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On contemporary art and migration Daniel Kwon

For the past year one topic has dominated headlines and political debates in Britain and across the world. It has been used to poison referendum results, reconfigure identities, and divide nations; but also to create art.

Since summer 2015, the 'migrant crisis' has become somewhat of a 'hot topic' in the art world, owing to the sector’s natural tendency towards political activism, but also its ability to inform and educate. More and more art institutions are engaging with the topic of migration, from individual artists and small charity organisations to huge national galleries. The results are varied in terms of their success (and ethical motivations), but have the political potential to completely change public debate and sentiment towards immigration: a potential that is radically undervalued by politicians, who see art as a pointless exercise in self-expression (exemplified in the government’s recent decision to axe A-Level Art History).

I first became interested in art and migration after attending the 'Doh Mix Meh Up' exhibition at the Old Fire Station, organised by the Oxford Diasporas Programme and curated by local artist Sunil Shah. Featuring spoken word, video installation, and sculpture, it came as a welcome interruption to the theory-focused MSc and spurred me on to begin considering how experiences of migration and im/mobility find expression in the visual arts.

The art world is notoriously exclusive and has long-since alienated the poor, the young, and the non-white. For many artists and visitors, there are multiple barriers to participation and inclusion; physical borders that situate many galleries in large intimidating buildings or behind buzz-entry doors, as well as structural borders and a lack of diversity within art institutions. Practicing artists, who lack an arts degree, were educated abroad, or make art in response to particular themes, are at the whim of a hierarchy that perhaps doesn’t recognise their qualifications or deem their work relevant; particularly in a capitalist (art) market that values human capital and cultural production mostly by its capacity to make money.

We must therefore view the attention that the art world is currently paying to the migrant crisis in equal amounts optimistic and pessimistic. It is, after all, a good thing that the art world responds so quickly to current affairs and seems unafraid of the political. That perhaps its interest is motivated by a less-than-ethical compulsion to exploit trending topics and make itself even richer, is more troubling. However, this paradox runs right through the art world, from gallery to maker. Indeed I have met artists, both who do and do not make art on the subject of migration; who are happy to be included in group exhibitions under the theme of migrant or refugee art, but do not want a long-term affiliation with this label or the institutions that make such exhibitions possible. These artists understand that they must exploit their product or identity while it is in demand, whilst also avoiding being pigeonholed in the future. Right now, artists with migration backgrounds and/or who make art in response to migration are desirable because it is widely perceived that they did not exist before the migrant crisis.

The irony lies in the fact that British Art is heavily influenced by the artists and art movements that have arrived on our shores by means of migration. Beginning with European landscape and portrait artists who travelled to Britain in search of commissions and more favourable working conditions; to Jewish immigrant artists escaping persecution; and post World War II migrations from Africa, South Asia, and the Caribbean. Modernism, abstraction, and conceptualism have all flourished in response to travelling artists and their global experiences of exile.1 Historically however, the contributions of immigrants to Britain have rarely been acknowledged as positive or exemplary. Where they have been, immigrant histories are often swept under the carpet.

That is, until now.

As Cuban performance artist Tania Bruguera notes 'Immigrants are the subject of the twenty first century.'2 Ranajit Guha describes now as 'The Migrant’s Time'.3 And migration is being placed centre-stage in the British art world accordingly.4 Curators and exhibition-makers must now tread a fine line between empowering and exoticising migrant art. They must avoid the exploitation and commodification of migrant artists whilst simultaneously rejecting the wider notion of art as commodity, in favour of art as experience. They must move beyond basic and superficial surveys of migrant art solely curated by those educated in the West, towards a long-term commitment to diversifying art institutions and the stories they tell (including who tells them and where). But this is old hat.

In the context of a dehumanising rhetoric around immigration and increasing compassion fatigue, the success of the visual arts in its ability to encourage empathy by means of story-telling is undeniable. Rather than solidifying the divisive political boundaries between 'them' and 'us', contemporary art brings the two closer together, acting as a mirror to universalise the migrant experience. The potential of art in the migrant crisis is, however, often limited to its therapeutic or cultural benefits and its capacity to present refugees and migrants as more than the sum of their stereotypes. Although I would argue these are indeed worthwhile, artistic practice can also help us to imagine impossible possibilities otherwise abandoned in politics and law, which could yet take hold and produce concrete solutions, i.e. new models of citizenship or the complete dissolution of global borders as conceived of by artists. With little progress towards a truly humanitarian response to the migrant crisis, it is this new and radical potential that should no longer remain undervalued.

Notes

1 Demos, T. J. (2013) The Migrant Image: The Art and Politics of Documentary During Global Crisis, Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

2 Quote from an LSECities lecture titled ‘Tania Bruguera and Saskia Sassen: In Conversation’, hosted by Theatrum Mundi and South London Gallery, 18 August 2016, London.

3 See: Ranajit Guha, ‘The Migrant’s Time’ pp 3-10, in Saloni Mathur (ed.) (2011) The Migrant’s Time: Rethinking Art History and Diaspora, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute.

4 See: Migrations at Tate Britain 2012, Doh Mix Meh Up by Oxford Diasporas Programme 2014, Dis/Placed by Counterpoints Arts 2015, Unexpected at the Ben Uri Gallery 2016, and Call Me By My Name by Migration Museum Project 2016

About the author

Emine Yeter completed the MSc Migration Studies at Oxford in 2015 and has spent the past year interning in the refugee and migrant arts sector in London.

IMI does not have an institutional view and does not aim to present one. The views expressed in this blog are those of individual authors.

This post was first published by COMPAS as part of the MSc in Migration Studies guest blog series: Viewing Life Through the Migration Lens: experiences and thoughts post-MSc.

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