Shared history - refugee artists provoke new visions of the past

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Local artists from Poland, Latvia and Sweden will be working with artists who recently arrived in Sweden as refugees, to create new insights into what integration really means.

Image from the Exile-series, by Reza Hazare, one of the participating artists in the Shared History project.

The port city of Gdańsk in Poland – for many years a meeting place of many cultures, nationalities and denominations – was the host city for the launch of Shared History in June 2017.

This EU-backed project aims at linking contemporary European societies with the experiences of refugees, creating a new vision of a shared history.

Local artists from Poland, Latvia and Sweden will be working with artists who recently arrived in Sweden as refugees, to create new insights into what integration really means. The participating artists – working in film and pictorial art - are delving deep into one another's past to see what perspectives their own histories bring to the present. The result will be a series of collaborative works exploring overlaps and coincidences between home and abroad, then and now, the remembered and the forgotten.


The programme for the launch ceremony highlighted the multicultural history of Gdańs. It is a location chosen for its history, both as a melting pot of nationalities and denominations during its golden age after it gained an unusual degree of religious freedom in the 16th century, and as a city more recently reborn from devastation and then, in the 1980s, from oppression.

The launch also offered views of the links between migration and art,  featuring the work of:

  • immigrants in Poland, such as the Armenian film director Vahram Mkhitaryan
  • emigrants, such as Roman Polański,
  • photojournalists

and discussions of the role of art in integration and the challenges and opportunities of assimilating artists in a foreign country.


One of the artists involved in the project is Ibrahim Muhanna, the Syrian film-maker now living in Sweden. He directed "Signature in red", a documentary about the life and death of Mhyd Mohammad al Zhwry, a painter in Homs who became a victim of the Syrian war. 

"I feel very connected to the Shared History project, since I am one of the hundred of thousands who came to Europe trying to build a new life, a history that we all share. Nationalism isn't the answer for me – but it took me seven years of living through war and being out of my homeland as a refugee to see there are other ways of living, other beliefs".


Much of the project will explore the promotion of integration of refugees, working with local migrant support groups. And it has an obvious focus on enhancing mutual understanding, developing intercultural and interreligious dialogue, tolerance and respect for other cultures. 

But Daniel Urey, the project leader, also emphasises that integration is a continuing process. "The project is called Shared History because it is based on intertwined experiences", he says. "Europe is always in great need of integrating itself into new possibilities and challenges." 

"It is not so long ago that Latvians left their country as refugees, fleeing in boats to Sweden. But current Latvian society ignores that history. Can an artist who is also one of today's refugees reawaken that experience?"

"Or how does a film-maker who has escaped the destruction of the Syrian war relate to Gdansk, a city that owed its development to newcomers from distant lands and different cultures and different religions, but was totally destroyed in WWII, and then had to free itself from political oppression."

Karin Englund, the project manager, says it's still early days with the project.

"The artists have started working together and have given us input and a lot of good ideas on how to re-visit history from their experiences. We have focused on building networks in the different cities at grass-roots and institutional level, and on researching the situation for refugees who are professional artists and cultural workers."

Upcoming dates include 'open house' events to introduce the project to the local public, in Stockholm in October 2017, and in Riga in January 2018, and exhibitions in Gdansk, Riga and Stockholm from April to June 2018, along with talks, seminars and workshops at the three venues.

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