Dear representatives of the Art Basel and of the Swiss Confederation
Dear City Councillor
In his poem “To those who follow in our wake”, published in 1939 from exile, the German writer Bertolt Brecht described the “dark times“ in which he was forced to live as times in which “a conversation about a tree is almost a crime since it maintains silence about so much wrongdoings”. He placed all his hope in those who will follow – “when at last the time comes that man can aid his fellow man”. Millions of people around the world today, look forward to “a time when no more colour is missing”.
The news which reaches us every day tells us that many are living in dark times today: UNHCR’s annual report for 2017 – which will come out on the occasion of World Refugee Day on 20 June 2018 – reports 68.5 million displaced as at the end of 2017, and the figures have increased further since. This represents the highest number of people forced to flee since World War II and is equivalent to the population of a mid-sized country, such as neighbouring Italy. Such figures can overwhelm and make us lose sight of the individual stories and the extraordinary sufferings, of danger and of death; of persecution and of the unbearable losses borne by many refugees.
UNHCR’s 2017 Global Trends reports 68.5 million displaced worldwide.
“Such figures can overwhelm and make us lose sight of the individual stories and the extraordinary sufferings, of danger and of death; of persecution and of the unbearable losses borne by many refugees.”
UNHCR Deputy High Commissioner Kelly T. Clements an der Art Basel
Too often, we seem incapable of facing this dire reality, of effectively conveying this immense human suffering, to mobilize solidarity. We fail to tear down walls, overcome prejudices and populist narratives, or to recognize refugees as ordinary people like you and me, individuals with hopes and fears, and with aspirations like our own.
2018 is a critical year to ensure that the international community commits to making the New York Declaration on Refugees and Migrants a reality by adopting a Global Compact on Refugees at the next UN General Assembly. The focus of this year’s World Refugee Day will be solidarity with families forced to flee, challenging us all to do something concrete to stand with refugees.
Art as facilitator to mobilize understanding and solidarity
In dark times, art, artists and cultural institutions can play a vital role. They are essential to modern democracy. We see them rising to the challenge of the refugee crisis and dedicating their energy and creativity to foster solidarity with refugees.
Here at Art Basel, where the existential and critical tensions of our times are also visible in many art works, we can see clearly that art represents a powerful medium. Art is a medium which allows us to continue the discussion with other words – and other means. It is a medium which helps us understand this dramatic situation in a different way, at another cognitive level, thanks to a language made out of subjectivity and emotions, two keys we desperately need to access this debate.
“In dark times, art, artists and cultural institutions can play a vital role. They are essential to modern democracy. We see them rising to the challenge of the refugee crisis and dedicating their energy and creativity to foster solidarity with refugees.”
Over the last years, several artists who are regular guests of Art Basel have dedicated their work to the plight of refugees. Ai Weiwei, represented again at this year’s Unlimited, has developed several projects to raise awareness about the current situation – such as the Laundromat Project, showcasing clothes gathered in refugee camps, or the Law of the Journey, consisting of a giant inflatable boat, as well as his recent, very moving documentary called Human Flow.
Alfredo Jaar’s artwork “A Hundred Times Nguyen” (1994) which is also shown at the Unlimited, tells us about ‘the universal refugee’ as much as about a refugee’s individuality by replicating the face of a young refugee girl from Vietnam born in Hong Kong refugee camp. It also draws attention to the fact that the current situation is “neither new nor fixed”.
Several artists have also supported the work of UNHCR. We just had the great honour and pleasure to listen to our Life Time Goodwill Ambassador Barbara Hendricks, and Japanese artist Miyazaki Kensuke’s solidarity mural illustrates today’s invitation.
Some of these productions may be controversial. But their liberty of tone and interpretation is very much needed to shake us up, and to challenge the comfort of established thinking.
Art as a means to express and overcome the unbearable
It is important for us to acknowledge this contribution by inviting you to celebrate and foster it today. We are extremely grateful for the support of the Swiss Confederation and of the Art Basel team without which this event would not have been possible. But our role as UNHCR is first of all to draw attention to the voices of refugees – voices that must be heard.
Art enables refugees to communicate the unthinkable, the unbearable to others. Art allows refugees to convert their drama and their losses into words, colours or movements – so that their plight does not overwhelm them, and destroy what is still alive. At the most practical level, artistic expressions are often encouraged in refugee camps as a way to alleviate tensions and treat traumas.
“Art enables refugees to communicate the unthinkable, the unbearable to others.”
Art can also help refugees to regain dignity, and to demonstrate their potential. It allows them to project their hopes and their creativity, and the resources and talents that they bring to the host communities that welcome them. The presentation of Ahmad Jinzawi that opened this event, as well as Ahmad Joudeh’s One in a million performance that will follow, stand today for the countless pieces of art produced by refugees around the world.
They remind us that refugees are not only refugees or victims. They are artists, doctors, engineers, cooks, nurses or teachers – and they strive to be acknowledged, to be able to rebuild their lives, here in Europe as elsewhere, and to contribute to the prosperity of their host societies.
Art as a bridge between lives and cultures
Art also acts as a bridge between different lives and cultures. This year is the European Year for Cultural Heritage – its ambition to make “culture and heritage accessible to all citizens” provides us with a special platform.
Cultural diversity is a pillar of the European ideal. It urgently needs to be nurtured to overcome barriers and to ensure the integration of those who found refuge here in our countries.
Many cultural institutions have already given their support to such efforts. The city of Basel, I was told, leads by example. Here in Basel, at the crossroads of three important European States, several entities have invested efforts to play an integrative role.
Fostering access to culture, art and cultural expression, is essential for building the foundations of that time which Bertolt Brecht was hoping for on the eve of World War II.
Art stands with Refugees
I would like to conclude by addressing our most sincere thanks to the Swiss Confederation and to the Art Basel management for having facilitated this event – at the very heart of the contemporary art world, and among prestigious guests. This gesture is of great significance at a time so decisive for European States as well as UNHCR. We sincerely hope that we’ll be able to further pursue this discussion and reflexion.
Our gratitude also goes to the artists, institutions and art lovers that already have expressed their support for refugees and created meaning, beauty and resilience out of fear, violence and destruction. Out of art.
“Let us all join forces to ensure that refugees from today’s war-torn regions become part of the diverse family of European people and communities.”
The title chosen for this event “Art stands with Refugees” acknowledges this crucial role. We would also like to invite you, our guests today, to continue your solidarity with individuals and families forced to flee, and help us open doors to refugees in Switzerland and other European countries.
Let us all join forces to ensure that refugees from today’s war-torn regions become part of the diverse family of European people and communities. Let us together foster their access to culture and artistic expression and our ability for intercultural dialogue. The future of Europe will also depend on our collective ability to embrace diversity and fundamental human values.
I thank you for your attention.