In the world’s largest refugee camps, Artolution is using art to fight COVID and gender-based violence and heal the scars of genocide.
Three years ago, during the first of his five extended visits to Kutapalong and Balukhali Refugee Camps in Bangladesh — home to more than 1 million Rohingya refugees who have fled a decades-long genocide waged by the government of Myanmar — Max Frieder, founder of Artolution, spent six weeks going door-to-door, asking anyone and everyone if they knew any artists. The answer, day after day, was that there were no artists in the camp — they simply did not exist.
“I said, ‘that’s impossible, every culture has artists,’ but people told me no, in Myanmar, Rohingya aren’t allowed to be artists. It was like talking to Jews who escaped from Germany under Hitler. They said that at first, they had been allowed to study only certain subjects. Then none. Then they were not allowed to marry. In 1982, the Citizenship Law was passed, specifying that there were 172 official races in Myanmar, and the Rohingya were not one of them. So they had no rights.”
Eventually Frieder did find some artists. One had drawn on scraps of garbage with charcoal while his family was in hiding. Another had hidden his Rohingya identity, gone to school, and learned to draw diagrams. A third had practiced breakdancing alone, in hiding.
“You really can’t make this stuff up,” says Frieder, who received his Ed.D. in Art & Art Education in May.
It would be equally hard to dream up Frieder himself, or Artolution, the nonprofit he co-founded, which creates art around the world with refugees, street youth, the incarcerated, people with physical and mental disabilities, and young people living in areas of violent conflict or extreme poverty. Artolution is active in eight regions globally, and has major projects ongoing in refugee camps and host communities in Uganda, Colombia, Jordan and Bangladesh. Frieder has personally led the latter, building a team of Rohingya visual artists and musicians who are creating culturally relevant messaging around issues of human rights, gender-based violence, host-refugee relations and — especially critical right now, in light of the COVID crisis — public health.