains’ and ‘the victims’ as if there’s nothing more to her. I wonder if she will ever be given a name because certainly, her name is not a refugee. 

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