Visualising Forced Migration

The Long Shadow of War: Visualising the Rupture of Forced Displacement through Art

Generously funded by the Imperial War Museums’ 14-18 NOW Legacy Fund.

Our project seeks to broaden habits of visualising war by conceptualising it not as a series of battles within a well-defined temporal framework (from declaration of war to ceasefire or peace treaty) but as a much wider set of experiences, impacting a very wide range of people. We include in our study of the ‘long shadow’ of war the many different legacies of conflict for everyone involved. We are particularly interested in the role played by different forms of storytelling (from news reports to novels, music to museum spaces) in helping politicians, militaries and the general public to visualise war’s seen and unseen impacts.

‘The End of the Journey’: Panel 10 of ‘Somewhere to Stay’ by Diana Forster

We have recently secured funding to collaborate with artist Diana Forster on a project which will ask a question of great contemporary importance: how can we visualise the rupture, loss and long-lasting struggles experienced by people displaced from their homes through conflict? In the aftermath of recent events in Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen and Ukraine (among other places), it is more urgent than ever that we come together to reflect on this.

Diana has spent years researching what her mother and others went through during WW2 when they were forcibly removed from their homes in eastern Poland and transported to Soviet labour camps in Arkhangelsk and Siberia. She will create a series of ten laser-cut aluminium panels to tell their story, communicating the unimaginably shocking rupture between a settled, normal life and a terrifying future decided by people who did not care whether they lived or died. 

Diana’s artwork has always focused on the everyday experiences of ordinary people, and she draws viewers in with beautiful aesthetics, allowing stories to unfold gradually rather than repelling or horrifying us with brutal images. This new commission will continue in that vein, depicting domestic objects and ‘homely’ scenes as a way of representing what Polish refugees were forced to leave behind and how they tried to recreate a sense of home at every stage on their long journey.

Adopting traditional Polish folkcraft techniques, Diana’s first two panels will depict the comfort and security of life before deportation, with successive panels then showing the few possessions they were able to take with them on sledges, cattle trucks and trains, and the accommodation they lived in: from wooden barracks in Siberian gulags to an ordinary house in Uzbekistan, army tents, stables and a palace in Iran, thatched rondavels in Africa, and Nissan huts in resettlement camps in Scotland. Their story is rarely told and has much to contribute to our understanding of the impacts of conflict and forced migration in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Diana will laser-cut these images out of free-standing panels not only in homage to the Polish craft of wycinanki but also because the shadows they cast will evoke the long shadow of war. They will be exhibited in outdoor and indoor spaces in St Andrews and Kirkcaldy, with information boards linking to the project’s website, where we will draw connections with local history (e.g. the evacuation of many Polish troops to Fife in 1940) to generate discussion of WW2’s long-lasting legacy.

We will connect with local Polish clubs (founded by families who settled in the UK during WW2), the Fife Migrants Forum and other refugee support networks to develop a series of public talks and interactive workshops aimed at local schools and the wider public, where we will explore this relatively unknown part of WW2 history – as a way of visualising the rupture of forced migration and the legacies of conflict more broadly. We will also produce a virtual version of the exhibition, which we will feature on our successful podcast series (https://visualisingwar.buzzsprout.com) and social media channels. Our aim is to generate conversations across Fife, Scotland and beyond about what forced migrants continue to experience today. Our work will be informed by focus groups and interviews with people who have lived experience of forced migration, so that their voices are amplified and they have opportunities to shape how others visualise what they have been through.

Diana’s artwork will be exhibited at Kirkcaldy Galleries in spring 2023, and at the Wardlaw Museum in St Andrews in summer/autumn 2023. For more information, please contact us at viswar@st-andrews.ac.uk.

In June 2023 we will host a complementary photography exhibition at the Byre Theatre in St Andrews, featuring work by Hugh Kinsella Cunningham. Hugh (an award-winning photojournalist and finalist in this year’s Amnesty Media Awards) has spent the last few years documenting the impacts of conflict in DR Congo. The exhibition will focus particularly on his series depicting forced displacements in Ituri Province. You can read more about Hugh’s work and connect to a recent podcast we recorded with him here.


Inner Light: Surviving the Ituri Conflict – Hugh Kinsella Cunningham, 2021