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Deputy Editor Avital Carno gives her thoughts on how art can aid the cause of social justice, in a time of such distrust of refugees and migrants.

The Oxford English dictionary defines xenophobia as a ‘deep antipathy to foreigners’. Its etymology comes from the Greek words ‘xeno’ and ‘ϕόβος’, meaning ‘stranger’ and ‘fear’. To me, this suggests that the word’s own origins classify xenophobia as nothing more than a fear of the unknown.

Art humanises people and helps to communicate their deepest feelings

A quick disclaimer- I am not, in any way, trying to belittle the enormous danger posed by xenophobic people and their actions, particularly in today’s political climate in which a racist orangutan in a suit is masquerading as the President of the United States. Ignorance and narrow-mindedness can have disastrous effects, as shown recently by Brexit and Trump’s electoral success, but also by the discrimination against and persecution of immigrants, gypsies, Jews and other different, minority groups throughout the centuries.

Art has no borders and needs no passports

Without a doubt, xenophobia is hugely dangerous. However, what I choose to believe is that a large part of xenophobic feelings and behaviour simply stem from ignorance and narrow-mindedness. I can’t accept that so many human beings would behave in the awful way that they do if they really, truly understood that the ‘foreigners’ they’re so terrified of are just people, in exactly the same way as they are. And that’s why I believe that art can play such an important role in fighting xenophobia.

art can force xenophobic people to confront the reality …[that] ‘foreigners’ are not so foreign after all.

You can’t tell what language an artist speaks by looking at their painting, or the colour of an author’s skin by reading their book. Art has no borders and needs no passports. Art humanises people and helps to communicate their deepest feelings, and this is inherently a way of fighting xenophobia: art can force xenophobic people to confront the reality, which is that, underneath surface differences like skin colour, language and birth-place, ‘foreigners’ are not so foreign after all.

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Around the world, galleries, playwrights, poets and artists have shared the same sentiment. In 2016, the Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre in Sydney curated a ‘Refugees’ exhibition, which included works from 22 different refugee artists. The exhibition was intended to help people to view refugees in a compassionate light, as fellow human beings rather than troublesome statistics.

‘the act of creating art should complement the act of creating shelter for my family or liberating the country for my people’

‘Refugees’ featured works such as Vietnamese Dinh Q Le’s photograph of a burning ship on a beach, and Pakistani Khadim Ali’s disturbing vision of demons, lions and wild, spectral animals. These raw evocations of suffering and fear cannot fail to show refugees as frightened rather than frightening.

#KhadimAli @iacvilleurbanne during @biennaledelyon #art #contemporaryart #biennaledelyon #lyon

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While curated exhibitions like ‘Refugees’ are often powerful and extremely moving, a large proportion of the art which takes a stand again xenophobia is informal. One doesn’t even have to look closely to find it everywhere, from ‘solidarity’ and ‘coexistence’ graffiti scrawled along the Berlin wall, to posters and banners across England proclaiming welcomes to refugees and ‘Black Lives Matter’ graffiti in the USA. London’s famous Notting Hill carnival was initially created in part as a reaction to the 1959 Notting Hill race riots, in an attempt to improve the state of race relations which had worsened as a result of widespread xenophobia following the 1948 British Nationality Act.

Of course, the arts can also be used as a medium for protest. Xenophobia makes people angry -rightly so- and for many the arts can become a means of channelling their anger without resorting to violence. For example, on President Donald Trump’s 100th day in office, the art collective Art Finksters began organising the installation of gold toilets around the United States. The toilets are labelled ‘Take a Trump’ and have illustrations of a pig wearing a crown inside their lids.

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While this is a facetious and humorous response to a problem which is far from funny, at other times the art used to protest xenophobia can be searing and deeply emotive. One such example is the resistance art in the 1970s against the South African apartheid. Dumile Feni, sometimes known as the ‘Goya of the townships’, portrayed the absurd extremes of suffering endured by black South Africans: his abstract works feature a cacophony of shacks and chained figures.

#dumilefeni The classroom

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For Thami Mnyele, another anti-apartheid artist, art was inherently linked to the fight for social justice: he believed that ‘the act of creating art should complement the act of creating shelter for my family or liberating the country for my people’.

There are many worthwhile ways of fighting xenophobia, but the arts deserve their place among these. Art can be used to shout, to protest the cruelty and unfairness of a situation, or it can be used to strip away the bigoted caricatures and the racist stereotypes which fuel xenophobia’s fires; both are important.


What role do you think art has in the fight against racism and xenophobia? Leave your thoughts in the comments below or catch us on social media.

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