CITY OF CARAVANS: KEEPING CULTURE ALIVE IN A STATE OF UNCERTAINTY

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Veronika Michels
Staff Writer

Western media has long addressed the refugee crisis by the impact that opening borders for those fleeing turmoil in their homeland will have on domestic populations. We tend to overlook the fact that as we carry on in political debate and discussion on immigration policies, millions of Syrian refugees are living the reality that we often only comprehend as an occasional headline on our Facebook news feed. Since the onset of the civil war following the 2011 Arab Spring movement, 12 million Syrians have been forced to leave their homes. Escaping to Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon, many have ended up in refugee camps and wait in uncertainty as they watch their homeland descend into further chaos. Looking through the onslaught of information concerning the crisis, it is important to remember the value of shared human experience, often conveyed through art, that is threatened on a daily basis due to the difficult setting that these refugees are forced to face.

Syrians began to cross the border into northern Jordan in 2012. The Zaatari refugee camp was constructed in just nine days as a temporary haven for those in need. It has been five years since and there is still no end in sight. In the face of uncertainty, refugees are doing their best to maintain their humanity within the camps through compassion and cooperation. They have created a small-scale economy by opening businesses and providing services for Zaatari’s many inhabitants.  Additionally, a craving for art and personal expression exists within the turmoil.  Many have taken it upon themselves to use their talents and passions for the good of the community.

Street art has been challenged in its widespread context as artists have decorated the walls of containers that make up camp facilities.  This is not the first time though that graffiti has played a role in this conflict. Amidst the Arab Spring in 2011, several Syrian boys aged 10 to 15 were arrested and brutally tortured after spraying graffiti in protest of the Assad regime. This proved to be the catalyst for the war.  Years later, children are using the same medium to spread color and images of hope in the barren terrain of the Zaatari refugee camp.

Leading the Zaatari Project, artists Joel Bergner and Max Frieder have worked together with local artists to give the children an outlet to share their passions and aspirations in a way that simultaneously builds the community. Together, participants paint murals throughout the camp on walls and caravans. Bergner explains that in addition to contributing to beautiful murals and art pieces, the children learn “about water conservation, hygiene issues in the camp, artistic techniques and conflict resolution [while exploring] social issues, their longing to return to Syria, their dreams for the future and their plight as refugees.” This project is especially valuable for the Syrian youth that have no access to education. Though local schools have made efforts to expand their teaching capacity, they cannot accommodate all of the children in the camp. This leaves 50,000 kids without some form of structure in their day. The Zaatari Project provides them with positive role models and a way to leave a personal mark in their temporary home.

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It’s not just the children in the camp who have turned to art as a way of displaying their longing for home. Mahmoud Hariri, a former art teacher in Syria, has connected with other artists in the camp to create models of well-known landmarks in Syria as part of the historical preservation project. Watching helplessly as their homes were destroyed, these artists wanted to create an outlet that could maintain the image of Syria as it once was. They mourn the history that is being lost and the cultural vibrancy of the cities that their children will never experience as they did. Without much access to internet or books, these models are one of the only ways the children can envision the country they left behind. Stressing the role that art plays in the maintenance of a society, Hariri stated, “Much of what we know about ancient civilisations or prehistoric people was preserved through their art – Egyptian hieroglyphs or cave paintings – so we feel we have an important role to play.”

There are several other art based initiatives, often supported by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), that have worked to give refugees a way to communicate their story to the world. Exile Voices, provides photography classes and workshops to children in Iraqi Kurdistan. The Skoun Project aims to maintain art therapy programs in schools in Beirut to help students express themselves in a safe environment. Another organization, Artists for Refugees, seeks to create artist collaborations between locals and refugees while working to challenge the negative perceptions of refugees in local communities.

These initiatives that focus on artistic expression and local involvement stress the importance of maintaining the human experience while preserving the cultural heritage of displaced communities. Finding a common thread through which to relate individuals is especially helpful for large groups of refugees. When masses of people are forced to abandon their established lifestyles and ambitions, their future plans remain in a haze of uncertainty and they find themselves living within foreign countries, art has the ability to powerfully communicate the terror, doubt and frustration they are experiencing. In the words of Ahmad al-Hariri, one of the model builders in Zaatari, “Art is a language that doesn’t need to be translated.” There is something both incredibly rare and valuable to have a medium that allows one to share an idea so purely.

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The current situation in Syria remains unclear. Amidst recent bombings in Damascus and Aleppo which killed over 80 people and injured many others, Turkey, Russia and the US continue to debate strategies and cooperate with local factions. Turkey views the Kurdish YPG, also known as the People’s Protection Unit, as terrorists while the US plans to support and advise them in future missions. Attempts of reaching a resolution to the conflict took place in Geneva on March 3rd. The UN will continue coordinating a series of further discussions that are aimed at outlining the restoration of order in Syria. As framed by Al-Jazeera reporter, Dylan Collins, the council has set the following four points as a guideline for future action in Syria: “Accountable governance, a new constitution[,] UN-supervised elections within 18 months, [and an anti-terrorism focus].”

