Gävle becomes refuge for persecuted visual artists

3:28 min

Gävle, a town two hours north of Stockholm, will become the world's first refuge for persecuted visual artists.

Gävle thereby joins a world-wide network of cities and regions that support persecuted authors and artists, but here the focus is on visual arts.

This is not just way of helping someone who is less fortunate, says Gävle mayor Jörgen Edsvik, but it will also enrich the cultural life of Gävle.

"This is a new force that will come to us, probably with ideas as well as opinions. At the same time, we get to do what we can to help calm an unsettled world," said Edsvik.

This week, Edsvik signed the Icorn charter on behalf of Gävle. Icorn stands for International Cities of Refuge Network and it involves 50 cities around the world offering a temporary refuge to persecuted authors and artists. In Sweden, 15 cities and towns have signed up so far.

At the outset, Icorn offered refuge to persecuted authors, but now a range of artistic expressions are included, with refuge being offered to journalists, bloggers, musicians and cartoonists, for instance.

"Gävle itself that decides - after we have drawn up a list of possible candidates - which artist, which persecuted person they want to invite," said Helge Lunde, head of Icorn.

The idea of becoming a refuge for a persecuted visual artist was first raised in Gävle a couple of years ago, when the asylum application of an Armenian artist who had been attacked and threatened by police in his home country failed and he risked being sent back to Armenia. He has since been granted asylum, but his case played a role when Gävle decided on its focus.

Another reason - according to the refuge co-ordinator at the Gävle council, Hanna Nordell - is that there is a big interest in visual arts in Gävle.

So what does offering refuge for a persecuted artist involve?

"It means a town takes on an artist for two years," Nordell explained. "It is a scholarship, so the artist doesn't really have to do anything in return. Contrary to other artistic awards, this is not based on artistic merits, but the need of protection is most important."

The decision for Gävle to become a refuge has been controversial. The local Moderate Party objected to it in court, saying that it is not up to a local council to decide on matters of foreign policy. And at first, an administrative court did rule in favour of the complaint, preventing Gävle from becoming a refuge.

But to the relief of several other towns participating in the programme, in March this year an appeals court decided that the foreign policy component is marginal as it is Icorn that selects the artists who go on the shortlist in the first place, and it is Icorn that verifies the artists' need of protection.

There are currently 110 people on that list and though they outnumber the number of cities and towns in the programme, the effect is not just measured in how many individuals are offered a refuge, according to Lunde, but the signal it sends to the world that people who flee their home countries can add value to a community elsewhere.

"They are not a threat, they are a resource," said Lunde. "It is a win-win situation in the towns and cities of refuge. We think that is an important signal that will help not just these towns and cities, but also other places to become more open and inclusive, especially now that the refugee crisis is so bad".