Fostering radical empathy for statelessness using arts

Nicoletta Enria, LSE European Institute
/ 5 mins read

With a reputation for being a legalistic subject matter, statelessness struggles to get the public attention it deserves as a human rights crisis affecting 10 million people worldwide. In a fervent debate on how to address this, art has cropped up as a potential remedy.

For centuries art has been an accessible platform and a tool of protest. Whether it is Ai Wei Wei’s huge boat installation calling attention to the perilous journeys undertaken by refugees or Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith Beheading Holofernes protesting misogyny and patriarchal violence – art has always been effective at speaking out against injustice. Indeed, historically, art has been a powerful resource for oppressed communities themselves to tell their stories and mark their existence, by way of forcing people to listen, stop, reflect and put themselves in their shoes. As such art can be an extremely effective way to foster radical empathy.

How are stateless individuals using art?

Firstly, what is radical empathy? Whilst, empathy refers to the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person, radical empathy is the full imaginative immersion into the experiences and emotions of another person. Novelist Leo Tolstoy described it as an activity through which the reader feels that they too have experienced the artists’ emotions. Accordingly, in our case, that would mean we would be plunged into what it feels like to be stateless.

Among some of the remarkable works out there one of my favourites is the work of Basel Zaraa. His comic, My Papers, My Story is a beautifully told tale of the experience of arriving to the UK with non-internationally recognised documents. Basel lived in Syria and came to the UK on a Palestinian travel document, which is given to Palestinians refugees.

My papers, my story

Through the comic, we become immersed in Zaraa’s own experience and are put in his shoes as we too have to face the uncooperative Home Office clerk. Zaraa also links his personal experience of statelessness with the 1948 forced migration of Palestinians into neighbouring countries. This gives a larger context to his plight, which is not just one individual’s legal blip, but a product of an internationally relevant conflict. We are close to Zaraa’s experience and frustrations, confronted by the realisation just how much of a privilege our ability to easily cross borders is.

Another project well worth mentioning is Tania El Khoury’s project As Far As My Fingertips Take Me, done in collaboration with Zaraa. This performance piece consists of drawing the journey Zaraa’s sisters undertook from Damascus to Sweden as Palestinian refugees, on the arms of participants. This isn’t a story of extreme vulnerability but an empowering tale of strength and togetherness. The person having the journey drawn on by the artist is on the other side of the wall, with their arm stretched through a hole. Whilst maintaining a significant distance through the wall, the piece aims to bring the participant closer to the story – with the art remaining on the arm for several days, leaving both a literal and emotional mark. The image of the refugee dinghy lingering on the palm of one’s hand for several days, is difficult to shake (and wipe) off – unlike the experience of reading a news article or report.  


Another artist whose work has captured the issue very well is Croatian London-based artist Natasha Davis. Davis was born in Croatia but lived in Serbia, and was in a legal fight with the Croatian government who would not grant her citizenship after the dissolution of former Yugoslavia because she was away during the war. Davis explicitly mentionsI try to work around these ideas so that they are experienced by the audience emotionally and empathetically, I want it to come across that people who find themselves in a migratory or exilic situation, wherever they are from, are just like us, it could happen to anybody”. This becomes clear in her installation 50 Rooms, which consisted of a wooden cabinet with many drawers. Visitors used the two empty boxes to add various objects of personal meaning, as Davis did with the other twelve drawers. This was a sharing of experiences of displacement, of growing roots and moving on, and of attachments across distances. Her work creates physical and emotional connections with her audiences, drawing us into conversation and exploring our own tumultuous relationship with belonging and identity – regardless of citizenship status. Through sharing and comparing experiences, loss and displacement are discussed in an empowering context of togetherness.

The work of these artists provides an immersive experience and builds strong empathetic connections that can stimulate more active involvement. Empathy may not eliminate unequal power relations, but elicits respect and recognition, leading to concerted attempts to hack at inequality and injustice. Davis, El Khoury and Zaraa urge us not to remain passive observers, but to become active participants.

So, how can you keep up to speed with fantastic art dealing with statelessness across Europe? In the UK, follow organisations such as Counterpoints Arts UK, Platforms Arts (both of which focus more on empowering artists of displaced origins, including some who are stateless) and Culture and Conflict, who advertise exhibitions on the topic. Follow your local galleries, and urge them to support artists working on statelessness – to diversify the voices and perspectives of their collections. The arts can be the next significant step to bringing about change for stateless people worldwide. The radical empathy fostered in these works, makes statelessness harder and harder to discard – leaving a permanent mark in our minds.