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Refugee Artists

Frank Auerbach

Frank Auerbach was born in Berlin, Germany in 1931. In 1939, his parents had to send him to Britain to scape Nazi persecution. Auerbach's parents had to remain in Germany and were killed in the Auschwitz concentration camp in 1942. After his education in England, Auerbach began to do art showings around 1956 and continued his shows until 2009. Auerbach became highly regarded within the art industry as a figurative painter, primarily focusing on cityscapes and portraits. Auerbach's paintings aim to "resolve the experience of being in the world in paint"–drawing on his challenging experience of being a refugee. A well-known Auerbach technique is to paint an image on canvas, then scrape it off and repeat the process, creating a layered image, representative of the layers of his life experiences.

Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei is a Chinese-born contemporary artist. His father was the Chinese poet Ai Qing, who was exiled from the northwest region of China and Weiwei's family was sent to a labor camp when he was one year old. They were then exiled to a different region of China, where they lived for 16 years until they were able to return to Beijing. This is when Ai Weiwei began studying art and eventually moved to the United States. Weiwei is also a political activist and frequently calls out the Chinese government's humans rights violations. He continued his education in the US and gained popularity. First, Ai Weiwei was noticed because of his many documentaries about cities in China, primarily Beijing, recording the days of pedestrians bustling and the cityscapes. His documentary, Disturbing the Peace, follows the trial of a civil rights advocate in China, highlighting the injustices he faced, and an example of Weiwei's activism reflected in his artwork.

Isabel Allende

Isabel Allende was born in 1942 in Lima, Peru. She is a Chilean writer who is known for her use of magical realism and exploration of refugee stories. Allende's father left her family in 1945 and they were forced to relocate to Santiago, Chile until they had to move to Bolivia and then Beirut, Lebanon. In 1973, Isabel was working to arrange safe passage for Chilean people on "wanted lists" after the government coup. She was added to the list and eventually had to flee to Venezuela, where she stayed for 13 years and wrote her debut novel, The House of the Spirits (1982). In her book, A Long Petal of the Sea, Allende writes about the experience of two Chilean refugees that have to stage a marriage in order to flee Chile, her best selling book about refugees. Allende continued to write and rapidly gained popularity, winning over 35 awards with 26 works.

Marc Chagall

Marc Chagall was a Belarusian-French artist born in modern-day Belarus in 1887. Before World War I, Chagall created art about his idea of Eastern Europe and Jewish culture while traveling between Germany and France. During WWI, he gained popularity in Belarus and became part of the modernest avant-garde movement, before having to flee to Paris in 1923. He went on to continue his art education, even educating others, and became influential in the surrealism movement.

Mona Hatoum

Mona Hatoum was born in Beirut, Lebanon to Palestinian parents in 1952. In 1975, while on a trip to London, the Lebanese Civil War broke out and she was forced into exile. While stranded in London, Mona began to study art and produced pieces reflective of her current situation. Her artwork serves as a commentary on political systems, often including sculptures and installation pieces that are intended evoke psychological and emotional responses.


Ali Ahmad Said Esber, also known as Adunis, is a Syrian poet and essayist. Adunis was born in 1930 in Western Syria. Throughout his young life, he did not have access to education, except for learning the Quran, taught by his parents. He began to write his own poems and eventually recited one for the President of the Republic of Syria, who granted him a scholarship to a French school in Syria, which eventually closed down and Adunis was forced transferred to other national schools. Once Adunis graduated high school, he was able to get a government scholarship and was able to attend Syrian University, where he published his first collection of poems. After college, Adunis served in the military and was imprisoned because of his membership to the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, which advocated for a more secular, progressive Syria. Adonis then fled to Beruit, Lebanon, where he joined a community of exiled artists and began a successful career. He eventually became a co-founder and editor of a popular Arab magazine, which published experimental poetry.

Art Initiatives to Know About:

Syrian Refugee Art Initiative:

UNHCR Youth with Refugees Art Initiative:

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