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Exploring Ai Weiwei's Laundromat on World Refugee Day

20 June 2020

“Refugees are mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, children, with the same hopes and ambitions as us—except that a twist of fate has bound their lives to a global refugee crisis on an unprecedented scale.” Khaled Hosseini, Novelist

With more than 70 million people displaced worldwide, this year’s World Refugee Day, held on the 20th June, is a particularly poignant reminder of the resilience, courage, and patience of the displaced as they are impacted by the devastation of war, persecution and natural disasters. Something we can reflect on as we find ourselves sheltering in our own homes from the current global pandemic.

World Refugee Day was originally launched in 2001 by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), to mark the then 50th anniversary of the 1951 Refugee Convention. The convention itself was a multilateral treaty that stated the rights of refugees and their mandatory protection by nations. But beyond treaties and anniversaries, if we look past numbers and statistics, are thousands upon thousands of personal stories that deserve to be told and heard.

Artists, through museums and galleries have played a critical role in connecting us to these stories and showing the profound impact on individuals, communities, and whole counties. Therefore, this year, in the act of observing World Refugee Day, we have taken this opportunity to recap some of the most memorable refugee narratives showcased in Qatar.

AI WEIWEI - LAUNDROMAT 

15 March - 1 June 2018

Created by the world-famous contemporary artist Ai Weiwei, Laundromat tells the story of thousands of refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq at the Idomeni Camp located in Greece. The large-scale installation featured personal possessions belonging to evacuated refugees found after the camp was shut down in May 2016. The exhibition held at the Fire Station Artists in Residence, Garage Gallery, brought forth thousands of stories from the Idomeni Camp as a way of showcasing the reality behind the ongoing global refugee crises and its severe humanitarian implications.

 

Black and white profile photo of Ai Weiwei
The artist Ai Wei Wei

The Making of Laundromat

Born in Beijing in 1957 and currently an Einstein Visiting Professor at Berlin University, Ai Weiwei first started his artistic process for Laundromat in China in 2010. From there he travelled to Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon, Greece, Jordan, the West Bank and Gaza Strip  photographing the conditions of refugees over multiple camps. 

In the midst of his travel, Ai Weiwei and his assistants were also able to collect an abundance of belongings left behind by refugees at Idomeni that were later used within the Laundromat installation. According to the artist, the mundane remains of daily life at the Idomeni camp portray the crux of human condition at a turbulent moment in time. On a larger scale this surfaces the injustice and neglect brought upon refugees by global communities.

 

Image of shoes left behind by refugees in Idomeni, Greece featured in the Exhibition Laundromat
Shoes left behind by refugees in Idomeni, Greece featured in Laundromat

Meticulously washed, dried and steamed, the artefacts displayed within Laundromat included items of clothing, blankets and shoes worn by the refugees and asylum seekers. In addition to 2,046 items of clothing, 17,062 photographs and mementos were printed on the walls of the gallery, illustrating Ai Weiwei’s journey through multiple refugee camps. On the floor were vinyl strips containing an arrangement of Twitter and WhatsApp conversation threads from news reporters reporting about the movement of migrants and the refugee situation.

 

Image of hanging clothes left behind by refugees and stacked porcelain vases at the exhibition
The clothes left behind by refugees in Idomeni, Greece featured in the exhibition.

Another work included in the exhibition Stacked Porcelain Vases as a Pillar, depicted the six attributes of the refugee condition; war, ruins, journey, sea crossing, refugee camps, and demonstrations. 

Hence, Ai Weiwei’s ability to use a tapestry of narrative mediums to present a visual representation of refugee conditions through a display of inanimate belongings with an intention to evoke a sense of empathy and compassion among visitors for a better geopolitical environment.  

Ai Weiwei’s project has been integral for Fire Station as the institution continues to promote creativity and talent whether it be through art activism, graffiti, or public art projects. As for Qatar, the country has contributed to UNHCR’s efforts in supporting thousands of displaced refugees around Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Lebanon, Ethiopia, Somalia, etc. So it seemed only right for the institution to support and promote Ai Weiwei’s provoking work.

