Ruffer grant helps art collective shed light on refugee crisis

Georgia Haseldine and Peter Target of AMP Art tell us about their touring installation Project Refuge/e, which offers an insight into the conditions experienced by many of the displaced Syrians living in Lebanon.

Over the last few months, visitors to galleries in Yorkshire, Gateshead and London have been able to step inside a reconstructed shelter and gain an understanding of the environment in which many Syrian refugees live, and the challenges they face there.

Currently installed at Southbank Centre until 18 June, the project is the initiative of AMP Art, a collective who, with the support of an Art Fund Jonathan Ruffer curatorial grant, spent two weeks in Lebanon learning how people build these makeshift structures and brought one back. Their shelter is manned by two guides, themselves refugees, who are able to answer questions and provide testimony to the struggle of installing, reinforcing and then inhabiting these tents.

AMP Art’s Georgia Haseldine and Peter Target reflect on their experiences with Project Refuge/e below.

The beginnings of the project

During a trip to Lebanon, we saw encampment after encampment of makeshift Syrian refugee shelters stretching across the Bekaa Valley. In Lebanon, one in four people is a refugee. This recent arrival of Syrians has added to the communities of Palestinian, Iraqi and Afghani refugees to whom the country is already host.

The architecture of the shelters tells us about the political situation in Lebanon and the social and economic pressures the whole country is under. The kit that Syrians are given on arrival is flimsy, seemingly designed to allow them to build themselves a shelter that will last a year or two at the most.

We wanted to show people in the UK what is going on in Lebanon, to counter the myth that refugees could just stay in their neighbouring countries.

Unheard narratives

One of the most surprising things about the situation in Lebanon is the amount of money people have to pay. The materials they are donated are not enough. Therefore, families save up to buy things to improve the shelter. On the outside of our shelter you’ll see there are old plastic advertising sheets – the sort that you see on motorways and hung off buildings across Lebanon. These are bought to make the structure more waterproof and insulated. They create the unreal look of makeshift shelters wrapped in adverts for luxury housing developments, Hollywood films or high fashion outlets.

People also pay monthly rent for the land on which the shelter stands, which may or may not include costs of water, electricity and sewerage systems. They are renting from private landlords and are not protected. Some families we met struggled particularly as their landlord frequently asked them to move.

On using plaster castings rather than ‘real’ items in the shelter

One of the main questions we went to Lebanon with was to find out what things were precious to displaced Syrians in their daily lives. When we asked what their most treasured possession was, time and time again people responded that ‘none of this is mine’: their real things were all at home in Syria. We therefore wanted to find a way to show the disconnect.

We chose to make castings as they can be repeated. We wanted them to help people think about the huge number of cheap necessary items that have been purchased.

Syrian artist Issam Kourbaj, whose incredible work seeks to find ways to express the vast impact of the Syrian war on Syrians, said that he felt the plaster castings we had made were ‘fossils of the refugee crisis’. This description summed it up for us too.

Visitors’ reactions

At first, people are curious about the practical things. They want to know how many people would typically live in a shelter like this one; where are the materials from; how long will it take to build; what is the weather like. People are often surprised that the shelter has a little TV, and that it feels quite cosy. Well, it looks cosy – at Yorkshire Sculpture Park people had a clearer idea of how open to the elements it is.

Once you get past the obvious questions, conversation often turns more to emotions. People want to know how people felt, how people coped, how they resist and persist in these conditions for so long. There is often a lightbulb moment when people start to think about privacy – how long could you live in the same room as your whole family, potentially four generations of it?

We have had some challenging responses. One of the guides was asked by a member of the public whether he lives inside the shelter. For some people the project has made them angry. It has made them ask why are we not looking at the problems faced by British people, homelessness in particular. This is feeding in to our future plans as a collective, as we want to respond to these comments and this might form the basis of what we do next.

The future for Project Refuge/e

One of the most rewarding parts of the project has been working with our guides Birra and Hassan, who have received training from the National Portrait Gallery, Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Museums Sheffield and BALTIC as well as from other NGOs and private businesses. This, coupled with having already spoken to over 8,000 visitors, has increased their confidence. We want to take this part of the project and expand it, giving more refugees a start in the arts.

We will also be creating a report of the tour to send back to those we spoke with in Lebanon, so they can see that the UK public is listening. We hope to find other galleries and museums in Europe and the US where we can take the shelter too.

Project Refuge/e is at Southbank Centre, London, until 18 June as part of MIA’s Meltdown. It has previously toured to Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Millennium Galleries Sheffield and BALTIC Gateshead.

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