Creativity as refuge

Long read

Margaux Portron, Research and Communications Associate, Artraker.


I went to France this week, and went through Calais, a town which hosts both the ferry port and the entrance to the Eurotunnel. At the moment Calais is at the centre of two crisis. One is what the French call “social conflict” (conflit social), that is to say strikes and protests by different professions.

However what I want to talk about today is the other crisis, the humanitarian one: migrants trying to cross the channel by climbing into a lorry or going into the tunnel. Several have died after being hit by trains in the last few weeks. The confusion created by the strikes and demos seems like an opportunity to these migrants. The atmosphere is very tense, between protesters who fight to keep their livelihood and the migrants who have next to nothing to lose. Even North of France is very hot in July, and refugees try to find some rest and shade on the lawns near ponds. Those are the visible ones, but there are situations of utter misery hidden in the woods around the ports.

Hannah Arendt talked in the Perplexities of the Rights of Man of that contradiction between the so called inalienable character of Human rights and their impossibility to be guaranteed for stateless individuals. Writing after WW2, she showed that in spite of the affirmation that they were universal, these rights could only be guaranteed by states. In facts, Human rights only apply to citizens:

The Rights of Man, supposedly inalienable, proved to be unenforceable – even in countries whose constitutions were based upon them – whenever people appeared who were no longer citizens of any sovereign state. To this fact, disturbing enough in itself; one must add the confusion created by the many recent attemps to frame a new bill of human rights, which have demonstrated that no one seems able to define with any assurence what these general human rights, as distinguished from the rights of citizens, really are.

Hannah Arendt

The Perplexities of the Right of Man 

In Calais, it is heartbreaking to think that these people have crossed and survived the Mediterranean sea to end up on the lawns and in the woods. They have fleed countries which couldn’t offer them protection against misery, violence, war, etc., which couldn’t guarantee basic Human rights. They are not stateless but vulnerable all the same.

Is art a part of the refuge? Is access to a mental and physical space of creativity a basic human right?

2013 Artraker award winner Alexia Webster work with refugees in South Africa:

The images human beings seem to treasure the most are of ourselves, our loved ones and our ancestors. Whether in war or security, poverty or wealth, a family photograph is a precious object. It affirms our identity and worth, and our place in humanity.

Having worked as a photojournalist for almost ten years, I grew tired of so often taking photos but so rarely giving them. In an effort to change this, I conceived of the Street Studios.

The Street Studios are formal outdoor photo studios – with props like a chair, a vase of flowers, a carpet, a coffee table – set up in central public locations where anyone may have their family, individual or group portraits taken. The photo is produced on site for free with a portable photo printer, so the participant/s can take it home with them for their family album.

Since March 2011, I have created five Street Studios in South Africa, from Blikkiesdorp, a barren temporary housing project outside Cape Town to Johannesburg’s bustling city center. Each studio, unique in its design and participants, has been a great success, with hundreds of residents lining up to have their image taken.

However, having photographed in a number of refugee camps across the African continent, I believe that it is in these places that my project would have most meaning. Being spaces of uncertainty and transience, the family object is even more powerful and helps support a sense of identity and belonging where it is needed most.

Alexia Webster

Participants pose for their portraits at a makeshift outdoor photography studio in Blikkiesdorp, a barren temporary housing settlement 50 km outside of Cape Town, South Africa

Participants pose for their portraits at a makeshift outdoor photography studio in Blikkiesdorp, a barren temporary housing settlement 50 km outside of Cape Town, South Africa


Platforma arts and refugee network supports and develops arts by, about and with refugees and migrants from marginalised communities. A conference will take place at the University of Leicester 4-6 November (booking open):

In 2006, Art Refuge UK was established to specifically take over and develop the work with Tibetan children in Nepal and India:

Art for Refugees in Transition (A.R.T.) helps rebuild individual and community identity for refugees worldwide. Drawing upon the indigenous art forms of each community, A.R.T.’s programs are designed to enable the elders of a culture to educate and incorporate the younger generation in their cultural traditions:

Refugee Art Project was conceived amongst a collective of academics and artists united by a concern for the plight of asylum seeker and refugees who come to Australia and who are then locked up indefinitely in Australian detention centres. We conduct regular art workshops with people in the Villawood detention centre and with refugees in the community, from which we hold art exhibitions and have produced a number of zine publications:




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