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 and the University of St Andrews.

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

With funding from the Imperial War Museums’ 14-18 NOW Legacy Fund, we have been working 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. In ‘Somewhere to Stay‘ she has created 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. You can explore more images of her artwork on this exhibition website.

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 continues 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 depict the comfort and security of life before deportation, with successive panels then showing the different kinds of accommodation that the Polish deportees found themselves living 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 has 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. ‘Somewhere to Stay’ focuses attention on people whose tales are not often told, and invites us to think about the huge contributions that Polish exiles have made in the decades since WWII to the communities where they settled. It also helps us to visualise the rupture and loss that forced migrants experience, wherever and whenever they are displaced, and the strength and kindness that are often part of their complex stories.

Our work has been informed by focus groups and interviews with people who have lived experience of forced migration. Our aim is to amplify their voices, so that they can play a role going forward in shaping how others visualise what they have been through. We want to generate conversations not just about different refugee experiences but also about how we describe and depict forced migrants and asylum seekers now and in the future.

Please visit our project website to find out more about Diana’s artwork, our exhibition dates, and various public engagement activities, including our Forced Migration podcast series.

‘Somewhere to Stay’ will be on display at Kirkcaldy Galleries 4th February-14th May 2023, and at the Wardlaw Museum in St Andrews 25th May-30th November 2023.