Artists from Banksy to Ai Weiwei are creating works that address the refugee crisis, but where do we draw the line between raising awareness and exploitation?
Hassan Jarbou, The Syrian Mona Lisa. Image courtesy of the artist
Last year a German train rode through the city of Dresden, bringing with it a message to commuters: a painting of the word ''Welcome," written in Arabic, which took up the whole side of a car. The background was a solid red and the letters were done in a bold black. A pair of anonymous graffiti writers were behind the piece, and told a local paper, "We are committed to ensuring that refugees are welcomed here."
It's a great example of how artists are addressing the refugee crisis currently unfolding as millions flee war in Syria and other countries in the Middle East. But at what point does art become exploitation of tragedy for personal gain? And perhaps more importantly, when does it become more of a hinderance than help?
Artists from all different types of mediums and backgrounds have tackled the crisis. M.I.A., in her music video for "Borders," addressed it directly by recreating various attempts at border crossings. Syrian artist Hassan Jarbou made a couple pieces that wrapped the Mona Lisa up in the UN material used in shelters there. And the Embassy for the Displaced has created 3D scans of living quarters for refugees. But it's the major players that have generated the most noise, even if only due to their celebrity.
Ai Weiwei is one of the more controversial figures to work with the subject. Some of his output is hard to criticize, like bringing a piano to a refugee camp and asking a Syrian pianist to play for the first time in years, or covering a museum's front pillars with hundreds of neon orange life jackets. But a lot of his efforts have been mired in blowback. Through stunts like having a room full of the wealthy elite pose for a group photo with thermal metallic blankets wrapped around their tuxedos and gowns, and reenacting the photo of drowned Syrian toddler Alan Kurdi, he faced a bevy of criticism that overshadowed any useful discussion of his work. Rather than raising awareness about the issue, he raised people's ire.
Another artist that's made the crisis a common theme in their recent work is Banksy, and he's done so in a more successful manner. When he painted a picture of Steve Jobs at a refugee camp in Calais, France, it generated a lot of discussion around his point that Jobs is the son of a Syrian immigrant. Even people who disagreed with his actions stuck to the issue at least and kept a civil tone. He's done other similar work, like a piece highlighting the French government's use of tear gas at the camp, and donating materials from his Dismaland installation to refugees there.
A missed opportunity came recently when Kanye premiered his Yeezy clothing line at Madison Square Garden in February. The stage the models stood on was a recreation of a Rwandan refugee camp. Although there was a bit of exploration on this particular piece of the Kanye frenzy, it was little and quiet. A couple outlets picked up on the subject: Time interviewed the photographer who took the photo that the stage was based on (he likes the idea); Jezebel found a model who was not happy about being a part of it; and PRI spoke to an expert on mass atrocities about it (she didn't approve). Vanessa Beecroft, who designed the stage, told Art News she was trying make a point about poverty in America. But it was also a chance to point out how Africa is facing a much larger refugee crisis than Europe is, whether that was the intent or not.
If there's any artist that embodies the celebrity culture surrounding artists, it's Kanye, and this could have been a very large platform to speak on the issue. Maybe it was a failure of the press. Or maybe it was a failure of the artists' execution. And maybe people are just uncomfortable with the use of fashion for commentary on sensitive topics. Either way, it was a failure.
It's possible that some artists are being exploitative, and that they've had bad intentions. But ultimately they should be judged by how useful their work is in the end. If someone gains personally from using the crisis as their subject material, is that as much of a concern if ultimately they're making a positive impact by generating substantive discussion and action? Being careless about a weighty topic doesn't help anyone, though, and it takes thoughtful and considered artistic work to fall on the good side of the scale.