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Davos 2023: Art has the power to help communities in crisis - this is how

This image shows a group of refugees working on Artolution art

Having a hand in art helps refugees heal Image: Photo Artolution

Joseph Fowler
Head, Arts and Culture, World Economic Forum Geneva
Max Frieder
Co-Founder, Chief Creative Officer, Artolution
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Davos Agenda

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

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  • Millions of people are displaced worldwide as a result of conflicts or climate change.
  • Exposure to conflict, violence and displacement leads to long-term physical and mental health problems.
  • Leaders in the arts have the potential, passion and skills to make life-changing impacts on displaced people.

A record 100 million people are displaced worldwide as they flee conflicts or the effects of climate change. Of these, 32.5 million are refugees and many are under 18. Migration and displacement reflect the changing nature of humanitarian crises. Exposure to conflict, violence and displacement leads to long-term effects and barriers to successful transitions to adulthood. Leaders in the arts have the potential, passion and skills to make life-changing impacts on displaced children, youth and adults who lack the resources and infrastructure to join arts programmes.

The Colour of Resilience

The Colour of Resilience is the first project to have teams of refugee teaching artists painting canvas murals with refugees in refugee camps and displaced communities across four continents: the Rohingya Refugee Camp, Bangladesh; the Azraq Syrian Refugee Camp, Jordan; the Bidi Bidi South Sudanese Refugee Settlement, Uganda; and Venezuelan refugee and internally displaced communities in Colombia.

The Artolution team asked the refugees to use paint to tell the stories of where they came from, how they got to where they are and their dreams for the future. These stories were embedded within the fabric of the common narrative of displacement to create a tangible artefact of today's global displacement and migration crises. Engaging the global migration crisis through creativity and collaborative participation creates a forum for intercultural dialogue across refugee communities and with the rest of the world.

The resulting artwork has been assembled at Davos as a single tapestry celebrating resilience in the face of global displacement. Each section is a physical artefact representing the community that created it.

Dildar Beggum Image: Artolution

The stories embodied within this art come from individual lives. Dildar Beggumis is a displaced and stateless Rohingya woman from Burma. Her home and village were burned, her family members were killed, she watched her husband tortured and captured and then fled Myanmar with her two brothers who have special needs, her grandmother and her mother. They wove a bamboo raft and survived the traitorous journey across the Naf River and arrived at the world's largest refugee camp in Bangladesh. Dildar did not speak for six months due to shock-based mutism, but she spoke for the first time when she began painting with Artolution. She said she didn’t feel that she was even alive, but that she feels the responsibility to take the opportunity to break the silence of others so that they can say whatever they want to the world by making art together.

Four years on, Dildar is one of Artolution‘s Lead Teaching Artist Trainers. She makes a living and provides for her family by leading community-based public arts and education programmes with Rohingya children and youth. She led the Colour of Resilience programme along with Artolution teaching artists and the children of her community. She said: "Now that I understand the magic of art, no one can ever take this away from me."

That hunger to proclaim her existence in the world is a metaphor for all refugees who created this artwork. It is a proclamation of the emancipatory potential of collaborative artmaking to crystalise the feelings, emotions and priorities of displaced people and to elevate them to the highest platforms in the world.

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What is a Cultural Leader?

Sameer Al Ghafary Image: Artolution

Sameer Al Ghafary, his wife and children fled Dar’aa in Western Syria when the civil war erupted and found safety in neighbouring Jordan. During his flight, he was shot in the neck and back and was lucky to survive and make it across the border. Samir shared a sentiment about The Colour of Resilience artwork stating: "why can’t we be treated like everyone else, we just want to be viewed as humans… And yet, every day is better than the last, because we are still alive." This sentiment exists, amidst all adversity, it's the core energy that is embodied within the artwork that he led as the Lead Artolution Teaching Artist in the Azraq Syrian Refugee Camp.

Sameer and the Artolution team of Syrian Teaching Artists chose to work with girls with special needs to create their chapter for The Colour of Resilience. The Syrian artwork declares that survival is not just a choice, it is a motivation to be able to proclaim that we are human and our children deserve a future where they can heal the ills of the past generations for future generations.

Have you read?
Gift Moses Image: Artolution

Art making and filming were always what Gift Moses dreamt of. He fled his village in South Sudan, where the brutal ethnic conflict destroyed villages and recruited child soldiers. When he arrived on foot at Africa's largest refugee settlement, the Bidi Bidi Refugee Settlement in Uganda, his mental health was decimated and the emotional and physical shock was acute. Yet, his dream to become a filmmaker and artist transcended the horrors of his past. Working with Artolution, Gift brought his dreams to life and filled a deep need to tell the stories that he bore witness to that could affect the lives of his community. He contributed the idea that we got from the past the memory of hope. This lives inside a distant single candle, hope to rebuild a home, an iconic symbol of the longing for a new life shared by all displaced peoples.

Yoleidymar Image: Artolution

In Colombia, many Venezuelan refugee children endured family separation and violent and painful social and emotional traumas as a result of displacement. One young girl on the project, Yoleidymar, spoke of the pain of being separated from her brother when she could not survive in Venezuela due to poverty and violence. She and her family felt a deep shame and she felt ashamed to talk about why she had to leave a painful situation.

Being able to paint her story, opened a pathway for Yoleidymar to externalise her internal trauma. The creative expression let her turn her story into an action based on reality. The Colour of Resilience Project involved many displaced Venezuelan refugees and internally displaced Colombians, providing a platform for dialogue about past conflicts and challenges and transforming these memories into a future they could believe in.

One of the most universal messages is that imagination holds a common feeling of mutual behavioural ideation for the future. The children of both communities wanted to create a magical imaginary future. This points to children's universal need to have an ongoing opportunity to play with the notion of the future as infused with opportunities.

Painting a picture of the future

These four stories are just some of the colourful leaves of the complex and intertwining living tree that has millions of colourful leaves around the world in the forests of forced displacement. This is embodied through these four artefacts representing the global migration crisis. The stories are magnifying glasses for post-emergency feelings. They have been captured in a moment of creativity and transported to Davos and beyond, opening a window into the worlds of others.

They illustrate what must be considered when addressing the social, emotional, societal, financial, physical and communal health needs of displaced communities. There needs to be an intrinsic respect for the opinions of those most highly impacted to understand them at a human level. By hearing the stories of the hundreds of participants who painted The Colour of Resilience canvas, we have the opportunity to use the arts as a catalyst and plant the seed for needed conversations.

Resource allocation, funding and donor re-prioritisation can use The Colour of Resilience as a starting point for framing global conversations around education, mental health and resilience building through the arts and culture. Artistic reframing is the highest accomplishment of the arts. It has been illuminated through all the movements in the history of the arts up until today.

The layering that comes from each story in The Colour of Resilience brings light through meaningful and collaborative narratives. The warp and the weft of this tapestry are a locally informed commentary on the global migration crisis. It is a poignant historical commentary on how different refugee artists can embody a new meaning of working together across geopolitical divides.

The overlapping meaning of the past, present and future is explored throughout, referencing the history of what all cultures have always made art about: finding meaning in the world. The specific meaning embodied through this process is more relevant than ever before with the rising number of refugees, stateless and displaced peoples.

Exhibiting this work at Davos showing the perspectives, stories and ideas of refugee artists, children and communities is a statement to all the world's displaced people. These individual human beings: men, women and children are being heard. Their brushstrokes are forming conversations about the future of global migration. The hundreds of voices included in this tapestry are being heard by the world's most important decision-makers.

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