SYRIA MATTERS 

22 November 2018 - 30 April  2019

With 6.2 million Syrians displaced and 5.6 million living their lives as refugees, Syria is better known as a nation going through one of the most tumultuous humanitarian and refugee crises in its history. Among these large numbers, most of the refugees now reside in urban communities belonging to countries such as Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt rather than living in refugee camps. 

With millions of Syrians scattered worldwide, away from their land and home, there emerges a disconnect between Syria and its people. But, despite the distance, Syrian culture and heritage are still as vibrant and present as ever. It is the shared history and culture that brings Syrians worldwide together as they remember the true essence of their country. 

For a different perspective, the exhibition Syria Matters, held at the Museum of Islamic Art in celebration of its 10th anniversary and curated by Dr Julia Gonnella, Dr Kay Kohlmeyer and Rania Abdellatif, showed Syria as an emblem of Islamic legacy, Arabic history and culture.

 

Copy of the remains from the Ancient Near Temple in Syria
Copy of the remains from the Ancient Near Temple in Syria [Marc Pelletreau/Museum of Islamic Art]

With 127 artefacts, the exhibition surfaced the unifying heritage of thousands of displaced Syrians and showcased their origins. At the entrance of the exhibition, a copy of the life-sized sculpted remains of an ancient Near Eastern temple was placed, with the Storm God facing King Taita — introducing Syria as a multicultural landscape where histories of opposing spectrums merge. 

Moving forward, the exhibition divided into five key sections each illuminating a different time period of Syrian heritage. The first section explored Syria’s ancient heritage with artefacts presenting coexisting foreign cultures of the Egyptians, Aegeans, Hittites, Mesopotamians, Luwians, Assyrians and, of course, Syrians themselves.

Moving on, the ancient city of Palmyra was celebrated as one of the most important pre-Islamic oasis-cities in the Middle East, and Syria’s most important archaeological site. Next, the exhibition featured Syria under Banu Umayya, the ruling family of the Umayyad Caliphate, at a time when it became the foremost centre of the Islamic world, with Damascus as its capital. Today, the Umayyad mosque remains the most magnificent architectural remnant of this intellectually vibrant period. 

The exhibition presented visitors with some of the most famous objects from this period, such as the stunning blue Cavour vase with its beautifully enamelled painting and important remains from the Ottoman period, including trade items and artefacts of daily life.

 

Images from the Exhibition Syria Matters
Photos from Syria Matters' exhibition galleries [Marc Pelletreau/Museum of Islamic Art]

The exhibition concluded by bringing together the voices of its visitors through a “Reflection Room”. Tying it all together, this space provided an opportunity for communities, especially the Syrian diaspora living in Qatar to reflect and express their reaction to the show. 

 

 

Close-ups of handwritten notes from the Reflection Room
Visitor notecards from the Reflection Room

With multiple notes covering the walls of the room, many left heartfelt messages about their experience as Syrians outside of Syria:

“Through this work I regained all my memories in Syria, its neighbourhoods, streets, and buildings, I pray to god to protect the lovely Syria”
Notes from the Reflection Room
“8 years and I am away from the embrace of my lovely country Syria Thank you for returning me to the warmth even if it was for a moment Syria was and still is beautiful.”
Notes from the Reflection Room

As the lead curator for the exhibition, Dr Julia Gonnella, Director of MIA, stated in an interview the importance of highlighting the many contributions of Syria to world heritage as opposed to focusing on the devastating destruction of the country.

She went on to state that, in general, a museum is not a space that simply displays beautiful artefacts from a distant past. With exhibitions like Syria Matters, it was critical to draw attention to the rich and vibrant cultural heritage these objects are part of, whilst raising awareness of the danger that heritage is under today due to the ongoing crises. 

By raising awareness of cultural heritage and giving voice to the displaced through art, objects and exhibitions like Syria Matters, Qatar Museums enables a wider public to appreciate what is fragile, unique and under threat. These efforts complement Qatar’s wider humanitarian efforts alongside the UNHCR as they work to mitigate the repercussions of the ongoing refugee crisis.

For more information regarding the two exhibitions, you can check out Fire Station and the Museum of Islamic Art’s social media coverage. 

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