Migrants in Art

2020 was a year where the precarious underbelly of our economic and political systems were upturned, as attempts are made across the board to avert the impact of Covid-19.  It was the year where culture disappeared, where it was uploaded online; its sector workers put on standby as the world avoided an inevitable death swerve – or told to retrain and get other jobs.  And 2021 is not too much different.

The fragility of the cultural sector comes to the fore, its economic viability in tatters.  What does that say for art itself, and the way that law sees art, purely as a concept, or something ‘nice’; as assets to be bought and sold; the ‘dark matter’ of cultural work slipping through the net of any support packages.  This was on top of an already highly precarious and unequal industry where the humble work of thousands often supports just a handful of the most famous.  Its historically white heteronormative, ableist structures compound the difficulties faced by black cultural workers, those of colour, and of migrant status.

A recent survey conducted by Migrants in Culture, a “network of migrants organising to create the conditions of safety, agency and solidarity in the culture sector for migrants, people of colour and all others impacted by the UK’s immigration regime” who are guided by a “vision of culture without borders”, reports on the barriers faced by migrant cultural workers in the UK.  Their recent survey in 2019 collected key information on the experiences of over 600 cultural workers, migrant and non-migrant.  It found that 90% of cultural workers feel angry or fearful about their treatment as a result of the ‘Hostile Environment’, whilst a majority of cultural workers experienced racial profiling or discrimination (60%) as a result of the policy. During the pandemic many cultural workers will have no recourse to public funds (NRPF) and therefore access to the furlough schemes or universal credit. The Hostile Environment does what it says on the tin: its primary objective is to make living in the UK as difficult as possible for migrants, so that they may ‘voluntarily leave’.

The inequalities faced by migrants as artists are also found within the content of art work.

Very often migrants are depicted as subjects rather than makers, no more presciently than in the bringing of the wrecked shipwreck where upto 1,100 people perished, as a piece of art to the Venice Biennale in 2018 by Swiss-Icelandic artist Christoph Büchel.  ‘Refugee art’ brings up many questions of consent, the often vulnerable status of what migration means, with racial, legal and socio-political connotations attached.  Whether art produced by migrants or art made by non-migrants about migrants, they end up limited by their identity in ways that other artists may not.

Similarly, in a year where we have witnessed the pandemic spread across countries and its peoples all around the world, you might think that the migration flows around the world have all but stopped as well.  Where all but one issue criss-crosses our screens and minds on a continuous loop, underneath this veneer of virus-related news, the movement and flow of peoples continue on despite the aversion of the media’s gaze. 

We have repeatedly seen continued English Channel crossings that have been made by those desperately fleeing collapse and persecution throughout 2020. By 20 October, the total number of crossings in 2020 reached 7,294.  On 29 October, a Kurdish family of five died trying to cross the channel, their boat sinking off the coast of Dunkirk – the father, Rasoul Iran-Nejad, 35, mother, Shiva Mohammad Panahi, 35, and their three children all below the age of nine.  Not just one but two generations disappeared into the swollen tumult of the waters that day.  And yet, if they had made it to the shores of Dover who knows how the law may have come to them. An agreement between the French and the UK under the Sangatte Protocol 1991 and the Touquet Treaty 2003 has effectively swapped the topographical seaboard of the two opposite countries, meaning French border guards can check migrants entering France, at Dover, and the same vice versa for UK Border Agency officials to be able to ascertain a migrants’ status before entering UK soil.  The sovereign territories of each state overlap in a complex orchestration of refusal.  This is why there remain encampments at Calais, even though the infamous and yet to some extent more formalised camp of the ‘Jungle’ was evicted by French police in 2016. This legislative network of mechanisms to make access to the UK as difficult as possible is then continued once arrived, most notoriously through the implementation of the ‘Hostile Environment’ policy first announced in 2012. 

These depictions of law’s edge are dark, desperate, and have only accelerated during these times as the uncertainty of the climate becomes more real and populations are moving, no matter what; come what may.  

If culture is not economically viable, then what can it do on the border encampments that exist along the many terrains across the world?  A story of ‘artists before lawyers’ is not more clearly told than by art therapy group The Hummingbird Project who thanks to their presence at the Jungle back in 2015, instigated the arrival of further international organisations to allow for a formal presence at the camp; the art therapists paving the way for human rights NGOs and beyond. 

For more information of this project please contact l.finchett-maddock@sussex.ac.uk.

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