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Making the invisible visible

12 May 2023

By Anna Alboth, Media Officer at Minority Rights Group Europe 

‘Statelessness is often referred to as an invisible problem because stateless people often remain unseen and unheard. People without a legal identity are told they do not exist’, said Yvonne Apiyo Brändle-Amolo, a Kenya-born and Switzerland-based artist and politician.  

She spoke these words at the opening of the commemorative ceremony for the International Art Contest for Minority Artists in November 2022, jointly organized by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Freemuse, and Minority Rights Group International, with the gracious support of the City of Geneva. 

The contest was held in celebration of the eighth anniversary of the IBelong Campaign to End Statelessness, which aims to identify and protect stateless individuals, resolve existing situations of statelessness, and prevent new cases. ‘This Art contest contributes to efforts to make the invisible visible and draw attention to the plight of some of the world’s most vulnerable people’, said Brändle-Amolo, chair of the judges’ panel.

She went on: ‘we are in the final two years of the IBelong Campaign, and a lot more needs to be done to achieve its goal of ending statelessness. This event was one of many initiatives to galvanize political support and raise attention to the continued plight of stateless persons around the world. In this art contest, we have invited minority artists around the world to submit up to five artworks. An independent Judges Panel received and assessed thirty-nine submissions from more than 23 countries. For me, as an artist, it was a kind of torture to decide who the winner should be!’  

The panel was composed of Khadim Ali, a Pakistani artist based in Australia belonging to the Hazara ethnic minority; Yuliya Lanina, a Russian-born and US-based multidisciplinary artist of Jewish background; Aline Miklos, a Roma artist from Brazil/Argentina and OHCHR Senior Minority Fellow, and the United Nations Special Rapporteur in the Field of Cultural Rights, Alexandra Xanthaki.  

They selected three award recipients and four honourable mentions; ‘at the beginning, we were supposed to mention only one’, said Brändle-Amolo, ‘this is very meaningful!’  

The Judges Panel paid attention to the artwork’s artistic merit, creativity and innovation, and also to how the artists dealt with the topic of statelessness and their bravery and dedication in addressing difficult themes.  

The winners

Jean Philippe Moiseau is an artist belonging to the Haitian minority in the Dominican Republic. Working with plastic and recycled materials, his art is extremely diverse: paintings, sculptures, engraved metal objects and masks. Yet, all his artworks have in common an exploration of the complex forms of discrimination Haitian communities face in the Dominican Republic; they also reflect the bravery of an artist committed to shedding light on contemporary issues, including statelessness, by combining recycled materials, with natural elements, such as jagua palm, gourds, or seeds, that are of particular importance to Haitian identity.

The Judges Panel was particularly moved by the powerful political messages of his artwork – in particular, the masks that Jean Philippe creates expose the challenges of statelessness. During the Covid-19 pandemic, Jean Philippe created a mask called ‘Los Olvidados del Covid’ [Those Forgotten by Covid] that captures the new exclusion of stateless persons through a ‘masked mask’, and refers to the lack of health and socio-economic support for stateless people.  

Zahra Hassan Marwan, who identifies as a member of the Ayam minority of Kuwait, is an artist and author living in the United States. Born to a Kuwaiti mother and a stateless father, she was herself stateless for a large part of her life, as under Kuwaiti laws, citizenship is passed down through the father’s side. Zahra works as a traditional artist, using watercolour and ink to explore complex themes such as statelessness, feelings of belonging, and homesickness, pride in one’s cultural and linguistic identity and the reclaiming of one’s roots.

The Judges Panel was particularly moved by the children’s book she wrote, illustrated and published in 2022, entitled Where Butterflies Fill the Sky: a Story of Immigration, Family and Finding Home. Telling her story of statelessness, the book offers a powerful account of how it affects the emotional, family, cultural and linguistic ties that bind communities together and how it impacts the feeling of belonging to a place, community, or country. The book is an incredibly moving way to help children better understand their own stories. 

Abdullah is a Rohingya photographer and videographer; he was born stateless in Myanmar to stateless parents. After fleeing Myanmar in 2017, he now lives in Kutupalong refugee camp, one of the world’s largest refugee camps, in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. He works with the Rollywood Rohingya Film Team making videos and taking photos about life in the camp, and promoting videography, photography, music, drawing and poetry produced by young people in the camp. 

Abdullah’s compelling, poignant photos particularly moved the Judges’ panel. Abdullah uses a documentary approach to record and chronicle the daily experiences, everyday struggles and most intimate stories of Rohingya in the camp where he lives. His photos show the pain and adversity Rohingya communities in the camp go through but are also a testimony of the creativity, bravery and strength of stateless minority artists.

Honourable mentions 

Brang Li, a Kachin painter and visual artist from Northern Myanmar. His ‘No More Life’ series highlights how statelessness makes individuals invisible through the use of shadowed, almost transparent human figures placed over images of ordinary life.   

Naser Moradi, an Afghan painter belonging to the Hazara ethnic minority, had to flee his home country in 2011 to escape conflict. Naser’s paintings reflect the deep and painful feelings that may be experienced by those who are disconnected from a part of their self, including stateless persons. 

Mawa Rannahr, a painter born in Soviet Central Asia who became stateless after the collapse of the Soviet Union and now lives in the United States. Mawa depicts in her paintings the experiences of stateless minorities, including the difficult administrative processes they may have to go through. Rannahr’s artwork connects her deep emotions with her conviction that no human being should ever be reduced to their national status. 

Amin Taasha, a Hazara painter and visual artist from Afghanistan, had to flee to Indonesia due to the intimidation he faced. The Judges Panel was hit by the magnificence and technical complexity of Amin’s pieces of art, which build a poetic bridge between past and present through traditional techniques, including miniatures.

Interested in the competition? Check out this year’s edition and consider applying. Deadline: 15 May 2023.

This year’s topic: Recognizing Minority Artists Working on Intersectionality Themes  

This competition is a unique opportunity to use your artistic talents to amplify the voices of minority communities and promote human rights around the world. Your art has the power to spark conversations and challenge societal norms, and this competition offers a platform to share your message with a global audience. Don’t let self-doubt hold you back – take a chance, believe in your art and submit your work. You never know the impact it may have!

One of the winners: Zahra Hassan Marwan, who self-identifies as a member of the Ayam minority of Kuwait. Credit: MRG.