Feminist Refugee Epistemology

Reading Displacement in Vietnamese and Syrian Refugee Art
Friday Table


Applying a transnational feminist lens to refugee studies, Yến Lê Espiritu and I introduce the concept feminist refugee epistemology (FRE), which posits that gendered displacement is not only about social disorder and interruption but also about social reproduction and innovation. Fusing the critical with the creative, we conceptualize refugee artwork as a critical practice that allows for new forms of knowledge that would otherwise not be produced or shared. In this paper, we analyze the artworks of Vietnamese and Syrian women artists—Trinh Mai Thach and Nisrine Boukhari; and Tiffany Chung, and Ghalia Elsrakbi and Lauren Alexander—whose installations and paintings capture the fluidity and dynamism of time and space, and connect contemporary displacement from Vietnam and Syria to Western interventions in the regions. Grouping the artworks by two themes—“epistolary forms of art” and “cartography as epistemic mapping”—we show how the pieces formulate a radical re-viewing of refugees as producers of knowledge and potent figures of critique. Collectively, their works prompt a reading of refugee interiority as a feminist, not feminized space, and the figure of the refugee/artist as knowledge producer, not as informant. We conclude that these feminist refugee artworks amplify the need to bring a visual art component to “history”—to engage other senses such as feelings and emotions in our search for the stories and lives that are not publicized but are nevertheless there.

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