A Review: Refugee Action St Andrews Exhibition

By: Jess Morgan 

The prominence of the refugee crisis has faded somewhat in the past few months. The fear and urgency of people ripped from their homeland and left to drift precariously between lives unknown has been dismissed by the press as Brexit, the American election, David Bowie’s death, and other stories (which are deemed more relevant by forces out of our control) dominate headlines. Fourth-year student, Ane Gunderson, President of Refugee Action St Andrews (RASA), wants to change this. Ane worked for a month in Greece alongside ERCI (Emergency Response Centre International), a Greek non-profit organisation providing humanitarian aid to people in crisis. She landed in the summer in Lesvos at 10pm and was at work on lifeboats at 5am the next morning. To be submerged in the immense pressure of rescue, treading a thin line between politics and safety in unfamiliar waters with hostile rules and unpredictable governments, is a rare thing. Most people passively receive news selected for them via a tablet, a newspaper (with an agenda), or watch images flicker across a screen. Since Ane had first-hand experience of the situation, and formed close relationships with several refugee families, the exhibition had a sense of immediacy made tangible by the inclusion of a kill cord wrapped around a stand, and a purse made from illuminated, morbidly iconic lifejackets. 

Although the refugee crisis is an emergency stained by horror and negativity, RASA created an exhibition that focused on positivity, displaying support for the refugees and exposing the injustice with which they are treated. A rail was used to display positive news stories from sources such as BuzzFeed and BBC News, highlighting the oft-forgotten fact that most refugees are people with consciences and great generosity, yet they lack the power of expression due to the unfamiliar, inimical cultures they now live in. Stories included a former refugee-turned-Olympic diver, a refugee helping flood victims in England, and a group of refugees who handed in a notorious criminal to German police. The political nature of the crisis was also recognised with artwork by Vasco Gargalo, a Portuguese cartoonist and illustrator. Gargalo contributed an image of a sinking refugee boat shown through a keyhole and framed by the twelve stars of the European Union, as well as a politicised interpretation of Pablo Picasso’s ‘Guernica’. Black and white photographs of women, men and children rescued in Lesvos by photographer Mariano Gringaus Urrutia were attached to a large screen. People whose lives have been torn apart smile up at Urrutia’s camera: to reach the safety of Europe has given them a happiness that will soon dissipate in the face of Moria, the Greek camp which Ane describes as prison-like.

A laptop playing M. I. A.’s music video for her song, ‘Borders’ brought another powerful medium to a photographically heavy exhibition. On the screen were colourful images of huge piles of lifejackets, a ‘No More War’ mural, and a beautiful Greek sunset intimating hope in a situation saturated with grief and despair. Hand-written signs telling the stories of the people Ane met in Lesvos, and who she is still in contact with, stood opposite poems by University of St Andrews students, who describe the crisis from our sheltered position on the other side of the bleakness. The exhibition presented Syrian refugees with respect and optimism through art which was sensitive to those whose voices have been silenced by their own country, and the conflicting agendas of politicians and newspaper editors. Ane Gunderson’s passionate solidarity with the lives of thousands of people who desperately need our help is admirable. The exhibition itself was professional and intelligent, consisting of extraordinarily talented artists whose work we need to be made more aware. It revealed burning issues that demand our respect and understanding. And to end, in the words of M.I.A.: ‘Borders, what’s up with that?’  

All photographs were sourced from the RASA Facebook page. 

ST.ART Magazine