Representation Matters: The Importance of Refugee Self-Representation

by Noor Hewaidi

Image: 'Cluster' by Syrian refugee artist Nihad Al Turk (2014, mixed media on canvas. 147cm by 147cm)

Representation matters.

What mainstream society knows about refugees largely comes from representations of refugees on mainstream media. We absorb frames and constructions of refugee stories- many times, they are constructions of the difference of refugees. For many who have little to no contact with refugees, the media is often the primary source of knowledge about them. Crucially, the media is a space where the relationship between discourse and power functions; it matters who draws these frames, and how they are drawn. In other words, media platforms are dominated by social groups in power, and how they represent “others” sustains that power hierarchy. Not only does telling refugee stories on their behalf deny them a sense of narrative agency, but it also marginalises their voices. Above all, we don’t get to hear the truth. This is where stereotypes

emerge, not only doing violence to refugees’ identities, but also deepening the gap between them and other members of society.

And so, self-representation is a powerful way of resisting these impositions. Through self-representation, refugees confront stereotypes used against them. They also create the platforms to tell their own stories, using their own voices. One powerful platform on which to accomplish these forms of resistance is art; through art, refugees reclaim their identities and define themselves. In 1986, a sociologist called Patricia Hill Collins wrote on the power of self-definition, as a direct refusal of the external-defining of minority groups. Art provides diverse possibilities for representing unique refugee stories. Where refugees are homogenised, represented only in large numbers, and described through metaphors like “swarms” and “floods,” art is a platform for the refugee to be an individual. To speak for him or herself.

The COLOURS of Edinburgh art exhibition is an alternative space where members of Scottish society can learn about and know refugees. As a collection of lost or underrepresented refugee stories, it puts forth experiences that refugees in Scotland were involved in framing. This is an art exhibition which recognises the unequal access to platforms of expression in society, and seeks to implement balance. A balance of storytelling is important for everyone in society; all human beings have the right to express their truths, without their voices being silenced or talked over by voices that have access to a louder microphone. Representation matters because stories matter- before we can dream of fulfilling equal and integrated societies, we must work to listen to and respect each other’s stories, and treat them with the integrity they each deserve.

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