Another meeting was recently held between the main Syrian opposition delegation and the Russian deputy foreign minister which suggested Russia’s help in promoting a political transition from Assad’s government.  However, sources in Moscow implied the unlikelihood of this actually garnering any serious consideration from Russia. Recently, 400 U.S. troops were deployed to Northern Syria as tactical support as they prepare to recapture the city of Raqqa from ISIS forces. Plans are also underway to bring in an additional thousand marines and army soldiers and are highly suggestive of U.S. participation in direct combat alongside Syrian and Kurdish YPG forces in the immediate future.

Despite the tragedies Syria has undergone in the last several years, hope and ambition still fuel its exiled people. Their love for their homeland and widespread care for the greater community is reflected in the way that the the Zaatari refugee camp has structured itself and continues to flourish. It is important to remember that humanity exists behind the statistics. The projects developed by artists like Bergner and Ahmad al-Hariri have had a positive impact on the community. They have created an engaging way for refugees to relate to each other and relay their lived realities to the world. The maintenance of the human experience within a prolonged state of uncertainty is invaluable.

Photos courtesy of Joel Bergner

REMEMBERING THE VIETNAM WAR WITH ARTIST TRINH MAI

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By Meredith Anderson
Staff Writer

On January 25th, local artist Trinh Mai, a second generation Vietnamese American, discussed her artwork pertaining to her family history at the University of California, San Diego. Mai began by explaining that she was always curious about her family’s history of escaping Vietnam in 1975.

“Curiosity is our spirit showing us that we need to learn more,” Mai said.

In an attempt to learn more about the Vietnam War and its effect on her family, Mai began creating art to tell their story. In 2013, Mai created her “Begins with Tea” series. This collection features portraits of 52 of Mai’s family members encapsulated by used tea bags and embellished with traditional Vietnamese ingredients. Mai explained that stumbling across old family photos in her Grandma’s house “invoked this need to know more [about the people depicted]” and inspired her to honor each person by creating their own tea bag.

While working on this series, Mai had her grandmother, Bà Ngoại, save her used tea bags from the afternoons that they spent sharing family memories. Additionally, she used Vietnamese ingredients, such as saffron and dried noodles, taken from her grandmother’s pantry to symbolize the traditional Vietnamese recipes passed down through her family for generations. When Mai finished the portraits, she shared them with her family. She said that her art “opened up this channel for conversation” within her family, thereby allowing her to learn more about her family.

Then, in 2014, Mai’s beloved grandmother passed away. Mai recounted her experience and explained that after her grandmother’s death, she came across an identification card with her fingerprints. This inspired Mai to use fingerprints in her art. Mai described how in less than an hour, she created Bà Ngoại (Grandmother), a fingerprint portrait of her grandmother.

“When inspiration calls, it moves so swiftly,” Mai said.

She explained that art is a spiritual practice that she has been able to use to heal. In addition to using art for self-healing, she employed this technique on a larger scale to benefit entire communities. Mai’s installation Quiet is an example of this. Quiet was inspired by the letters Mai found at the University of California, Irvine library from Vietnamese families pleading for their lost loved ones to be found. These letters contained photos of individuals, mostly children, who likely never saw their families again.While reading these letters, Mai reflected on the fact that they had been filed away in boxes and virtually forgotten. Mai was so dismayed by this thought that she decided to undertake a project in honor of these lost individuals.

The Vietnamese believe that “if [someone] is not given a proper funeral, their soul can’t rest,” she explained, which is why Mai worked to emulate a traditional funeral. Mai began painting their portraits on large sheets of white cotton fabric, symbolizing the mourning bands worn during Vietnamese funerals.

Although this installation was mainly intended for the Vietnamese community, others experienced healing as well. Mai recounted a conversation that she had with the wife of a Vietnam War veteran, who explained that many American military families resent the war because it took husbands and fathers away.  The woman continued to explain that after hearing stories of  Vietnamese refugees and the losses they are still suffering that “[she] will no longer recount her memories [of the war], but instead will recount [theirs].” Viewing Mai’s work opened this woman’s eyes to the trauma Vietnamese refugees endured and caused her to see her husband’s involvement in the war as a “worthy cause.” This interaction clearly demonstrates the profound influence art can have on shaping the perspective of individuals.

Throughout the course of her presentation, Mai used her family’s story to explain the impact that art and creativity have had on herself and others. Art in of itself is a form of storytelling that uses mixed media rather than words to convey a message. As Mai’s work proves, art can be therapeutic and spark conversations that would not otherwise be had. Specifically, Mai’s story illuminates the impact of the Vietnam War on those who carry on its legacy today.

Photo by Trinh Mai

LOUVRE ABU DHABI: AN ARTIST’S DELIGHT, A WORKER’S NIGHTMARE

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By Elsa Felgar

Staff Writer

On the Island of Saadiyat rests a cultural hub where the East meets the West. The construction of the Guggenheim Museum, a New York University campus, and the Louvre Museum are taking place as part of an intergovernmental project envisioned to expand the art community and bring a focus to one of the most modern cities in the world today. On the coast of Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), lies the island where this major project is coming to life. Although the construction of the Louvre museum in Saadiyat is appealing to many, there is a strong argument in France over extending the Louvre outside of French territory. In addition, there is push from human rights organizations urging the French President François Hollande to confront the UAE about labor rights in the construction of the Louvre.

