I would like to talk about my experience as an artist engaging with the changing politics around us as well as a person in solidarity with the oppressed people in particularly with the people of Syria who have had catastrophic last few years ever since they decided to rise and take the streets against a notoriously oppressive regime who ruled them for more than 4 decades. I would like to start by stressing on the importance of the terms we use when talking about people we are supposedly in solidarity with. I’ve noticed that some art initiatives in the UK have taken the lead from the UK government and in particularly from the home secretary Theresa May who have never liked anybody who was born outside of this island, and we have been mistakenly calling refugees migrants. The people of Syria, the people of Iraq and the people of Afghanistan amongst others do not have the privilege of choice to be called migrants. They are fleeing barrel bombs who kill them indiscriminately. They are also fleeing the Islamic State, a group that was born because of and during the invasion and occupation of Iraq.
I’m sure people in the art world are full of good intentions perhaps thinking that using the term “migrant” is more empowering than the word “refugee”. Though by insisting to call refugees what they are, refugees of war and often of proxy wars, we are asking our governments to take responsibility and abide to international laws that very clearly state our obligation to open border and give refuge to refugees rather than keeping them in hellish limbos such as Calais for example.
So we are here to discuss what we can do.
Of course art is limited in what it can do.
Making work about Syria needs to engage with the fact that these are people who made an uprising and were brutally crushed by the Assad regime rather than seeing them as some poor victims or in some extreme cases seeing them as savages killing each other in some religious civil war. Again the language here is important. On the 15th March 2011, an uprising began in Syria not a civil war.
The people in Syria have had a creative boom in the last few years and have produced a radical and inspiring artistic language, which affected the art scene in the whole Arab region and perhaps the world. It’s important to give Syrian artists a space to show and present their work rather than amplifying our own voices by talking about them. There are refugees in the UK and some of them are artists themselves even though the number is minimal in comparison to Germany for example since the UK has refused to take on people and insist on implementing the Dublin Regulation while other countries have decided to ignore it. So the question today is how we can in the art scene work with refugees rather than about them. It is not our crisis even though we sometimes make it sound like it is when we call it a “refugee crisis.” It is the crisis of the millions of people who have been uprooted and disempowered.
I would like to talk about my own experience in some of the projects I worked on using oral histories from Syria whether to reconstruct the oral histories of ten activists who were killed at the start of the uprising in the show Gardens Speak or while working with three asylum seekers who made it to Munich in 2013. Perhaps we can talk more about these works during the discussion but in short, in these projects, I was working with the hope that art can shift the debate on these big political events as they happen and that art is our microscopic baby step towards writing history from below using ordinary people’s narratives rather than accepting the imposed narrative of propagandist media and the grand narrative of regimes and dictators.
Finally I would like to finish with this thought or perhaps this cry: let them in first and then let’s make art about it.
Tania El Khoury
An extract from a brief intervention delivered for the Parallel Crossings: Art, Culture and the Refugee Crisis at Toynbee Studios, London on 26 Nov, 2015.