Forced to flee opens Hull Refugee Week

Described as an ‘Exhibition of work from Hull artists who had to flee their homes, livelihood and country in search of safety’ Forced to Flee is a visual arts exhibition that opened 20 June – the start of Refugee Week – and runs until 17 July

from Amwaj by The Dirars 2022 image by @Bluebeany

On Monday I attended the lively opening event along with four or five dozen other people. Housed at the University of Hull Art Gallery – within the Brynmor Jones Library – the work seeks to show the people, highlight the ‘being an artist’ not just focus on the perilous journey narrative; not just another refugee.

This intent was demonstrated rather well when during the obligatory speeches from the various exhibition partners, each of the exhibiting artists were invited to introduce themselves, and speak about their work. In my experience that rarely happens in any group exhibition.  

One section of the gallery space has been cordoned off, and entirely given over to the work of The Dirar family. ‘Amwaj’ loosely translated from the Arabic into Waves is a series of paintings and prints bathed in blue lighting, with an accompanying seascape audio. The only way to fully experience the work, you must first navigate your way through the strips of painted fabric hanging from the ceiling.

The various paintings and prints focus on the journeys at sea;  a painting of an aerial shot of a dingy stuffed to the gunnels with people has echoes of the ‘Brookes’ slave ship diagram of 1787 by Thomas Clarkson.  In the farther most corner there is a large painting with a tiny boat being tossed about on huge churning seas, faceless ghostly figures stare back at the viewer.

from Amwaj 2022 image courtesy @Bluebeany

It beggars belief that people have little choice but to travel in this way to reach places of sanctuary. We count our blessings in the U.K. that we haven’t had a civil war – for a good few hundred years at least – or suffered an invading army and been forced to flee ourselves. 

Another image of people on a boat, has pinpricks of light emanating from the figures’ chests, perhaps indicative of the burning hope for a better future for their children… or maybe they are using  phones to light their way in the dark across the water; to warn larger vessels they are there; or signal to rescuers because the water is coming in, and the craft was never seaworthy. 

My favourite pieces in the Forced to Flee exhibition do not come from the overused refugee narrative of the tormented sad-faced other. There’s a surreal painting by R. Escobar of a giant foot, rooted in its home, yet moving to new horizons; a cartoonish boat on wheels with puffs of coloured smoke at the back by Lopez that feels almost joyous; abstract work by Shakib that expresses universal emotions using contrasting colour palettes; where as Eman directs her creativity and talent through a series of highly decorative paintings on glass.  

I take issue with the kinds of projects – well-intentioned as they might be – that focus on a particular community or minority group, and say ‘Show me your pain in order that you and your story might become real to me’, and far more importantly appeal to their audiences. We must guard against those organisations that play up to and reinforce stereotypes just to tick the boxes.

In some cases people and their life-experiences can be used by organisations to gain funding and other benefits, less immediately visible. Certain tactics and practices like rainbow-washing; refugee-washing; colour-washing; crip-washing are deliberately employed, where brands and organisations ally themselves to particular minority groups, in order to create the inclusion illusion. 

The idea that some sections of society will only ever be seen as their minority characteristic, is a huge part of the problem, and leads to dangerous and depersonalised generalisation. This thinking feeds into govt. policy and does untold damage to ourselves, and those we are supposedly trying to help. 

Returning to the exhibition, I am drawn to the verses under the heading ‘In my Dreams’. These are stories gathered by author Tracey Scott-Townsend, from people supported by Hull Help for Refugees, and then translated verbatim into English. The briefest stanza packs the biggest punch, the last one in the series.

from In my dreams, poetry series collated by
Tracey Scott-Townsend

This seemingly innocuous notion speaks to me about autonomy; about choice; about having the right to own your story and not to have it wheeled out for Western eyes to sympathise. The freedom to never have your life and all it could ever encompass pre-prescribed.  

Forced to flee – Stories from Hull Refugees is part of the University of Sanctuary programme to mark Hull Refugee Week 

Exhibition runs from 21 June until 17 July at the University of Hull Art Gallery, Brynmor Jones Library, Cottingham Road. 

For more information see:

Forced to flee is a collaboration between Welcome House, Hull Help for Refugees, Wilberforce Institute and University of Hull. 

1 Comment

Filed under Art blogs, education, health, politics

One response to “Forced to flee opens Hull Refugee Week

  1. Jerome Whittingham

    Great piece, M. I particularly like and share your views about the way some orgs use people’s stories to their own ends. Points well made! J x

    Jerome Whittingham photographer – podcaster – writer


    Liked by 1 person

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