Louvre Abu Dhabi: A New Identity

In 2007, France and the UAE signed a trade agreement for the Louvre Abu Dhabi to begin construction. Immediately there was resistance from many French citizens who felt it was an affront to France’s national identity. The rich history of the Louvre impacts French society so deeply that it’s no wonder this project was not accepted with open arms from citizens and government officials alike.

To begin, the culture of the original Louvre dates back to 1793. Built in the 16th century and growing ever since, the Louvre is the world’s largest museum and is one of France’s main tourist attractions. Not only do travelers from all over the world come to see the artwork inside the Louvre museum, they also come to admire the building itself, which represents a truly unique culture. This explains why some are so reluctant to welcome the replica that will open in 2015 in Abu Dhabi. Many have questioned why a replica of the building and some of its original artwork should be moved to the Middle East. The dichotomy between the old and the new is too stark. Attaching the name to this new building, although arguably one of the most outstanding architectural masterpieces in today’s world, is unfathomable for some who insist on protecting French culture. Many believe it is symbolic of France’s culture, and should not be duplicated or used for political advancement elsewhere.

Those in favor for the construction highlight the agreement between France and the UAE itself. The fact that it is the first ever intergovernmental cultural agreement of its kind is a major step for projects like these to come, because it shows that it is possible for two countries to take on such an internationally collaborative task. The new Louvre will encompass diverse artwork from all over the world, ranging from sculptures by various distinguished African artists to the world famous paintings by French artists Cézanne and Manet.

The discussions over the building of this museum have been influenced by economic outcomes. Inside the $1.3 billion dollar deal is the name of the museum and the use of some paintings for permanent and special exhibits. In return, the UAE agreed to buy 40 Airbus 380 aircrafts and $10.4 billion worth of arms from France. In addition to the aircraft purchases, the UAE will continue buying artwork from France. These political and economic bargains are being done as a way to profit off of the selling of the Louvre’s name. Although this creates revenue for the French government, it leaves the Louvre in Paris without certain pieces it is famous for. Instead, the French artwork will be displayed in a new light and extend its already popular name to other parts of the world. This exchange of artwork is only a two-year trade agreement. The goal is for the Louvre Abu Dhabi to build up its collection over two years and once it has formed, they will give back some of the work lent out by Paris.

But some claim this is not a convincing argument. It is not possible to buy and sell culture and history. These are pieces that the world comes to Paris to see, and only Paris. In that sense, the Louvre Abu Dhabi is attracting potential tourists from Paris as well as reducing the excitement the original Louvre once encouraged. Along with the cultural problem is the actual construction. Human rights has unarguably been a longstanding issue when it comes to building new extravagant projects like this one. For French President Hollande, this is the current pressing issue.

The Construction

The museum, as is shown from models, has a sleek design almost identical to the architecture of the Louvre in Paris. Slits in the dome-shaped building cause light to stream down, giving the illusion of falling rain. The dome itself has a diameter of almost 600 feet and weighs about 7,000 tons. Surrounding this dome is a pool of water that gives the impression of a floating building. And in the interior, there will be smaller pools of water that will be scattered throughout the exhibits. Unseen in these construction plans is the reality of the labor workers who will be working on its development.

During the beginning of the construction, workers are promised housing in a miniature village that provides all the necessities and amenities. However in reality, this housing is given to a few privileged laborers, whereas the larger majority live in far worse conditions. Violence, harassment, unsanitary living conditions, and low wages are all prevalent in the small camps that house these workers. Understanding the current situation makes supporting the construction of these museums a challenge.

These workers often come from places like Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, and Nepal, under the impression that they are going to make more than they had been making at their previous job. Instead their passports are taken from them, putting them into unfavorable work and living conditions. And once they arrive and start working, some do not see their paycheck for 6 or more months. This makes justifying the intergovernmental agreement very difficult for government officials.

This is where the French-UAE relations is crucial. If France supported the use of migrant workers to build these museums, it would keep the relations with the UAE strong, however France would certainly feel the pressure from outside organizations like the Human Rights Watch. Even after President Hollande’s visit in 2013, conditions have not improved. 7,000 workers and 12 million man-hours will go into the making of the museum anticipated worldwide. UAE’s Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC) has undergone a recent wave of criticism regarding human rights, but continues to argue that they have strict working condition standards that are being enforced.

This project in particular shows that it is possible for countries to come together and forge cultural ties connect the world in new ways. The idea of creating a melting pot of cultures in a modern bustling city highlights today’s advancements in international cooperation. Unfortunately, there are negative domestic and international consequences that are being suppressed, while the successful agreement between France and the UAE has the spotlight. The human cost of building on the “island of happiness” detracts from the happy ending that the end product promises.

Photo by gordontour