On sharing refugee artwork with my Iowan hometown

I’m an American living in the UK, conducting research on how refugees use social media. I grew up in small town Iowa. It’s a distinct, stable and generally friendly place, surrounded by fields that stretch in all directions for lengths comparable in size to the entirety of England.

I’ve viewed connecting my present life and work to where I grew up as something of an opportunity and necessity.  About 3,000 people live in my hometown. Contrary to stereotype, supposedly ‘isolated’ areas often have complex relationships with the world at large. I’ve met Clarion friends (and friends of friends) traveling and living abroad. For locals, the international residents they encounter are primarily Mexicans who have arrived to work in the local industrial farms and foreign exchange students who spend a year at a time at the local high school.

Meanwhile, America is highly mediated society, the vast majority of which is produced in coastal centers like New York and L.A. These films, television shows, news programs and publications filter through to the massive interior, a highly unequal communication relationship that, I feel, discourages locals from feeling meaningful agency in the world at large. You hear many things in a small town; others scarcely have much interest to listen. At the national level, however, the current refugee crisis is partially caused by American foreign policy that was enacted by official elected by wide swathes of the country. When I return, I’m dismayed at the casual national security fears, underscored by the ambiance of Fox News on public television sets – the sense of threat that is normalized amid the geo-political safety of America’s interior.  It is particularly obscene to see refugees, travelling on immediate threat to their lives, being publicly dismissed en masse on the unprecedented contingency that some might be terrorists.

That’s its own form of privilege – the fear of the abstract and distant – and freedom of travel is among mine. I was on a leisure trip to Budapest, Hungary, last August when a friend’s friend (Mark Szabo) showed me some paintings some refugee children had made with his help. The kids and other refugees had been staying outdoors in II. János Pál pápa tér (Pope John Paul II Park). On August 7, Mark and a group of his friends had decided to spend the day painting. When one of the children asked him for a slice of melon, the day’s activities grew to incorporate them.

Refugee art shrink

The artist, with the picture. Photo by David Bodnar.

For Mark, the painting was one in a stack. For me, it was not particularly unique either; any child could have drawn it. I got it framed for my hometown in the hopes that in displaying it, I could build a bit of international empathy. I don’t want to overstate my involvement in the picture’s creation or a contentious local situation I briefly visited. The frame of this blog post is, in part, a fulfillment of academic credit. Seeing the painting in a locally-crafted wooden frame looks obscene, the contrast between the sturdy woodwork of the frame and the moment of instability it captures. But such is art; it is valuable because we have decided its value; and the figurative or literal frame, as Erving Goffman famously described, is a what gives us that point of reference. It took a photo of the dead body of three-year old Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi (far from the first child to die) to give international media an empathetic rallying point late last year; here, with this picture, and the story of its transit, I thought I could build a more direct, albeit modest, bridge between my hometown and a crisis that will last until some form of long-term settlement prospects are realized.

Budapest, summer 2015, marked a unique moment in the ongoing migration. In late August, Germany announced it would welcome refugees.  Many who had been staying in Hungary immediately boarded westbound trains. The painting represents a moment that has now passed into memory. The artist who painted this was among the over one million displaced persons who crossed into Europe that year. These charts from the BBC explain the scope of the ongoing ‘crisis’, which – despite its recent increasing prominence in the news – is not new. The refugees in Europe represent a small percentage of people around the world displaced by conflict and natural disasters, which totaled 65.3 million by the end of 2015, up from the mid-2015 totals of 59.5 million. Nonetheless, just 272 refugees had gone through the initial settlement process as of the end of 2015. As we approach the middle of 2016, few have been offered opportunities for long-term settlement. Many are still living in temporary camps.

The painting I had framed was displayed at my local high school for the last several weeks of school in May. It then went on display at their annual summer “Festival in the Park” – celebrating the 151th anniversary of the town’s founding; it was incorporated one year before my historically-recent ancestors’ moved from Germany to America. From there, it will be circulate the local churches throughout the summer, the town ministerial committee having offered to guide its movements. An article was written about in the local newspaper, where I served as editor and primary reporter in 2014 before starting my PhD at Horizon.

I’ve also perhaps realized something of the practicalities of artwork, and why one would want to put a piece on ‘loan’ rather than donate. Permanent gifts may both create an awkward storage challenge for the recipients, one that may end with a permanent installation in the Town Hall janitor’s closet. So a loan is a way still have a bit of agency back there, even as (in another sense) it’s also a reminder of the limits of my tether to life back home. But life itself is made up of connections like those, and I hope the painting helps a bit to make more visible.

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