The Refugee Crisis and My Art
For years it has been on my mind that many people live in war-like conditions, face famine or drought, and finally decide to pack up and go. They leave their home and familiar environment behind and embark on a risky journey in search of better living conditions in one of the richer countries. In my own life experience, going abroad has always been an exciting time. I’ve been privileged in that I met wonderful people from other countries – some of my best friends live in far away places – and it is always a wonderful opportunity to have a bit of an adventure to go and see them. I have left home behind on an exchange trip or for travels, which means I always knew when I would be returning, and I never had to worry about relatives and friends whom I left behind because they were living in safe conditions.
It has been worrying me that millions of other people do not have the opportunity to live their lives in as easy and comfortable a situation as I do. That’s how it started that the refugee crisis demanded an appearance in my art. When the European Patchwork Meetings (now renamed as Carrefour Patchwork Européenne) announced the theme of “Imagine” for their challenge a couple of years ago, I quickly had an idea that the popular song lyrics by John Lennon could easily be juxtaposed with a poem by German poet Bertold Brecht, which also starts with a line that is a call to imagine some situation.
The poem itself is a call to stand up and fight, and not let others fight alone or for their issues, but to make their issues your own. So the quilt became a new piece in my then relatively new series ‘text messages’. As I took some of Lennon’s lines, slightly altered, and alternated them with lines from Brecht’s poem, slightly more altered, expressing my feelings about the ongoing fighting in Afghanistan and the possibilities for a time when the war in Afghanistan would have ended. I kept the poems’ original languages, which is why the text message is bilingual –showing at least a bit of the necessity to approach the issue of peace from an international perspective. (Unfortunately, I don’ know any Pashto or Dari, the official languages in Afghanistan…)
That was a first appearance of refugees and politics in my art.
A year later, a first group of refugees from various countries, came to our city. They were mostly from Syria, some from Afghanistan and a few West African countries, and I was excited because I thought they introduced a bit of international flair to our rather remote and rural town. In the end of January 2015 I started working with a volunteer network, helping the refugees with applications, doctor appointments, or when they had to go to their interviews in the process of asking for political asylum. I learned very quickly that their international experience differed strongly from any international experience I had had. They were not here on an exchange programme, they were not excited about meeting people from other countries, nor were they curious for new experiences. Many of them just wanted to be left in peace. Very few of them had any realistic idea about the kind of country they had come to, and especially the Syrians basically wanted to continue living the way they had been living at home. Men don’t take well to having to deal with women in situations of authority, or they are suspicious about buying meat from a German butcher because it could have been cut with a knife that had also touched pork at an earlier stage.
I taught German to some of them, but many had never had to learn a foreign language before, perhaps had not even been to school for more than a couple of years. The Syrians do not like the Africans, and often they are distrustful of one another, not knowing on which side of the war the others had been involved in back home.
By the time of my increasing involvement many people had drowned in terrible boat calamities in the Mediterranean, and news of hundreds of victims through capsizing boats began to haunt me. When SAQA announced a call for entry for an exhibition “Stories of Migration” I wanted to enter a piece on that topic.
At first I thought I would use some details of the flight of one of the Syrians whom I had got to be friends with. The amount of dollars spent on paying for the refugee smugglers could have been part of the story, the number of attempts needed to cross from Turkey to a Greek island, the duration of the trip in a small and unsafe boat. But I hesitated, as I did not want to draw on an individual’s personal story, using it for my work. Eventually I decided on an abstracted photograph of one boat in the Mediterranean, taken at the moment when helpers were approaching in the dark, and the boat was about to capsize.
I overlaid this abstracted background with a dictionary definition of terms regarding ‘migration’ from my monolingual English dictionary.
The quilt, obviously, is not a happy quilt, and it was not chosen as part of the exhibition. But it drew quite a bit of attention in a small exhibition of my work here in my home town.
I made another quilt on the topic Europe and its promises these days, called “Promised land 2015?”, but as I might still try to enter it in shows I won’t show more than a little detail of that here. Again, text overlays a background and tries to get the viewer to think about the combination.
Another quilt that has been influenced by this topic is just in the process of being finished. In a group challenge of my quilt group ‘International Threads’ we had the assignment to include an embroidered square made by women in Afghanistan, which we had bought from Guldusi, an initiative that wants to save traditional Afghanistan embroidery techniques and gives women affected by the political situation a means of earning a little bit of money. I used three of the embroidered squares, all made by a woman called Nasrin, and also included a piece of a tchador fabric, which I had purchased and hand-dyed a couple of years ago with the intention of including it in a quilt. Currently I am adding hand-stitching myself, hoping that the piece will be finished in not too long a time.
Working with the refugees has been one of the most intense and challenging years of my life, and it has definitely affected my art, and it has made me a much more politically aware and active person than I had ever been before. But it has also gone beyond my strength, and recently I had to reduce my involvement because I was bordering on the brink of burn out. I still strongly believe in the necessity to maintain a civil right for political asylum. But as Germany is struggling with the influx of more and more refugees, political extremism is rising and the European Union seems to be on the brink of breaking apart at the moment, I am consciously not planning on making more quilts related to that topic. For a while at least.
Learn more about Uta Lenk and her work:
- Artist, Supplies
Based in Sacramento, California (USA) Barbetta Lockart Contemporary Art – ITSA Studio showcase mixed media art by Barbetta and a rich assortment of supplies from around the world. ITSA Studio has a large selection of ethnic and tribal beads and textiles.View Profile
- Artist, Organization
Silvia Piza-Tandlich has exhibited her work around the world and runs Galeria Octagono in Costa Rica. Community oriented, all of her work is made by hand, often inspired by themes drawn on from Latin American mythology.View Profile
Cindy Grisdela Art Quilts: Festival schedule and a nice display of what's available in her Etsy shop.View Profile
- Artist, Teacher
Jane Dunnewold is an artist, teacher and author of surface design techniques. She teaches and lectures internationally and at her studio in San Antonio, Texas.View Profile
- School, Workshops
The Pacific Northwest Art School offers workshops and classes in Fiber Arts, Mixed Media, Painting, and Photography. Whidbey Island, Washington, USA.View Profile
About Uta Lenk
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