Blog / Texts

Migrant Plights and Rights: Does Art Actually Change Anything?

By Dalia Al-Dujaili

POSTED: 30 November 2023

Writer and producer Dalia Al-Dujaili considers how we can use creativity to facilitate attitudinal changes towards migrants, asylum seekers and refugees

In late October, Autograph hosted an event in collaboration with Counterpoint Arts titled Art, Rights and Resistance, to explore how art can shape conversations about migration. The event took place in the context of Autograph’s current exhibition, Voyages, by Hélène Amouzou which raises important questions on what it means to seek refuge and what it feels like to belong. Here, writer and producer Dalia Al-Dujaili shares thoughts and reflections from the event and from her own creative practice.

Migration is an instinct as natural as breathing. From the dawn of time, we, along with the non-human world, have been on the move. But today, we live in the most globalised yet simultaneously policed era. We have never been more connected to those in lands separate from ours thanks to the internet, social media and diverse metropoles. Yet borders everywhere are hardening and movement is becoming increasingly criminalised. This is nowhere more evident than in our own nation, with grotesque floating prisons built for newly arrived people such as the Bibby Stockholm and cruel policies such as the Illegal Migration Act (2023) pushing the most vulnerable of society to take more - oftentimes fatal - risks. The UK government seems determined to adopt increasingly inhumane policies towards migration and though Suella Braverman's Rwanda plan was recently deemed unlawful,  there is still a wealth of resistance work to be done here.

In my time working as an arts writer and producer, I have always been an admirer of the power of creativity. But I have also been sceptical about its ability to create real-world change. The majority of my work concerns artists living in the diaspora but also those with lived experience of migration. Music artists like Priya Ragu and Big Zuu, the artist Rayane Jemaa, playwrights like Jasmine Naziha Jones and Hannah Khalil, filmmakers like Sonita Gale, dancers such as Esraa Warda, the writer Angela Hui, DJ’s like Rohan Rakhit, the swimmer and UN Ambassador Yusra Mardini, and so many more who exemplify what it means to be a creative product of migration and the hybridity of identities. My aim has always been to make the stories of these incredible individuals relatable to an audience and to the wider contemporary culture of the zeitgeist, but I often wonder what happens next.


Kazna Asker's Fashion Collection photo by Farid Renais Ghimas, from Volume 3 of The Road to Nowhere Magazine


From the series South of the River by Nico Froehlich, from Volume 3 of The Road to Nowhere Magazine

On the 28th October, as I attended the Arts, Rights and Resistance event at Autograph and spoke alongside other artists and humanitarian workers, I became more aware of the necessity of art to exist as the facilitation of many things for migrants and their kin. Artists discussed the role of their practice in supporting them to document their journeys, give visibility to their plight, capture their cultures, and find a common ground between all our human stories. So if migration is a universal story, how do we ensure, as creatives, it is depicted as such through culture?

I shared my own story of setting up The Road to Nowhere in 2020 as a fundraiser zine for migrant charities – it’s now grown into an annual magazine, Instagram platform and programming agency. Our mission is to celebrate the impact of migration on culture. For me, it didn’t seem enough to simply document the stories of migrants. Too often, I found myself witnessing their stories and feeling helpless at my inability to change the narrative for the remaining diaspora facing the same difficulties. This is why it’s important to me that we programme workshops and panel talks engaging with communities face to face, offering spaces and opportunities for diaspora and migrant creatives to flaunt their marginalised cultures and stories, and feel comfortable and seen in their inability to belong to just one place. It’s something Hélène Amouzou documents in her work, currently on display at Autograph, which asks: what does belonging feel like? What does it mean to live in limbo and to seek refuge?


