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Swedish artists create 17,000 sculptures—one for each Afghan refugee facing deportation

Because refugees aren’t just numbers.

In 2015, the Swedish government welcomed nearly 160,000 people—35,000 of them unaccompanied minors—into the country. This wave of young people sought sanctuary in Sweden, having been forced out of their homelands; almost 24,000 of them were fleeing Afghanistan in particular. Now, Sweden is changing its tune; the government plans to deport the new refugees via a retroactive law and extradition agreement with the Afghan government. This sudden turnaround comes on the heels of a temporary law, supported by Sweden’s Centre Party and Left Party, that only granted a select number of refugee youths the opportunity to stay in Sweden to continue secondary school.

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[Photo: Felix Gerlach/courtesy Skaparkollektivet Forma]

According to an article in The Globe Post by Bernd Parusel: “This partial ‘amnesty’ was supposed to regularize the situation of several thousand Afghan youths. However, they needed to fulfill strict conditions. Among other requirements, only those that had applied for asylum before end-November 2015 and had been waiting for a decision for at least 15 months were entitled to stay. When the temporary regularization expired, over 12,000 individuals had applied, but only about half of them been granted a permit.”

The Swedish art community is responding to this injustice with politically charged works, and one collective in particular has designed a powerful and public call to action. Skaparkollektivet Forma, a Swedish art collective, has created a 17,000-piece installation, representing the estimated number provided by Swedish media of individuals (both children and adults) actively at risk of deportation from Sweden to Afghanistan.

“In the debate on migration, living human beings tend to be transformed into anonymous volumes. Forma wanted to understand the number and show that there is more behind the statistics,” the group writes in a statement.

The distinct, individually handcrafted sculptures are designed to celebrate the individuality of every single Afghan refugee living under the cloud of likely displacement. The colorful, miniature objects—which range from striped blocks to solid magenta cylinders—are at once unique, yet unified by the orderliness of each row. There is not one that outshines any other; it’s as if each one is an individual chapter in the larger epic.

[Photo: Felix Gerlach/courtesy Skaparkollektivet Forma]

Skaparkollektivet means “makers’ collective,” and consistent with this collaborative ideology, the 40-person art group benefited from the help of roughly 2,000 volunteers to make the small totems. The exhibit was first on display at the independent public art space Liljevalchs in Stockholm, as part of its Spring Art Salon. It has also been on view at the Form/Design Center.

The petite stature of each work of art allows for the installation—a collection of 34 frames, each of which feature 500 mounted sculptures—to be transported to a new exhibition site fairly easily and to be configured differently in each space. The exhibit took a year to complete and makes plain what 17,000 individuals truly looks like. “At first glance, you see it as this monumentally beautiful artwork, but when you read the stories, the beauty of the work is contrasted by the cruel reality at its heart,” Louan Wang, a Skaparkollektivet Forma member, said in the statement.

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