The unprecedented level of human mobility due to forced migration has marked the last two decades. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) argues that the world today is witnessing the highest number of refugees on record. Conflict, war, catastrophic natural disasters and fear of persecution force people to leave their homes and communities in search of a safer place. Forced migration or displacement ruptures people’s relationship with place and community, making return a much delayed, if not impossible, action.
Displacement alienates people from cultural landscapes, historic cities, and monuments of significance. We are familiar with images of war and conflict destroying monuments, sites, museums and collections. In such violent circumstances, equally at risk are artistic traditions and craftsmanship, due to the disappearance or departure of professional or semi-professional cultural and artistic producers, the closing down of institutions, disruption of cultural public sphere and the dispersal of networks. Circumstances that force people out of their living and working environments are a threat to tangible and intangible cultural traditions and artistic production.
While most of what is somehow tangible is left behind, perhaps destroyed, what survives displacement is the intangible heritage, cultural knowledge and artistic creativity and expressions. Both displaced transmitters of intangible cultural heritage and artists seeking refuge in other countries experience similar processes in production and dissemination of their art. As artists and producers of artistic and cultural heritage become refugees, they leave behind a cultural and artistic context, educational institutions, local arts scene and networks, but they carry with them the knowledge and experience of their cultural and artistic traditions, expressions, practices and skills.
Special dossier of the Cultural Policy Yearbook 2019 focus on the impact of forced migration on the reproduction and dissemination of cultural heritage and artistic expressions in the first quarter of the 21st century. The dossier explores how artists, musicians, performers or cultural heritage experts who become refugees weave networks and partnerships, create spaces and resume work in new environments. It discusses the meaning and the value attributed to arts and heritage by producers, their audiences and communities. It documents how artists and cultural actors reorganize themselves, and mobilize the local scene and international networks.
Cultural Heritage and its Local Context
Displacement, exile, migration or forced migration can affect the form and the practice of both tangible and intangible cultural heritage. The impact of migration can also be followed on the production process of cultural heritage.
UNESCO’s Conventions on World Heritage (1972), Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (2003) and Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions (2005) are the main legal instruments which deal with the different dimensions of cultural heritage. However, they do not directly provide any recommendation related to forced migration and its effect on cultural production.
The term tangible heritage is not limited to monuments, sites or collections, but also includes cultural landscapes, civil and modern architecture or industrial heritage. On the other hand, “intangible cultural heritage is comprised of various domains, including but not limited to, local knowledge and know-how, artistic expression, crafts and traditions, religious practices and rituals, language and oral expressions, some of which are place-specific and/or tied to the physical (natural and cultural) heritage. All these elements, alone or in combination, form part of people’s individual and collective identity and memory, cement social cohesion, and provide groups with a sense of continuity” (Chatelard, 2017, p. 4).
As a result of forced migration, traces of culture which can be represented on tangible heritage, as well as artistic and cultural practices, expressions, representations, knowledge, experience and skills, social, cultural and economic fabric of communities can be disrupted.
According to a survey report on Intangible Cultural Heritage of Displaced Syrians (2017), Syrian intangible cultural heritage practitioners, together with the interest of host societies for Syrian cultural expressions provide other opportunities for displaced performing artists to maintain their practice outside of their home country, and insert themselves into or recreate communities of practice (Chatelard, 2017, p. 23).
There is a need to make references to voluntary or forced migration issues as well as as possible threats leading to the deterioration, disappearance or destruction of tangible and intangible heritage on legal instruments or working documents of international organisations.
Artistic, Intellectual and Cultural Production
In this dossier, we extend the scope of intangible cultural heritage and link it to artistic production. Whether a traditional performance or a contemporary one, both as expressions require a creative workforce, a knowledge of the production process and a public sphere where audiences can access and engage with the artwork. Forced migration interrupts the cultural public sphere wherein individuals and societies previously, before becoming refugees, conducted intellectual and cultural communication and exchange. Yet as authors in this dossier illustrate in their discussions, by becoming refugees through displacement, cultural producers and artistic producers do not loose their agency. Malkki (1997) argues that a representation of refugees that does not relate their impasses with their political, historical and cultural context would not only be inaccurate but would ultimately lead to the silencing of refugee voices.
Displacement imposes a new context for the artistic and cultural production. Despite the common representation of refugees in the media or public discourse as passive victims of exclusion and oppression, according to Arendt, who became herself a refugee during the Second World War, ‘[r]efugees driven from country to country represent the vanguard of their peoples’ (Arendt,  2007, p. 274). As vanguards their contributions, interventions and stories open up space for new ideas, interactions between social and cultural groups, and questioning of precepts on the definition of a refugee. Displaced artists, professionals and transmitters of cultural heritage can be considered vanguards indeed. Their subjecthood is formed in specific political circumstances that impact their identity and work. They have observed or lived through exclusionary policies, were threatened by persecution and integrated a political voice pertaining to the experience of forced migration, into their production process. While they may or may not participate in the formal politics, such as political action, voting and political debates, these vanguards, nevertheless, express their political critique against power structures through their artistic expressions and cultural productions in the public sphere. Through their artistic, intellectual and cultural expressions in the political and cultural context wherein they produce, these vanguards can pave the way for emancipatory and transformative processes for themselves, other refugees and their audiences including in host countries.
The production process itself is a political performance: singing a traditional song, storytelling, performing a play about displacement, founding a cultural organization in the new society occur in a specific political context which informs and reforms both the work and the producer.
