Showing Migration And Empathy Through Art: The ‘ref-u-gee’ Collection

Audrey Frank Anastasi's collection, "ref-u-gee," is on display in the library./Samia Afsar

By Samia Afsar


   Renowned artist Audrey Frank Anastasi stood in the corner of  BC Library’s lobby with her artwork on display. She nervously yet honorably smiled and noded at each onlooker, radiating a beam of comfort and welcomeness that entrapped the entire room. 

   “Thank you to all the people who have been so helpful in putting this together,” she said as she prepared herself to host a talk on her collection, “ref-u-gee.”

   Brooklyn College welcomed the visual artist on Thursday, Oct. 20, to discuss her most recent work, a collection of small paintings that focus on worldwide mass migration. 

    The series, which is composed of 180 small paintings, is a reference to the number 18, “chai,” which represents a symbol of life in the Jewish faith.   

   In her artist statement, Anastasti stated, “So often throughout history, those throngs of people [migrants] who are perceived as “other” are rejected, even reviled, for their culture, ethnicity, religious beliefs, or geographic origins. Simply put, they are people seen as too different to elicit empathy. Art can serve to remind us of this shared humanity.”

   As a visual artist, Anastasi’s prime motivation is to foil perfectionist tendencies. In order to do so, she uses her non-dominant left hand, oversized brushes and broad strokes for nearly all of her observational work. 

   “I’d take the brush in my left hand and I’d be dying to like reach for it and make it easy […] because the right hand is gestural,” said Anastasi. “[…] But that struggle and sort of quieting down the knowing part and just kind of going with the instinctive visual part – looking at what’s out there and putting it down – was very freeing for me.”

   The “ref-u-gee” collection was finger-painted on approximately 5×7 plasticized passport photo protectors. The base of these passport folios has pre-existing text on them, referring to checklist items and documents related to travel preparations. This allowed Anastasi to gracefully shift the paint around the plastic to reveal text where she felt it was appropriate, illustrating the irony in requesting documents from those who have fled dangerous circumstances.  

   “This [passport photo holders] is an interesting substrate to do this series in because people [while migrating] didn’t have time to get their papers together,” said Anastasi. “[These] people aren’t traveling for business; for pleasure; for a vacation; for education; to visit relatives, none of that. They’re traveling for existence.” 

   Although starting this project in 2016 and completing it right before COVID began, Anastasi believes that her work, “ref-u-gee,” as well as the issue of migration will never truly be finished. 

   “When I hit number 18 [painting], which is like a symbol of life, it sort of seemed like I should keep going, I should go up to 180, which is what I did,” Anastasi said. “Unfortunately, I don’t want to be totally depressing, but I don’t see it ever ending. I think it is just going through permutations all the time.”

   Anastasi’s “ref-u-gee” series will be on exhibit on the first floor of the BC library through January and is free to the public.  

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