aa-e (Agency for Artists in Exile)
Continued conflict, persecution, and repressive governments make it nearly impossible for countless artists worldwide to pursue their careers. Many are exiled or displaced and must find relocation in countries far away from their own. Getting out of an unstable environment can be the beginning of a solution for artists at risk. But what happens afterward? Once an artist becomes displaced, there are myriad new struggles that arise, such as xenophobia and other forms of abuse that make it difficult to find work and feel safe. As waves of refugees have fled conflicts into Europe in recent years, in particular, immigrants have been met with a disturbing rise in hostility. It is sometimes as if refugees run from one harmful environment to another, altogether different, one. Such challenges often intersect with others, as well, from language barriers to the social and economic obstacles that make it difficult to integrate and find footing in their new home. The Agency for Artists in Exile/L’Atelier des Artistes en Exil (aa-e) is an organization that grew from these multifaceted, interrelated problems.
aa-e is based in Paris and works to assist artists who were exiled to Europe by providing them with workspaces, professional opportunities, and the freedom to continue nurturing their disciplines. As Judith Depaule, a theater director who runs L’Atelier, says, “We don’t find the artists; they find us.” The organization works to meet the needs of artists who are no longer in their home countries, including via assistance in resettling and finding a career path. aa-e achieves this in various ways, from structured teams that check in and keep up with artists to ensure their needs are being met to offering a physical space where artists can assemble and spend time together to providing residencies and work opportunities. aa-e also organizes French language classes, workshops and training events to help advance the careers of talented artists, and strives to establish connections between artists, propose workshop opportunities for networking and training, and help artists write strong CVs and applications for fellowships, jobs, and other artistic endeavors.
One signature platform aa-e spearheads to help artists in exile showcase their art is an online gallery where visitors can see the visual art, photographs, songs, and poems of artists in aa-e’s program, while also affording those artists a chance to advance themselves professionally by selling their artwork. When an artist is readjusting to a new home and creative community far from where they began their career, finding professional footholds and continuing to support oneself as an artist can be incredibly difficult. aa-e’s online gallery offers a vital way both to amplify the work of artists at risk in France and help artists earn compensation for their work in an environment that might otherwise be challenging to break into.
Indeed, exhibition opportunities and career support are central to aa-e’s mission. The COVID-19 pandemic, however, makes it difficult for artists worldwide to pursue their talents, as it has limited the ability of public events and exhibitions. In November 2020, aa-e had planned for the 4th edition of their Visions of Exile festival. The festival showcases works from exiled artists, with this year's theme being, "From one confinement to another." aa-e wasn't “really aware of the importance of its name" until COVID-19 hit, when they decided to instead create a 360-degree view of the same exhibition. The festival, which was supposed to have limited run, is now an ongoing exhibition where new artwork is being showcased every week. This ongoing exhibition embodies confinement not only as a place or feeling, but as a continuous period of time. Viewers can see how artists make, produce, and show their work during a time of global confinement.
The stories of artists aa-e works with speak to the power of the agency’s resources and the bravery artists in exile show everyday as they navigate persecution and displacement. One artist who is involved with aa-e, Kubra Khademi, studied fine arts in her home country of Afghanistan as well as Pakistan. In Lahore she began to create public performances, a practice that she continued upon her return to Kabul, where her work actively engaged the ways that extreme patriarchal politics dominated Afghan society. In 2015, after her performance piece Armor, about sexual violence, received immense backlash, Khademi was forced to flee her home country and become a refugee in France. Khademi continues to focus her dynamic and multifaceted art on body positivity, women’s liberation, and sexual politics. ARC recently featured an interview with Khademi as part of its Safety Guide for Artists.
Aa-e received the WOMEX 2020 Professional Excellence Award for their role in providing the space and tools for artists in exile. "It is important for L'Atelier des Artistes en Exil to gain recognition beyond French borders, especially for exiled artists who suffer mobility problems," said Judith Depaule, director of aa-e. Through this recognition, more artists can be connected to aa-e’s vast professional opportunities.
As stated in the title of aa-e’s panel at the WOMEX 2020 Conference, "Being a refugee is not a profession." Through a career-focused approach, aa-e shows how important it is to care for artists not just as persecuted, exiled, or displaced refugees but also as creative practitioners whose work transcends their immigration status.
By Statz Tatsumi Saines, April 2021. Statz is a recent graduate of Mount Holyoke College, where she received a BA in English.