‘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 war in Syria and what is commonly referred to as the ‘refugee crisis’, a number of research, NGO, and policy initiatives in European and non-European contexts have channelled efforts and resources to engaging refugees in artistic endeavours. The underlying assumption in such projects is that art offers refugees a significant avenue to tell their story and acquire a ‘voice’ and constitutes a potentially therapeutic tool for articulating and overcoming past traumatic experiences.
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 research conducted with 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 endeavours and expressions. The aestheticisation of displacement and loss produces an ‘unspeakability’ (Weller 2017) of personal experience and trauma, and a permanent withdrawal from artistic production.
As much as artists experience this as a form of imposed silencing, they also articulate this withdrawal as a tactic of agentive creativity. We, therefore, argue that unlike in the modern art practices described by Sontag (1983 [1982], 187), this ‘permanent silence’ is not an elitist, individualistic and dehistoricising strategy. On the contrary, ethnography in this context of conflict and protracted displacement reveals that artistic literal silence operates as a tactic of reclaiming identity and community, and of maintaining historical continuity between past, present and future.
We argue that an ‘anthropology of silence and loss’ in the context of displacement does not and should not aim to resolve dilemmas around representation, experience and aesthetics, but should instead highlight further ethical, political and methodological complexities of documenting absence.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)xx
JournalHistory and Anthropology
VolumeEarly Online
Early online date14 Oct 2020
Publication statusEarly online date - 14 Oct 2020


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


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