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London Exhibit Showcases Powerful Artwork Created by Teenage Refugees

“All I Left Behind. All I Will Discover” includes pieces by 80 teens who fled to the UK

"My Family Is Lost," created by a teenage refugee, is on display at London's Oxo Tower. (British Red Cross)
smithsonian.com

A new art installation on display at London’s Oxo Tower features a shattered white jug with colorful figures painted onto the shards. There is a mother, a father, and two small children, each one isolated on a jagged piece of pottery. Placed deliberately between the fragments are little toy soldiers, their plastic guns raised high. The meaning of the work, titled My Family Is Lost, is simple and powerful: this is a family broken by conflict.

The installation is part of an innovative exhibition titled All I left behind. All I will discover, which showcases art by refugee teenagers living in the United Kingdom. According to the BBC, more than 80 teens between the ages of 15 and 19 participated in the project. They hail from a range of war-torn countries, among them Syria, Eritrea and Sudan. All of the young artists have been separated from their families; all arrived in the UK alone. Their work will be on display at the tower until June 25 to mark Refugee Week.

The British Red Cross, which spearheaded the exhibition, explains in a Medium post that many of the teenagers arrived in Europe during the 2015 migrant crisis. Others trekked through the Sahara desert and made the dangerous trip across the Mediterranean Sea, in search of a better future.

But life in the UK has not always been easy for these young refugees. In a time fraught with racial tensions, migrants have become a target of hostility and suspicion. “Refugees are often the subject of negative press here in the UK,” the British Red Cross writes, “and hate crimes have risen since the Brexit vote.”

Some of the works on display at All I left behind. All I will discover reflect the teenagers’ dashed hopes, their sense of alienation. One piece consists simply of a doormat, emblazoned with the words “NOT WELCOME.”

Other works convey the artists’ experiences with trauma. One teen, for instance, drew a pitch black pickup truck hurtling through the Libyan desert. The piece represents the artists’ journey, the Red Cross explains, during which a young boy fell out of the vehicle. The truck did not stop. A Banksy-esque graffiti print by an Eritrean artist depicts a civilian being dragged away on a leash by a soldier dressed in combat gear.

But many of the works featured in the exhibit are hopeful. One installation consists of a bright orange life jacket—like the ones worn by thousands of refugees traveling to Europe by sea. The jacket has been stitched with 30 different patches, among them a peace sign, a Union Jack, and the word “unity.”

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a journalist based in New York City. Her work has appeared in New York magazine, Flavorwire, and Women in the World, a property of The New York Times.

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