Steve Jobs and other graffiti: the art of the refugee crisis

Why include art in the discussion?

Art can be a powerful medium for exposing an issue or for conveying a message. It’s often more effective in portraying human emotion than modern print journalism. Many artists have been inspired to create works that highlight the human element of the refugee crisis and to convey the hardship and turmoil of those making journeys away from their homeland, to seek asylum in the European Union. Visual art has also been used to promote change in areas where human rights violations occur.

The variety of challenges posed by the refugee crisis and experienced by those directly involved have been expressed through a variety of artistic media, from photography to graffiti to printed art.

The art and photography of the refugee crisis has helped me personally to connect with the victims of this humanitarian tragedy. Living in the UK, I often find it difficult to connect with the atrocities occurring in other parts of the world. The powerful images of the refugee crisis make these atrocities seem much more real.

The variety of challenges posed by the refugee crisis and experienced by those directly involved have been expressed through a variety of artistic media, from photography to graffiti to printed art.

1. Aylan Kurdi – Nilüfer Demir

The photos of Aylan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian boy who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea, are among the most notorious images to come from the refugee crisis.

The boy’s family were from Kobanî, Syria, from which they fled to Turkey to escape the forces of ISIL. After three years, the family returned to Kobanî, but when ISIL attacked Kobanî again in 2015, they returned once again to Turkey. The pictures taken by Nilüfer Demir, a Turkish photojournalist, were taken on a beach in Bodrum, Turkey, after the family desperately tried to reach Kos, Greece, having been rejected an exit visa by the Turkish authorities that they needed to seek asylum in Canada. The boat the family were on quickly capsized.

art 2.jpg

These photos have had a huge impact on the international community, highlighting the atrocities of the refugee crisis, with Alan becoming a symbol for the human suffering of the international catastrophe.

Demir’s photos have inspired many works of art, such as this piece of street art seen in Sorocaba, Brazil.

The images of Alan Kurdi, washed up onto the shore in Bodrum have been the most distressing images that I have come across during the refugee crisis. The poor child’s lifeless body is demonstrative of the true extent of the destruction. It is impossible not to be shocked by these images.

2. Without Sky – Mohamad Omran and Bissane Al Charif

Link to YouTube video – click here

This short film by Mohamad Omran and Bissane Al Charif, two Syrian artists, expresses the horrors of destruction in Syria by using the stop motion technique and a bleached model which is used to show the pace of destruction occurring in the artists’ homeland. This film was exhibited as part of the Syria: Third Space exhibition – an exhibition that was held by the British council, with works from a collection of displaced Syrian artists.

The Syria: Third Space project is a harrowing collection of works that demonstrates the role that artists can play in the response to humanitarian crisis. I would highly recommend having a look at the assortment of works from this exhibition on the British Council website available here.

What resonates with me when watching this video is the simplicity of its construction, but the clarity of its message: that the destruction in Syria is all-encompassing. No one is exempt from the terror. While it is the gradual deterioration that is shown in the video that is incredibly moving.

3. Steve Jobs – Banksy

View image here

This street art piece, revealed by the British elusive graffiti artist, Banksy, depicts Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, with a bag slung over his shoulder and carrying an Apple computer in his hand. This artwork was sprayed onto a wall in a Calais refugee camp, nicknamed “the jungle”. Banksy has said that this work is a criticism of the negative opinion surrounding refugees, in particular those living in the Calais jungle, where a large number of migrants live while attempting to enter the United Kingdom.

By using Steve Jobs as the focus of the artwork, Banksy has hoped to dispel many common stereotypes of the refugee population – Steve Jobs’ father came to the United States as a Syrian migrant from Homs and his son went on to form the world’s most profitable company Apple Inc. 

As well as highlighting the positive impact that migration can have, this work, being created on a wall in “the jungle” shines light on the deplorable conditions of refugee camps.

I believe the distinctive image of Jobs highlights the benefits that migration can bring to a country in a subtle, clever way.  The image is relatable, and conveys the human element of the crisis – refugees are no different from everyone else. Whilst Banksy has a comfortable place in popular culture, and the media, I remain sceptical about the success that this image could have in promoting change on a larger scale. If you looked at this image and weren’t aware of Jobs’ refugee status, would you link it to the crisis?

Written by Kieran Smith

This article is part of a Journal series, ‘Refugee Crisis’

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