Using art to explore the Refugee Experience: An interview with the artist, Jeton Muja

Today, the world witnesses the highest levels of displacement on record. Nearly 70.8 million people throughout the world have been forced from home by conflict and persecution at the end of 2018. Among them are around 30 million refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18. With the increased number of people being displaced, there is an increased need to understand the social, political and economic challenges that refugees encounter while resettling in a new country. 

20 June, World Refugee Day, is an international day designated by the United Nations to honour refugees around the globe. 22 years ago, Refugee Week was born in the UK to celebrate the contribution of refugees and migrants to the host societies and, at the same time, to sensitize the local communities towards the challenges that refugees encounter when fleeing their countries.                                                                                             

In the framework of Refugee Week 2020, UNITEE interviewed Jeton Muja.                                                            He is an extraordinary Kosovo-born artist. At the time of the war in Kosovo, Jeton was a teenager. His memories of that time are impossible to forget. ‘This was an experience which one can’t get through so easily in life’ – tells Jeton.                                                                             

After the war, the situation did not seem to be improved in Kosovo especially since people went missing, many suffered trauma and poverty. Like for many others, such events and experience greatly affected Jeton’s life. In order to be able to show others the torments and the difficult situation in Kosovo, he came up with an idea of making an art project where he would seek asylum and will let the world know about the post-war period in his country. 

In this interview, he talks about his past experience as a refugee, and how his project work ‘Investigations continue’ – embodied by inside stories of refugees living in shelters in a town of France – explores injustice to humanity, identity and our perception of reality.

Read our interview with the artist.

You can also watch the interview video on our New European magazine.

VL: Your art project “Investigations Continue” remains a unique story in that we rarely or have never heard before of something as such. Which was the reason behind this practice of seeking asylum and at the same time bringing in a new context, using the whole asylum process as part of your art project?

JM: Experiential research turned out to be one of the most direct, effective and – above all – sincere methods to carry out this complex project. It is simply impossible to map the emotional and economic impact of an asylum process ‘top-down’, from a safe distance. Facts and figures are nothing more than a starting point or a framework. The reality has many more layers. In order to really experience the scale and impact, it is necessary to be part of the process. The reality suddenly feels very different when you have to share a small room with strangers when the only ‘home’ you have is a night shelter, and when native inhabitants look upon you with suspicion, while, at the same time, you had to leave behind all your certainties; your home, your job, your family and friends. It is like stepping into another universe, leaving yourself behind.

VL: How would you describe this project work? How is that relatable to the refugees?

JM: The project gives a voice to refugees and portrays them as individuals, professionals, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, with all their dreams, wishes, fears, but also with their talents and potential. In this sense, this project is not only focused on ‘the refugee’ but perhaps even more on the outside world; the project shows that refugees cannot be approached as an anonymous group, representing certain statistics. Because I went through the entire asylum project, and only revealed in court that this was a research-oriented art project, I got a lot of publicity, and I became the embodiment of the above. Through this project, I could become a voice for other refugees, and hopefully, change the prevailing vision on them. 

VL: Do you think that your work has influenced others in terms of changing the narratives about refugees and the migrants in general?

JM: I noticed that people started approaching me differently, more respectfully, when my project got publicity in France. Newspapers published articles, and radio stations broadcasted interviews. As a result of that, I got opportunities in the field of work and living. Basically, all refugees deserve this kind of respect. 

VL: In your opinion, is there anything more that should be done in this regard? Do we need more artworks to express the reality that’s happening even during these days?

JM: Due to the increasing provision of information in our contemporary world, it is difficult to generate real, in-depth attention to a specific topic. Numerous news reports and videos are exposed to people on a daily basis. It has turned out that an “experience” is one of the most effective ways to reach people, because they are forced to step out of their own ‘mindset’, and are therefore able to concentrate and absorb the information in all its dimensions. This is what art is capable of, and this is why it is crucial to visualize social phenomena such as the refugee problem through art projects, now and in the future.

VL: As time has passed, how does your experience compare to what you expected? Do you consider that your past experience as a refugee has influenced your professional work?

JM: My past experience not only affects my work but my life as a whole. I think the way I approach people, the way I shape my career, but most of all my life choices stem from this experience.

To learn more on the project, check the artist’s website 

Produced and edited by Vesa Latifi


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