There is a nation of the dispossessed. The inhabitants are both exiled and among us, in temporary cities on others’ lands, and in our cities living in shadows. Their common national traits are fear, uncertainty, seemingly permanent impermanence. Taken collectively these individuals, families and communities who live as refugees or internally displaced people number more than 60 million. If they gathered together and were recognized by the world, they would represent the 24th largest nation on Earth.
The citizens of Nation24 perish invisibly on the high seas. They live for years, sometimes decades in refugee camps, often with very little hope of returning home. They arrive from unspeakable landscapes of violence. The nature and scope of this violence is akin to a cancer that is metastasizing. The conditions they endure test the limits of human understanding. Their lives matter.
Why should we be concerned about art as it relates to refugees and migrants? Because their history and experience always seems to exist as a kind of world beneath the world. That is to say, people who endure war and deprivation often have an understanding of events that contrasts dramatically with mediated and sometimes sanitized versions of the past. It means having the ability to render a story or a gesture that would otherwise be hidden. It means discovering ways to address a hemorrhage in society that goes beyond the ephemeral nature of our news cycle.
The word “displaced” is not innocuous. For those who must endure it, displacement is most often not a singular event but a multiple uprooting repeatedly enacted. The displaced may end up crossing a border to become refugees but the geography of fear and loss lingers with them. A border may provide the possibility of certain protections – food, shelter, and physical safety. But borders cannot inure the victims of massive and repeated violence from the burden of their experience.