It was a cold Tuesday morning in early December. Outside a tarp- and sheet-covered tent, shoes were strewn about the ground, having fallen out of an open suitcase. And on a makeshift line hung random articles of clothing.
While these images could be taken from a refugee camp, this was the scene of an on-campus art installation at the University of Washington Bothell.
The installation, “American Refugee,” was the final project for the Global Agitation class taught by Anida Yoeu Ali.
REDUCE YOUR LIFE
The project was an expansion of a mid-term project by a group of students in the class.
Jacob Luna, a junior who was part of that initial group, said one of the goals of the interactive project was to engage with other students, staff and faculty on campus and get them to think about what it would be like to become a refugee. He said some of their peers are refugees, so their project was to get those who were born in the United States or other safer countries to consider what they would do if they were forced to leave their home.
“American Refugee” also asked those who entered the tent to think about what was important to them and what they would bring with them, given that they knew their family was already coming with them. And everything they took would have to fit into one suitcase.
“You have to reduce your life,” Luna said.
Participants were also “assigned” new countries for where they would go live as refugees.
CONNECTING WITH OTHERS
In addition to getting people to consider life as a refugee, Ali said her students were also approached by former refugees on campus, which affected them.
“It actually meant something to someone else,” she said about the project’s impact.
For freshman Marwa Popal, the stories her peers shared with her really hit home. She said in addition to former refugees, she also talked to students who used to be homeless and told her about their experiences.
“I was very surprised,” she said, adding that one of her concerns about the project was that it wouldn’t be effective.
But being able to connect to fellow students was very meaningful, especially as she grew up around people who were more private. Popal said “American Refugee” has given her a deeper connection to UW Bothell.
The students came up with the ideas for their project after visiting a few exhibits — Humaira Abid’s “Searching for Home” at the Bellevue Arts Museum and “BorderLands” at King Street Station in Seattle, which featured work from Ali as well as a number of other artists.
Luna said they were inspired by the wooden passports in Abid’s exhibit and decided to include that aspect in “American Refugee.” And when they visited “BorderLands,” he said they liked Carina del Rosario’s piece in which people created their own passports with their own chosen identity markers — or what was important to them.
“I always try to get the students off campus,” said Ali, who is an artist-in-residence and teaches in UW Bothell’s School of Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences.
She said she works to find things outside the classroom that would be relevant to the courses she teaches, which also include Contemporary “Muslim” Artists, Performing Diaspora and Southeast Asian Hip-Hop and Urban Arts.
While the exhibits Ali brought her students to were local, she has also brought an international touch as well.
In November 2017, she was asked to speak at the first-ever Palestinian Performing Arts Network Conference in the Palestinian city of Ramallah in the central West Bank. She was one of only two artists based in the United States to participate in the conference.
“I couldn’t say no to that,” she said about the conference, which featured contemporary Muslim artists.
While she was there, she had a substitute for her classes. In addition, she communicated with her students online.
“I definitely make it work,” Ali said about while she is traveling. “I’m there for them.”
While she was abroad, she also shared videos with her students of international volunteers, who she met during her trip, adding that she likes to share the information she learns during her travels with her students and encourage them to take their work outside the classroom.
A TRANSFORMATIVE EXPERIENCE
Ali said while there are various ways to discuss social issues, art is often experiential and can evoke compassion and speak to people without beating them over the head about something. She said it is a more subtle approach.
“Art can be a transformative means to addressing an issue,” Ali said.
Both Luna and Popal agreed.
Luna said the projects he worked on in Ali’s class last quarter were really engaging. He said after seeing social issues on the news all the time, it is easy to grow apathetic. By addressing a social issue through art, it can require people to engage in a physical manner, which is different from reading an article or watching a video.
“This class broke me out of that (apathy),” he said, adding that it shook him and reminded him that the issues they discussed are really happening and he is not paying as much attention to them as he should.
Popal added that being in Ali’s class opened students’ minds to what art can represent and be.
“The class was so good,” she said. “Oh my god, I’m so glad I took it.”