Kazna Asker's Fashion Collection, photo by Farid Renais Ghimas, from Volume 3 of The Road to Nowhere Magazine


Photograph by Berfin Arslan, from Volume 3 of the Road to Nowhere Magazine

At The Road to Nowhere we’ve now worked with institutions like The Photographer’s Gallery, The National Maritime Museum, The Barbican and others in an attempt to bring these silenced voices to the mainstream, exemplifying in the work of our contributors how migration plays a key role in every aspect of our cultures. We are independent and grassroots but nevertheless committed to showing how mainstream culture has always consumed the works and imaginations of migrants and diaspora. And we most importantly hope to shift attitudes by humanising the language we use to describe people who move, relying less on othering or objectifying language.

Kazna Asker’s jacket design on the cover of this year’s Volume 3 of The Road to Nowhere magazine, shot by Farid Renais Ghimas, is one example of the intersection of migration and culture, which Kazna - the child of Yemeni immigrants - unpacks at the end of the issue in an interview. She says: “I always grew up around the merging of two cultures: British streetwear and traditional Muslim and Arab fashion… I have cousins who are currently migrating as refugees and asylum seekers to Europe and across the Middle East. Like many people in the diaspora, we feel protective over migrants on their journeys… The immigrants in our community need not only be represented but feel protected.”

Elsewhere in this issue, Arber Gashi explores his identity as the child of Kosovan refugees and narrates how his journey led him to found the Instagram page @Balkanism, an exercise in the platforming and archiving of Balkan and Kosovan cultures, heritages and traditions, and telling the stories of the diaspora who left the region.

From the series Tradition  by Tori Ferenc, from Volume 3 of The Road to Nowhere Magazine


From the series Travellers by Tori Ferenc, from Volume 3 of The Road to Nowhere Magazine

Art has the potential to shift attitudes through the sharing of cultural narratives and this is a fact that I was keen to scrutinise more with our audience at Autograph, hence I left them with a provocation asking: how can major sports like football - with its mass following akin to religious devotion - go some way to facilitating attitudinal change? These arenas filled with fence-sitters are perhaps the very place we need to be facilitating conversations around migration. If we can create art that speaks to these kinds of mass audiences, the potential for attitude change could be unprecedented.

To come back to my original inquiry into what art has the capacity to affect or change; the tools art provides are perhaps less about creating change itself, and more about giving people a reason to care in the first place. Why care about migrants? Because we are all migrants, in one way or another, we all come from migrants, and we all owe migrants. The work of artists like Hélène Amouzou, exhibitions such as The Missing Thread recently at Somerset House, and all the work of The Road to Nowhere Volume 3’s contributors are a plea to relay this message, and are thus the catalyst to action.

about the artist

Dalia Al-Dujaili

Dalia is an Iraqi-British freelance writer, editor, and producer based in London. She tells stories on emerging creativity from the SWANA region and diaspora, on migrant narratives, and reports on community-led stories from the margins with bylines in The Guardian, WePresent, Huck, The New Arab and more. Collaborations include Nike, Converse, TATE Galleries, BFI, the Barbican, and she has recently co-written a book with The Middle East Archive.

She is the founder of The Road to Nowhere magazine – as seen in Dazed, GQ Middle East, Port and It’s Nice That – which showcases new creative and cultural writing, art, and photography about second-generation immigrants, diaspora, and migration narratives. Dalia is also the Producer of Refugee Week 2023 and has worked with migrant charities such as Paper Airplanes, Restless Beings, Counterpoints, Gaza Library, the IRC and The Migrant Rights Network.

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part of the exhibition

Hélène Amouzou: Voyages

22 Sep 2023 - 20 Jan 2024
Contemplating the complex emotions of displacement and exile

Read more

Banner image: from the series South of the River [detail], by Nico Froehlich.

Images on the page all courtesy of the artists and The Road to Nowhere: 1) Kazna Asker's Fashion Collection, photographed by Farid Renais Ghimas. 2) Nico Froehlich, from the series South of the River. 3) Kazna Asker's Fashion Collection, photographed by Farid Renais Ghimas. 4) Berfin Arslan. 5) Tori Ferenc, from the series Tradition. 6) Tori Ferenc, from the series Travellers, 2018.

Part of the exhibition image: Hélène Amouzou, from the series Autoportrait, Molenbeek [detail], 2007-2011. Courtesy of the artist.