Highlighting the important work of the international community-based public art organization in Bangladesh and Uganda
On World Refugee Day in 2022, we continue to highlight the important work of Artolution, a key partner of Gucci, an international community-based public art organization founded in 2009 by artists Max Frieder and Joel Bergner that aims to create positive social change through collaborative art projects in communities that have experienced armed conflict, trauma, and social marginalization.
In 2022, we are highlighting the work done by Artolution and its team in the largest refugee camp in the world located in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar region, and Bidi Bidi Refugee Settlement in Uganda. Our partnership helps support their mission to empower artists, young people, and communities to be agents of positive social change, explore critical societal issues, and create opportunities for constructive dialogue.
“I was amazed to know that we were going to draw together on one canvas. When I first saw the canvas I couldn’t believe my eyes. I never thought the Rohingya adolescents could draw so beautifully. I drew flowers in my hands — to represent the welcome I felt from the people here in Ukhiya to the displaced Rohingya people.”
Many Rohingya escaped scarring circumstances in Myanmar and now live in an overcrowded refugee camp with harsh conditions. The overwhelming population lives in cramped homes made of bamboo and tarpaulin that are easily set ablaze by essential actions like cooking — devastating fires such as the fires of March 2021, causing further trauma and devastation.
With the support of Gucci, many of the teaching artists, who live and are also affected by these tragedies, work together to be a creative response effort throughout the camps. Through mural activations with their community, artists create life-affirming — and potentially life-saving murals — about safety, Covid-19, safe hygiene practices, neonatal care, the dangers of domestic violence, and other public health concerns.
Artolution’s mural projects begin with collaborative workshops that create an opportunity for participants, artists, and community members to learn from one another and their combined social contexts. Dildar Begum, an Artolution teaching artist, shares “we did not have the opportunity to educate ourselves within Rakhine, and women’s rights are also lagging. The truth is our community believes that girls should not be educated and that their primary role as housewives is to prepare food for the man. When I asked the participants in a workshop who wanted to get educated in the future, they all raised their hands, but when I asked, do you think your family allows it? The majority of the responses were ‘no’. That’s why we create these murals so that passer-by traffic and members of the community can see and understand the value of education.
“I would like girls to paint and to go to school so that in the future, we have many educated women who will change our society.”
Supporting artists like Flora Ayakaka, who began working with Artolution in Uganda in 2019, mobilizes the organization’s methodology to demonstrate how the arts can unite those who have had a conflict with one another or are experiencing higher levels of isolation.
Flora is a professional teacher, designer, and artist. She was born in Yumbe District, Uganda. When we met her, it was her first time interacting and painting with refugees from South Sudan, “it wasn’t easy working with [the refugee community] at first but I was motivated to work because the Artolution team visiting played a key role in bringing us together. Their passionate and kind approach to all of us led me to experience what a great project can look like when we work together.”
Flora highlights an important piece of the work the Gucci and Artolution partnerships aim to elevate in places like Yumbe. The people of Yumbe experienced a sudden influx of South Sudanese families fleeing violence (almost 250,000 refugees in Bidi Bidi Refugee Settlement) in 2017. This sudden need to share land and resources has placed both populations through a challenging transition.
Government officials and local non-profit organizations are working hard to create bridges for long-term stability and peaceful relations. Artolution programs, like the ones supported by Gucci, provide a safe platform for different cultural or social groups to have the opportunity for constructive dialogue and relationship-building. Their public, collaborative artworks live in their community as a testament to what can be accomplished together.
This year, the Bidi Bidi team, made up of local Ugandans and South Sudanese refugees, with the support of the local Yumbe Government Health Department, successfully traveled across several health centers located outside of the settlement to hear the key community concerns to develop vibrant murals to communicate important health messages or amplify stories of inclusion shared by community members.
The wall below focuses on maternal health messages such as the need for proper nutrition among pregnant mothers, the need for natal care, breastfeeding for babies, and the support needed by the community to raise children. The health staff at Apo Health Center 3, where the project took place, were shown a new method of communication with the public by painting a wall within the community.
“I received a chance to paint for the first time”, says Kevin Aliru, a 40-year-old female nurse from the Yumbe district. For many in this community, even the chairman of the local council of Apo Village held a brush for the very first time.
Many times, the influx of refugees comes to the front doorstep of a community that is also in great need of essential supplies and creative expression. In this project, a strong bond formed between the artists and participants.
According to UNHCR, “at least 82.4 million people around the world have been forced to flee their homes (forcibly displaced) – 26.4% of whom are children under 18 – more than any time in documented history.
Exposure to adverse conditions such as conflict, violence, displacement, and gender inequality – to name a few – can lead to long-term effects and barriers to successful transitions to adulthood. Local leaders in the arts have the potential, passion, and skills necessary to make life-changing impacts on affected children, youth, and adults who represent these communities, but usually lack the resources and infrastructure to provide these programs on their own.
With Artolution’s innovative and collaborative community projects, Gucci continues to support local teaching artists to communicate the importance of inclusion, healing, resilience and the critical role arts-based programming has in reclaiming an affected community’s agency to shape their own story.