‘Devious silence’: refugee art, memory activism, and the unspeakability of loss among Syrians in Turkey

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In the past few years, and especially since the start of the ‘refugee crisis’, a number of research, NGO, and policy initiatives have channelled resources to representing refugees through artistic endeavours. The underlying assumption in such projects is that art offers refugees a significant avenue to tell their story and acquire a ‘voice’ that is otherwise restricted in contexts of limited rights. In this article we aim to complicate some of the straight-forward assumptions underlying the connections between art and the representation of displacement and loss through ethnographic research conducted with professional Syrian artists in Istanbul. With an emphasis on ‘refugee art’, such artistic projects force artists to conform and identify with this category, silencing more complex processes of identification and subjectivity, communal historical continuities and personal loss, as well as artistic aspirations and expressions. The article demonstrates that the aestheticisation of displacement and loss produces an ‘unspeakability’ (Weller, Robert. 2017. “Salvaging Silence: Exile, Death, and the Anthropology of the Unknowable.” Anthropology of this Century 19 [Online publication]. Accessed June 6, 2019. http://aotcpress.com/articles/salvaging-silence/) of personal experience and trauma, and, in some cases, a permanent withdrawal from artistic production. As much as artists experience this as a form of imposed silencing, they also articulate their withdrawal as a tactic of agentive creativity. We, therefore, argue that unlike in the modern art practices described by Sontag (1983 [1982]. “The Aesthetics of Silence.” In A Susan Sontag Reader, 187–188. Harmondsworth: Penguin), this ‘permanent silence’ is not an elitist, individualistic and dehistoricizing strategy. This context of conflict and protracted displacement reveals multifarious silences that are both results of unequal politics of representation but also tactics of reclaiming identity and artistic integrity, and of maintaining continuities between past, present and future.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)462-480
JournalHistory and Anthropology
Issue number4
Early online date14 Oct 2020
Publication statusPublished - 30 Nov 2021


  • silence
  • Refugees
  • Memory
  • Loss
  • Syrians in Istanbul


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