Artistic Responses to Europe’s Refugee Crisis

by Julia Zimring

On April 9, Fatima El-Tayeb, professor of Literature and Ethnic Studies at the University of California, San Diego, shared her work with an audience of 25 at the Institute of European Studies. Her presentation, entitled “Europe’s “Refugee Crisis” and the Colonial Archive: Is Art Universal?,” explored the connections between Germany’s colonial legacy, the current refugee crisis, and the idea of the “universal museum.”

El-Tayeb’s work centers on the "Multaqa" project, which was initiated at the height of the refugee crisis in 2015. As part of this project, five of Germany’s most prestigious museums began to hire refugees as guides. They saw this as a way of helping the refugees integrate into society through cultural appreciation and a “shared past.” Although well-intentioned, El-Tayeb argues that this initiative is in line with the dominant refugee narrative, which builds a larger hegemonic self-image for Europe and ignores Western culpability in the crisis.

According to El-Tayeb, this project also poses greater questions about the role of art in museums and the issue of historical erasure. She pointed out the not-so-subtle irony that these refugees are giving tours of objects that sometimes are African and Middle-Eastern in origin, but through unclear historical events -- likely involving violence and colonialism -- have ended up in Berlin. El-Tayeb argues that Germany should not focus on assimilating or ignoring the foreign, but should strive for a new, more inclusive understanding of Europeanness and the continent’s colonial past.

The lecture concluded with a Q&A session. Audience members were curious to know more about the German government’s role in the Multaqa project, as well as where its funding came from, and whether immigrants themselves are supportive to such a progressive identity project.