Symposium: Art and the Contemporary Refugee: Narratives, Memorials, Communities

November 15, 2019 - November 16, 2019

A symposium at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum at Washington University in St. Louis held in conjunction with the exhibition Ai Weiwei: Bare Life

In the face of the greatest human displacement since World War II, the figure of the refugee has become central to not only political but also artistic discourses and imaginations. Many artists grapple with flight and migration by exploring its visual conditions and recasting images of its actors and environments. Their works document and reconfigure traces and fragments of individual and collective lives, explore memories of lost pasts, delve into fictional futures, and insist on an all-encompassing presence to confront what it means to be human today. In contrast to the majority of art historical images of refugees that reflect either iconographic conventions or subjective expressions, artists today frequently employ mediums such as installation art, photography, and video, at times enlisting digital media environments such as Instagram that are embedded in the situation already. In order to trace these developments, this two-day symposium brings together scholars and curators working at the intersection of human rights, art, and poetics to addresses today’s global movements of migration and flight that, according to the philosopher Giorgio Agamben, delineate the paradigm of a new historical consciousness.

The program is organized around three themes: narratives, memorials, and communities. The symposium opens on the evening of November 15 with a keynote presentation by Thomas Keenan, associate professor of comparative literature and director of the Human Rights Program at Bard College. The following day is devoted to two panel discussions, featuring an international array of scholars. The first explores art and theories that visualize and conceptualize narratives of migration, flight, and exile. The second investigates artworks that take the form of (public) memorials, while also honing in on communities—the communal bond established through storytelling, the formation of communities through commemoration and public debate, or the imagined communities we partake in online. Both panels are designed to foster exchange by bringing together different points of view and leaving ample time for discussion on the podium and with the audience.

Concluding the event is a screening and discussion of Ai Weiwei’s new documentary The Rest (2019), shown as part of the Human Rights Spotlight of the 27th Annual Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival.




Welcome Reception

5 pm, Kemper Art Museum

Welcome and Introduction

5:30–5:45 pm, Kuehner Court, Weil Hall
Sabine Eckmann (Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, Washington University in St. Louis)

Keynote Address: How to Make a Refugee

5:45–7 pm, Kuehner Court, Weil Hall
Thomas Keenan (Bard College)


Welcome and Introduction

10–10:15 am, Kuehner Court, Weil Hall
Svea Bräunert (University of Cincinnati)

Panel: Narratives

10:15 am–12:45 pm, Kuehner Court, Weil Hall

Moderator: Igor Marjanović (Washington University in St. Louis) 

10:15–10:45 am
Kurt Beals (Washington University in St. Louis)
Imagining Migration: Human Rights and Refugees in Erpenbeck and Ai Weiwei

10:45–11:15 am
Nana Bahlmann (Humboldt University Berlin)
Imaging Refugees Through Fiction: Omer Fast’s Nostalgia

11:15–11:45 am
Rayya Badran (American University of Beirut)
The Unfaithful Voice: Borders and Truths in Lawrence Abu Hamdan's Work

11:45 am–12 pm
Short break

12–12:45 pm
Discussion with panelists Kurt Beals, Nana Demand, Rayya Badran


12:45–1:30 pm (on your own)

Tour of the exhibition Ai Weiwei: Bare Life

1:30–2:15 pm, Kemper Art Museum
Led by Sabine Eckmann 

Panel: Memorials and Communities

2:30–5 pm, Kuehner Court, Weil Hall

Moderator: Ila Sheren (Washington University in St. Louis)

2:30–3 pm
Deniz Göktürk (University of California, Berkeley)
Framing Migration: Dynamics of Interaction and Scale

3–3:30 pm
Gabriel Ritter (Minneapolis Institute of Art)
#SafePassage: When Home Won't Let You Stay

3:30–4 pm
Lowery Sims (Independent art historian and curator)
US/Mexico Border: Place, Imagination, and Possibility

4–4:15 pm
Short break

4:15 pm–5 pm
Discussion with panelists Deniz Göktürk, Gabriel Ritter, and Lowery Sims


5 pm, Kemper Art Museum

Screening and Discussion of The Rest (Ai Weiwei, 2019)

6 pm, Brown Hall Auditorium

Human Rights Spotlight, 27th Annual Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival

All symposium events are free, but please register here >>


Image credit

Ai Weiwei (Chinese, b. 1957), The Navigation Route of the Sea Watch 3 Migrant Rescue Vessel, June 2019, 2019. Image courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio.