They call it a “paper monument for the paperless” — an art project that brings humanity to the refugee crisis created by Islamist terrorist groups in the Middle East. The idea, according to Dutch artist Dominique Himmelsbach de Vries, who conceived the “monument,” is to make the public aware of the individual faces behind the abstract notion of “refugees” by creating a series of woodblock portraits and posting them publicly. First targets: The streets of Amsterdam and at the Poppositions art fair in Brussels.
“Migrants,” says Himmelsbach in a statement on the project, “are seen as invaders; they are locked up in prisons and stripped of their individuality. The portraits on official documents are fleeting snapshots; systematic, almost industrial, as if produced on an assembly line. The paper monument returns warmth and depth to the portrait — an artist’s hand-charcoal sketch, heavy woodcutting work opposite cold, bureaucratic procedures.”
“Paper Monument” began with workshops that involved the refugees of “We Are Here,” a group of asylum-seekers who are neither given housing by the Dutch government nor permitted to work in order to afford their own. They live in a kind of limbo, homeless, nationless, with a past but no future. As they themselves put it:
We Are Here is a group of refugees in Amsterdam that does not get any housing provided by the government but also is not allowed to work and therefore should live on the street. The group decided to make the inhumane situation that they have to live in visible, by no longer hiding, but showing the situation of refugees that are out of procedure in The Netherlands. Thanks to the power of the refugees and the help of many supporters, the group exists already for around three years. We Are Here is currently in different locations.
Joining forces with other artists, Himmelsbach began creating woodcut portraits of “We Are Here” members three years ago, with the idea to distribute them around Amsterdam; but the project stalled. With the new focus on Syrian and other Middle Eastern refugees, Himmelsbach has picked up the idea again, and has now managed to produce (with the help of some 15 other artists) portraits of sixty people, which he printed out on a homemade press.
The “Paper Monument” is part of a larger initiative, acting under the umbrella of Europe by People – a cultural program created for the Dutch presidency of the EU. “It’s become a sort of ‘mini-Europe,'” Himmelbach explains. “It’s a project with numerous different parties, all with different agendas and promises.”
But while that makes for a poetic-sounding situation, in fact it has also, he says, created a number of “questions and uncertainties” that at times have compromised the project. Still, he is optimistic; “Paper Monument” should, he thinks, ultimately spread beyond Amsterdam, with the hope to strengthen and to unite — at least metaphorically – the paperless in America and around the world.
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