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The Art and Politics of Simplicity: ‘Refugees Welcome’ in York

Image: Nelli Stavropoulou

Counterpoints Arts was in York last Saturday (17 June) participating in the York Festival of Ideas, working at the University of York on an Impact Research Fellowship – with Maggie O’Neill in Sociology and Simon Parker in Politics. Part of the focus is to encourage people to see the value of arts and culture as a catalyst for research, public debate and everyday conversations on migration across a range of locations and communities. We’re also working with the evolving Northern Migration Network (MigNet), amongst other things.

We were parked outside the landmark ‘Minster’ with Alketa Xhafa-Mripa’s Refugees Welcome van/installation/agitprop/performance. Throughout the day, Alketa attracted and welcomed visitors into the van to converse, hang out, and write reflections in her notebook. The beguiling thing about Alketa’s Refugees Welcome mobile installation is its apparent simplicity. If you look at it at face value, it is ‘simple’. But look beyond the obvious and observe what happens when people respond to this work and something else is revealed.

The symbolism of the van is itself a statement. It’s a folksy living room – kitsch in its choice of furniture yet stark in its use of metal hooks with letters hanging on each side, spelling out ‘Refugees Welcome’. Evoking perilous passage across borders and the deadly claustrophobia of the van, the anomaly of the Union Jack on the back wall – framed like a tapestry or wallpaper – is offset by the neon sign spelling ‘Hope’. In each object we read playfulness, irony, and metaphor not least of all triggered by the ‘tea for two’ props at the centre providing a conduit for conversations.

‘Have a cup of tea with a Refugee’ has been an easy catch phrase for journalists covering this installation. Yet for Alketa the seeming banality of the tea ritual speaks volumes about British hospitality and its recent, even cruel demise. She  remembers being warmly welcomed to Britain in the late 1990s from Kosovo but now questions what has happened to that collective welcome and widespread hospitality.

Little by little, each conversation in the Refugees Welcome van paints a picture of people’s fears, anxieties, wishes and hopeful desires about what it means to live in Britain or call oneself ‘British’ in these post-Brexit times. Sometimes it takes a simple art installation to throw up complex emotions and sentiments. In its non-prescriptive way, Refugees Welcome opens up possibilities for honest debate about things that are often, dangerously, left unsaid.

Refugees Welcome in York was also the frame and inspiration for a Counterpoints Arts’ Learning Lab in collaboration with the University of York. We called it ‘The Politics of Hospitality and the Refuge City’ with participants speaking back to Alketa’s installation in rich and critically informed ways, allowing us hear, in turn,  from Alketa about her methodology and vision for this project.

We explored the connected cogs needed to cultivate hospitality and sanctuary in cities, towns, neighbourhoods and local places.  This spanned across the work of the City of Sanctuary York and York as a newly designated Human Rights City; the expansive work of the York Mosque in its practicing of everyday hospitality across mixed communities; plus the history of Refugees Action York and the role of Sanctuary Awards and the work of arts and culture organisations in Yorkshire, together with the core values underpinning rights at a human-to human level and the Sanctuary Movement in the US.

York University undergraduate students who helped throughout the day and exhibited posters on the above themes also joined us.

Who’d  have thought such a seemingly ‘simple’ art installation like Refugees Welcome could provide such a dynamic platform for encounter, debate and collective learning!

A description of the day here