The Cultural Policy Yearbook’s 2019 Focus draws attention to conditions, processes and mechanisms of artistic production and transmission of cultural heritage and art after displacement. On the one hand, it looks at the structures, initiatives, partnerships and institutional formations put together by artists and cultural producers who are refugees, and on the other it discusses the meanings, identities and critique that they have mobilized and put forth by means of their work.
Saadet Gündoğdu and Zeynep Gül Ünal contribute to the Yearbook with the results of a PhD study with a focus on the relationship between war or conflict situations, forced migration and conservation of cultural heritage through an example from Syria. The paper underlines that the integration of community, cultural heritage and system rehabilitation define the reconstruction process. This process cannot only be defined as the reconstruction of historical and monumental buildings. Users are the most important elements of the process.
Marianne Boqvist revisits a collaborative storytelling project based on Syrian folktales that took place in Jordan and Lebanon in 2014. The project was an attempt to preserve folktales of a people who were displaced as a result of war. The communication between Syrian narrators and Syrian researchers created a process of claiming the voice of a people back. It constituted a process of collective rebuilding of cultural memory.
A similar process in a different medium is described by Andrea Emberly and Tiffany Pollock who discuss the experience of a choir composed of refugee children in maintaining cultural continuity, community building and social integration in Canada. By emphasizing intergenerational transmission of musical traditions and cultural knowledge, the children’s choir contributed to the process of meaning making in the new society. Children were engaged in discussions of sustainability of the choir, the choice of songs and the choir’s reach to its audience. This engagement demonstrates children’s claim for own voice in their self-representation in Canada.
Another case-study from Canada is narrated by Taiwo Afolabi, a theatre practitioner and researcher from Victoria, BC. He discusses the role of community engaged practice with refugee and migrant youth. The interactive theatre performance, In the footstep of our immigrants, is an example of how art can be “an expression of diversity and a vector of inclusion”. Individual/ancestral names and accents of performers become signs for everyday encounters of refugees and migrants in the society.
Mey Seifan and Ziad Adwan in their article discuss their personal experiences as founders of TANWEEN company for dance and theatre in Munich. They elaborate the shift in the audience’s perception of theatre by refugees in Germany from being “a space that stimulates fantasy to a narrow place for sympathy and solidarity,” to use Emma Cox’s terms. As a result, their work is a political response to both representation and perception of Syrian theatre in Germany and the experience of displacement.
Semra Doğan Ak writes the historical background of migration and discusses the relation between migration and security issues which have been appeared as one of the priority topics especially in Europe by 1980s. She also describes how migration policies and security measures have been taken.
Multaka project has been celebrated as one of the first initiatives by European museums to address displacement with an inclusionary approach. Isber Sabrine, who was involved in the project as a guide presents the background for the initiative and evaluates the impact of the project among the Syrian refugees in Berlin. Syrian cultural heritage in the Berlin’s museums becomes a medium for re-membering Syria, reconstructing cultural memory while it is mobilised for the social integration of Syrian refugees in Germany.
Özlem Canyürek’s article is aimed to introduce the approaches of cultural policies and the theatre scene in Germany which has a long immigration history. The paper argues the inclusion of refugees as the amateur, semi-professional and professional actors into the cultural sphere, and policies should change their focus from the inclusion of people with different ethnic backgrounds to the intercultural reorganisation of cultural institutions.
Ezgi Tuncer is an architect who discusses the Syrian restaurants and collective migrants’ kitchen in Istanbul. The writer argues that these initiatives are representing cultural identities, customs and practices of immigrants and they are the indicators in the process of space reproduction. The paper is based on a site survey in Syrian restaurants in Fatih, Istanbul conducted in 2016.
Waseem Alsharqi examines the role of Syrian cultural centers established in Turkey following the forced migration from Syria. He discusses the impact of displacement and the inherent political and social divisions among Syrians on the formation of these organizations which survive in an environment of exclusionary political discourse against refugees and economic instabilities of Turkey.
Ayşin Yoltar-Yıldırım, curator of Islamic Art at the Brooklyn Museum narrates the meeting of the Raqqa ceramics she discovered in the museum collections with the works of the contemporary artists Issam Kourbaj, Mohamed Hafez and Ginane Makki Bacho in an exhibition in Brooklyn Museum. She further discusses how a rising anti-Muslim sentiment in the US and reactions against the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi challenged the making –and financing– of an exhibition on Islamic heritage and refugee stories.
Contributions to the special dossier of the Cultural Policy Yearbook 2019 issue illustrate the diasporic nature of arts production in a globally connected arts and cultural scene. They underline the meanings and forms given to heritage and inquire about the cultural and artistic memory at work in displacement and resettlement.
Arendt, H. ( 2007). We Refugees. In J. Kohn & H. R. Feldman (eds.), The Jewish Writings (pp. 264-274). New York: Schocken Books.
Chatelard, G. (2017). Survey Report: Intangible Cultural Heritage of Displaced Syrians. https://ich.unesco.org/doc/src/38275-EN.pdf [Access date: 30.09.2019].
Malkki, L. (1997). Speechless Emissaries: Refugees, Humanitarianism, and Dehistoricization. In K. F. Olwig and K. Hastrup (eds.), Siting Culture. The Shifting Anthropological Object (pp. 223-254). London: Routledge.