Glasgow Refugee Asylum and Migration Network (GRAMNet)

Bringing together researchers, practitioners and policy makers working with migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in Scotland

The Art of Displacement: Understanding Refugees’ Connection to Place Through the Works They Create

This guest blog post is written by Elizabeth Hampson, an MSc Comparative Public Policy student from the University of Edinburgh. She is currently a visiting researcher at the African Centre for Migration and Society at Wits University in Johannesburg and below she shares an edited extract from her BA thesis. 

Humans are naturally place-oriented; we create our identities by the places we live, and we like to make new places reflect those identities. As I’ve moved around the world and lived in different places, I’ve noticed how I create art to reflect and change my settings. When I first started working with refugees and researching displacement, I was inspired by the idea that creating art gives people agency. I recognized that few of the media stories I was hearing were affording refugees and displaced groups that same agency, and I believed it was important to focus in on this gap.

My thesis examines refugee art and how artists can affect their  physical  location  through art. I use philosophical concepts of space to explore these ideas and examine how refugees can change their locations through art. In this excerpt of my second chapter, I look at the refugee camp as a space of representation, a space where artists can reflect their identity and paint themselves onto the camp walls. Expressions of refugee identity (from Palestinian artists) challenge media and governmental representations of place, offering a view of them as creative and powerful.

“I am a turtle, wherever I go I carry ‘home’ on my back” – Gloria Anzaldua (2007)

Refugees are affected by their displacement but also able to use their identity to affect their new location. I first briefly examine the history of Palestinian refugee camps, and how these locations have been set up to police and control their inhabitants. I then examine the agency that refugees can have by inscribing their identities onto the space of their refugee camp. Artistic practices are used to re-create an image of home, as well as form new relationships and identities.

Refugee Camp as Othering-Machine

The modem refugee camp has a history dating back to aftermath of the Second World War. Palestinian refugee camps were first formed after the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, when the Zionist movement started pushing Palestinians off their land. With spreading conflict around the globe, many more people groups have been displaced since. There are currently over 59 refugee camps (as recognized by UNRWA) in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip. The onset of the Syrian Civil War in 2011 has pushed another flood of Palestinian refugees into the region, as there were many refugee camps set up for Palestinians within Syria itself.

The boundaries of the refugee camps cannot be changed by those within. They are set up in gridded neighborhoods, the outlines of which make it easier to count them from the sky. In 2013, Agence France-Presse photographer Mandel Ngan took aerial photographs while in a helicopter over the Za’atari refugee camp (Figure 1). These images show a deeply impersonal view of the camps. The exterior boundaries separate refugees from the outside world, while interior boundaries divide inhabitants from aid workers and highlight the differences in quality of life. These boundaries are patrolled by guards, meant to keep refugee inhabitants from straying into the living space of international workers (Latif 2008).


Figure 1: Ngan, in Gordts 2017

These boundaries are meant to divide but they are also supposed to be temporary. Officially, the work of the camp is to maintain refugees in a liminal space of abandonment, without the ability or time to make it permanent. Lefebvre states “Places are marked, noted, named. Between them, within the “holes in the net”, are blank or marginal spaces” (Lefebvre 2016). In our current world of nation-states, refugee camps are these holes in the net. Yet, refugee artists are working to fill those “blank” spaces.

The camp becomes a studio of sorts, a place where both art and artist as subject come into being. Artworks are “embedded within the culturally constructed context of the art world and are located within the place-based culture of the studio, the home, the neighborhood, the community, the city and the nation” (Bain 2004). The studio is not simply a place where art is made. It ingrains into the artist themselves and affects the nature of their work. For the refugee artist, place is even more important, as a piece of their identity is tied into being displaced. It follows then that refugee art is even more deeply embedded in the context of place.

The use of the refugee camp as studio means that refugees can no longer be seen as a single unit or type (as the UNHCR mass produced shelters and layouts would demonstrate). Art makes each refugee artist distinct from other artists, and each camp distinct from other camps (Schneider and Wright, 2014).

Palestinian Murals in Lebanese Camps

Murals are a common way that artists literally paint their identities onto the walls of the camp, as a way of reflecting and honoring identity. In multiple Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, artists have created murals to place on camp walls.

In Figure 2, Tania Naboulsi stands with her mural of traditional Palestinian Dance (Vidal 2017). The art that is placed on the walls of the camps also makes the location more bearable for those who live there. Placing culture on the walls of the camp allows refugees to maintain what they have as well as remember what is lost. Other murals in camps such as Dheisheh show further images of Palestinian history and culture. In this way, these pieces of art are a memorialization for the freedom that has been lost, as well as a strong force for future identity.

Figure 2

Figure 2

The narrative that is expressed through art fights against the one that is being told by the administrators of the camp or those who have displaced the inhabitants. Palestinian muralists create work with symbols of Palestine such as maps and flags, the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, and even an image of the late Palestinian revolutionary Yasser Arafat as seen in Figure 3 (Vidal, 2017). His face stands for the power of Palestinian dreams of the homeland, and resists against the static nature of the wall on which he is painted. Since 1967, Palestinians have used street art such as murals to speak against Israeli rule. The Israeli government censored forms of written resistance, but they “could not censor or destroy all the walls” (Hasan 2016). The presence of these narratives on the everyday landscape of the camp means that they are seen by many of the inhabitants and workers in the camps.

Figure 3

Figure 3

These images are not just descriptions of self through colors and images. They are also politics, speaking out about the situation of the refugees in the camps. In Palestinian camps, this resistance is very evident. Mohammad Daher founded a youth activity center in the camp Burj al-Barajneh in Lebanon. When reflecting on art in camps, he says “There aren’t many ways of resisting, so murals raise awareness and are our form of resistance” (Daher, Qtd. in Vidal 2017). This resistance takes place in multiple fashions, most obviously through these murals found on different barriers.

Art is fighting the invisibility and the controlling aspect of the camps by using bright colors and making each building unique. The layouts of the refugee camps attempt to restrict and homogenize what is seen, while this art creates unique spaces that are distinct from the landscape. The agency of refugees is important and they need to be seen as having some control over their situations and narratives. These artistic creations allow refugees to literally write themselves onto the walls of the camp in bright colors that offset the drab, tent-filled landscape around them.


Al-Mahfedi, M. (2011) “Edward Said’s ‘Imaginative Geography.'” The Criterion: An International Journal In English.

Anzaldua, G. (2007) Borderlands (La Frontera): The New Mestizo, Aunt Lute Books.

Bain, A. (2004) “In/visible Geographies: Absence, Emergence, Presence, and the Fine Art of Identity Construction.” Wiley Online Library.

Foucault, M (1977). Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison, New York: Random House.

Hasan, M. (2016) “Dheisheh Refugee Camp Youth Archive Life in Colours on Grey Walls.” Arab Weekly.

Holzer, E. (2013) ‘What Happens to Law in a Refugee Camp?’ Law and Society Review, Wiley/Blackwell.

Latif, N. (2008) “Space, Power and Identity in a Palestinian Refugee Camp.” REVUE Asylon(s).

Lefebvre, H. (2016) The Production of Space, Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Schneider, A, and Wright, C. (2014). Between Art and Anthropology: Contemporary Ethnographic Practice. London: Bloomsbury.

United Nations. (2017) “Kate Daudy.” UNHCR, Available from:

Vidal, M. (2017) “Palestinian Refugees Use Street Art to Keep Hope Alive.” Middle East Eye, Available from: keep-hope-alive.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


This entry was posted on June 17, 2019 by in Guest post and tagged , , , , , , .
%d bloggers like this: