An exhibition that chronicles the plight of Armenian refugees a hundred years ago has strong contemporary relevance to the treatment of refugees today.
Right to Arrive is co-curated by 2017 ANU Humanities Research Centre fellow Dr Vanessa Agnew, who began work on this project during her tenure. The exhibition asserts the idea that people fleeing persecution and conflict have a right to be taken in.
“The idea is a very old one,” Dr Agnew, a scholar with the University of Duisburg-Essen, says.
“The ancient Greeks believed that strangers always had to be welcomed, irrespective of their identity or purpose. The ‘guest-friend’ could expect hospitality – Xenia, they called it,” she explains.
Dr Agnew also drew on this concept as posited by German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who argued that all people have a Besuchsrecht, the right to visit another country.
“So they can't be returned home if that will endanger their lives,” Dr Agnew says.
Today, this idea is expressed in the legal principle of non-refoulement.
“It's an important article of international law, but it’s violated all the time. To apply for asylum, you have to cross an international border — you have to be able to arrive — yet people are constantly prevented from arriving.”
The bloody displacement of Armenians a hundred years ago from what is now Turkey helped establish these international legal rights that modern day refugees should be accorded.
“Many people would know that refugee rights were codified after the Holocaust and in the context of the Cold War,” Dr Agnew says.
“But international legal and institutional responses actually emerged earlier — in the 1920s, in response to people fleeing the Russian Revolution and the Armenian genocide.”
While the passage of these legal rights has been inarguably essential, the ways governments and citizens are responding to the global refugee crises is hindering the ability of refugees to receive proper protection.
Dr Agnew notes the rise of populism in Europe, the US and Australia, and how, despite the efforts of some groups – such as the Academy in Exile, which her co-curator Dr Egemen Özbek is a coordinator for – public sympathy for refugees seems to be diminishing overall. She says that government policies are increasingly restrictive and, in many instances, the right to apply for asylum is simply denied.
“As the effects of conflict, economic inequality, and climate change intensify, the refugee situation is likely to worsen. The 68.5 million people currently displaced from their homes will become more. The exhibition encourages visitors to think about this and reflect on how we might act.”
Items on display that encourage visitor reflection include photographs taken by human rights advocate Armin T. Wegner, who documented and spoke out against the persecution of the Armenians, and later the Jewish people during WWII, at great personal cost. In September at an ANU magic lantern conference, Dr Agnew gave a talk about Wegner’s photographs, which he presented in lantern slide shows.
“In Germany, you have this concept of Zivilcourage - speaking out about things that are morally wrong,” Dr Agnew explains.
“Wegner is a great example of someone who stood up to authority and appealed to people’s humanity.”
When appeals to people’s humanity fail, an important fact to be reminded of is how easily we can find ourselves in the position of the people we want to turn away. Dr Agnew points out that most of us have ancestors who’ve come from elsewhere and that many of us are migrants or refugees ourselves – who’ve benefited from being taken in and given the chance to start life over in safety.
“If we look back over the past 100 years, we can see that in the very same geographical region, descendants of refugees have become hosts, and hosts have become refugees,” Dr Agnew says.
“It is easy to forget that the identities of the stranger and the host are not fixed.”
An exhibition item that embodies the roles of the refugee and the host is ‘Wanderlust life jacket’, a child-sized life jacket found by a friend of Dr Agnew’s who was volunteering with refugees on the Greek island of Lesbos. The life jacket has frequently been associated with the sea passage of many refugees, but Dr Agnew has managed to cast it in a new light: this one features souvenir travel patches bearing slogans such as ‘It’s not the destination, it’s the journey’.
“We can think of the life jacket as an emblem of life’s possibilities,” Dr Agnew says.
“It's an insurance policy against the risky, adventuresome things that enrich and fulfil us. But obviously this is a highly privileged view. For refugees, the life jacket has a whole different meaning. Without the life jacket, there is no life.”
Distressingly, she adds, “this jacket would’ve been more likely to drown the kid than save it”.
She tells of how, in putting together the installation, the glue she used was absorbed by the fabric like a sponge.
“The stuffing has no buoyancy at all,” she states. “So, you see, the life jacket becomes something quite cynical. It holds the promise of rescue and a second chance, but life's promise is counterfeit.”
The exhibition has been well received, including by the Armenian National Committee of Australia. Their Executive Director Haig Kayserian visited earlier this month, guided by curatorial assistant ANU Bachelor of Visual Arts (Honours) student Annette An-Jen Liu.
Annette was involved in each stage of setting up the exhibition and ensuring it ran smoothly: from overseeing the printing of the photos and installation, to preparing for the special visit by the Committee.
“The depth of research and the commitment by Dr Vanessa Agnew and Dr Egemen Özbek really inspired and stayed with me,” says Annette.
“I felt particularly proud to have been a part of this project in visualising their decades of work and the topical theme to bring to the general public. I think its influence was made really clear to me during the visit from the Armenian National Committee of Australia when they broadcasted it on Facebook and it quickly reached [almost 4,000] views.”
Dr Agnew says that Annette “grasped right away what we wanted to convey”.
“There were lots of challenges in organizing the exhibition and she played an integral role in getting it up and running.”
Annette will continue her role with the exhibition when it tours Germany and Turkey next year. The exhibition is also due to return to Canberra and be shown in a larger space after it wraps up its stint in the ANU Pop-Up PROMPT Gallery on 22 September.