Responses to Refugees
There are many ways to respond when facing the challenge of incoming refugees. We’ve heard Angela Merkel’s now famous Wir schaffen das (translated as “We can do it” or “We can cope”) uttered almost two years ago, which became the rally cry for Germany through the most intense influx of refugees. Merkel’s response inspired a welcome movement, exemplified by the welcome party thrown by the city of Darmstadt in September 2016. Then there is Hungary’s response to close its borders to mitigate the enormous pressures and uncertainty of the mass migrations of refugees passing through the country. And we see the response of the right-wing AfD (Alternative for Deutschland) party, which perceives the admission of Muslim refugees as a threat to German culture and national security. Inasmuch as refugee resettlement is politically, economically, and socially complicated, we should expect a variety of competing responses. Stepping back, these responses are expressions of cultures—cultures of welcome, cultures of conservatism, and cultures of fear. But when we talk about culture, what do we really mean?
Art & Culture
The far-right tends to oppose immigration on the grounds that it will dilute or destroy the existing national culture. The AfD is running a poster campaign that is transparent in its objection that Islam does not fit with German culture. Whenever this sort of hyper-nationalistic, purity-of-culture rhetoric gets bandied about, we are forced to face the definition—and ultimately the impermanence—of culture. Culture is a living, breathing thing—an organism comprised of countless cells in a constant cycle of death and regeneration. Culture is recognizable, but it is never the same twice. If it isn’t changing, it is dead. And dead cultures may be interesting to study, but they exist only in concept. The only real cultures—those that are available for us to participate in—are the living cultures-of-the-moment. And while culture is fleeting, it is persistent. Culture keeps living as it evolves, adapts, and happens.
And art is a vital tissue in the organism of culture. If we pay attention to art at all, then it is easy to reject the false notion of a single, stable national culture. From antiquity through the Middle Ages and from the Renaissance into our Modern and Postmodern centuries, art has always been happening. There are plenty of images, themes, motifs, and tropes woven through history that can create a unified, even national, collection of art. But it will never be one simple thing. It is more like a menagerie: the varied collections of objects made in diverse media with varied ideas and aesthetics. The collection as a whole is a manifestation of culture. Not culture itself, but an expression of it. That’s why so many art museums and galleries exist. None of them are complete. None of them are final, finite statements of what counts as art. But all of them gesture at art’s deepest meaning—why we make it, how we think about it, what it does.
Let me ground this in something more practical and familiar. My father and I do not share the same view of art. He prefers art that demonstrates a clear mastery of craft, the ability to create a striking likeness from oil paints, for example. I am drawn by the provocation of conceptual art, an unexpected juxtaposition of forms that resists a simple meaning. We like different stuff. And while we both have our preferences, neither of us is out to abolish other forms of art (right, Dad?). We accept—and embrace—that the living, continuance of art is a necessity for us both to enjoy any art at all. If art stopped happening, his Rembrandts would be rendered as meaningless as my Pollocks.
So I am always grateful for the consistent presence of art in our world. Here I highlight a couple of examples of what art does so powerfully: respond to the changes and challenges of our day. And of all of the possible responses to refugee resettlement, here’s one I’d like to promote: the incorporation of refugees into the living body of art.
Herbert Piel’s Arrival: Rhineland-Palatinate
My family toured the Ehrenbreitstein Fortress in Koblenz. More than a fascinating historic structure, the immensity of the fortress is utilized as a multipurpose space, accommodating diverse concerts and exhibits beyond its own history. Unexpectedly, we walked into a collection of photographs from Herbert Piel, commissioned by the regional development agency. Arrival: Rhineland-Pfalz aims to tells the story of refugee resettlement, including the logistics of government aid in the state of Rhineland-Pfalz. The effect is a striking collection that humanizes refugees on a very local level, making visible these refugees and the extensive aid work offered to support them.
I appreciate the respect and interest that such a collection demonstrates. This photojournalistic collection presents Rhineland’s newcomers with dignity and sensitivity. Piel seeks the beauty of ordinary lives and ordinary actions through his lens, providing a complementary perspective to journalistic reporting and policy debates. When the state funds a professional artist for such a project, they send a powerful message. They reinforce the humanity of both new arrivals and established Rhinelanders as they collectively work—and even sacrifice—to build a healthy community for all.
Refugee Sculpture Workshop
Even better than making art with refugees as its subject is empowering refugees to create art themselves. In the town of Viernheim, Thorsten Fischer, an artist and social work student at h_da, has been doing just that. Having previously worked on art projects with juvenile delinquents in Frankfurt, Thorsten wanted to give recent refugees the opportunity to make their own art. He coordinated donations for safety equipment and materials and arranged an outdoor studio on the property of Die Johanniter, a local faith-based health care provider.
Four men, three from Syria and one from Afghanistan, signed up to participate in the workshop. They are working in pairs to create two sculptures. Abdulah is carving wood sculptures to recreate ancient statues that were destroyed by the Taliban. It is a poignant attempt to reclaim lost art. And even in creating a small replica, He is making new art that makes its own statement in a new century and in a new context.
Amir and Mohammed are welding a scrap-metal sculpture of a Roman solider. Initially, I struggled to understand the relevance of a Roman soldier to two Syrian men resettled in Germany. Thorsten did, too. He was helping weld the arm for the figure, creating a conventional, offensive posture for the soldier. But this wasn’t what Amir and Mohammed had in mind. They explained what Thorsten had not understood. The soldier, while equipped with sword and shield, will stand with his arms at his sides. The posture, as Amir demonstrated to me, is one of fatigue. “We don’t like war,” Amir declared simply.
And then it came clear to me. Rather than a tribute to Roman military prowess, Amir and Mohammed use the figure of the soldier to invoke the universality of war across human history and then to question the merits of war. War victims themselves, these artists send a message to humanity through this anonymous soldier. He has fought. But he is tired. Perhaps he wonders what it means. I can imagine him standing exhausted in the midst of the gore-strewn battlefield, considering the value of the lives—the one he has preserved and those he has ended. They have titled their sculpture with a single Arabic word: سلام. Salam. Peace.
When Amir uttered that word, I was nearly overcome. I felt the impact of their art and their passion for it. To a passerby, the scene of a few men welding and carving beneath a green tarp must appear unremarkable. But as this work is completed and the two projects are exhibited at an arts festival later in June, I hope that people will stop and appreciate the profound work being done by this art and these artists.
The Way Forward
This is where I see the way forward through art. As we continue to make art, we continue to make culture. We create a culture that is responsive and up-to-date with the dynamic demands of a complicated world. The subjects and agents of art have often been limited to privileged classes, reflecting only the interests and concerns of the elite. I’m grateful that art has shed some of its classist exclusivity. When art is public and popular, it promises to contribute to a living culture that makes room for us all.