Black and orange is a symbol of solidarity with all these brave souls that had to wear life vests to cross the sea to look for safety in a new country. Since I had to wear one, I have a personal engagement with these life-vests, and these two colors.
Yara Said1 Claudia Banz, ‘Design without walls’, in Social Design: Participation and Empowerment, Lars Müller Publishers, Zurich, 2018, p. 120.
Looking beyond the market-driven focus of traditional design methods, social design centres on inclusion and prioritising the needs of disadvantaged groups of people. It does so by using design to effect social change within a community, through direct engagement with that community. Designing in this way – with collective and social outcomes in mind rather than commercial objectives – results in ‘design without walls’2 ibid. pp. 88–94 and the production of objects that both serve the needs of, and give voice to, diverse groups of people. An example of social design has recently entered the permanent collection of the NGV – Refugee flag, 2016, designed by Syrian-born, Amsterdam-based artist Yara Said. In creating this object, Said chose to reference the design format of a widely recognised symbol of national identity, the flag, to create a new symbol for a marginalised community with no geographical borders.
The idea for a refugee flag began with a conversation. In 2015, Brazilian-born, New York–based art director Caro Rebello, along with copywriter Artur Lipori, founded the Refugee Nation with help from Amnesty International. Soon after, they approached Said to design a flag to represent the estimated seventy million people across the globe who are forcibly displaced.3 NHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, ‘Figures at a glance’, published 2019, https://www.unhcr.org/en-au/figures-at-a-glance.html, accessed 4 Aug. 2019. They also commissioned Syrian-born, Istanbul-based composer Moutaz Arian to write an anthem.
Rebello and Lipori established the Refugee Nation as a non-profit group operating with the support of volunteers and various humanitarian organisations.4 The Refugee Nation operates in collaboration with a group of refugees and, in addition to Amnesty International, is supported by FilmAid, Makers Unite and U-able. For more information about the project and its supporters, see The Refugee Nation’s website: http://www.therefugeenation.com/, accessed 3 Aug. 2019. It was set up shortly after the first team of refugee athletes was accepted to compete in the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Rebello and Lipori seized the opportunity to produce a flag and anthem with which the team, officially called Team Refugee Olympic Athletes (Team ROA) by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), could identify. Rebello has reflected on the broader purpose of the flag:‘[W]e felt that we needed to do something to give them an identity, a flag to call their own. Not just for the refugee athletes, but for all the refugees around the world’.5 Art Director’s Club, ‘Caro Rebello: The Refugee Nation’, ADC Blog, 9 Aug. 2016, http://adcglobal.org/caro-rebello-the-refugee-nation/, accessed 1 Aug. 2019.
Rebello and Lipori were conscious of the significance of flags and anthems as symbols of national pride and identity, particularly during major international sporting events. Drawing parallels with the creation of Gilbert Baker’s Rainbow flag, 1978, also recently acquired by the NGV, Rebello and Lipori chose to engage members of the community they sought to represent. They also borrowed from the language of nation building to highlight the stateless condition of displaced people across the globe.
Said was approached by Rebello and Lipori through a website called ‘I’m not a refugee. I’m a ____’, which connects refugees with work opportunities. She had written for the website and it wasn’t long until Rebello and Lipori were in touch. After an introductory Skype call, Said read up on vexillography (the practice of designing flags), and opted for a simple approach: ‘I read that a flag should look like a six-year-old kid designed it. That a six-year-old can draw it’.6 Yara Said, interviewed by Chris Bahara in ‘Yara Said: the artist in exile’, Citizens of Humanity, https://mag.citizensofhumanity.com/blog/2017/02/24/yara-said-artist-exile/, accessed 12 Nov. 2019.
In her simple yet distinctive design of a bright orange flag with a single black stripe, Said referenced the life jackets many refugees wear while making dangerous sea crossings to escape persecution or conflict in their home countries. Said has also acknowledged her personal connection to the flag’s design: after war broke out in Syria in 2011, and shortly after she graduated from the Faculty of Fine Arts at Damascus University in 2014, Said was forced to embark on an almost year-long journey to Amsterdam that took her through nine countries and countless refugee camps.7 Yara Said, interviewed by Chris Bahara. She wore an orange life jacket while she crossed the ocean by boat to find safety in the Netherlands.
The refugee flag’s connection to its source is further strengthened through the production process. To make the flags, refugees living in Amsterdam collaborate with Makers Unite, a non-profit organisation that connects local designers with refugees to co-design sustainable products made from upcycled materials. The makers produce the flags by repurposing life jackets found discarded along the Greek coast and once worn by migrants entering the country by sea.
The design and materiality of the refugee flag speak to a specific refugee experience: the wearing of a life jacket while crossing the ocean to escape the conditions in a refugee’s home country. While the flag does not visually represent the experience of refugees who have crossed borders by land rather than sea, or those who are internally displaced and face encampment, this does not diminish the flag’s global message of empowerment and acceptance of all refugees. This message is achieved through the flag’s reference to a symbol, the life jacket, now synonymous with today’s global refugee crisis.
Australian artist Ben Quilty also acknowledges the visual impact and universal message of the life jacket in his 2016 painting High tide mark8 Quilty’s High tide mark was acquired by the NGV in 2016 (acc. 2016.416) through The John McCaughey Memorial Prize Trust. (NGV Collection). This powerful work depicts, against a stark grey background, one of the life jackets Quilty encountered among a wall of thousands left behind by Syrian refugees on the shores of a beach in Lesbos. Like Said, Quilty sees the life jacket as a marker of the resilience of the ‘ocean of humans that have moved across those waters’ in search of safety.9 Ben Quilty, interviewed by Elisha Buttler in ‘Interview with Ben Quilty’, in NGV Triennial, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2017, p. 38.
Although Said’s flag was not formally acknowledged by the IOC as Team ROA’s national flag, it was embraced by the athletes who competed under it at the Rio Olympics despite its unofficial status, and by the crowds who cheered them on. Beyond the Olympic Games, recognition of the flag as a symbol of the identity and human rights of refugees around the world has continued to grow. At the 2016 One Young World Summit in Canada, The Refugee Nation was among a list of countries announced and applauded during the opening ceremony. The flag was carried in the larger procession of national flags by One Young Nation ambassador, and Eritean refugee, Meron Yemane Semedar. The flag has also been collected and prominently displayed by major museums, including the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, MoMA in New York, and now the NGV. Through its unique design and exposure, the refugee flag is now widely considered a symbol of solidarity both for and with the world’s refugee community.
The refugee flag’s creation process, and its embracement and continued use, illustrates why objects such as flags are important examples of social design. Like the rainbow flag, it was conceived by and for members of a marginalised community, but has also been accepted and celebrated by people and organisations outside the community it represents. Through acquisition, collection and display of flags such as the refugee and rainbow flags, public museums, including the NGV, honour these important milestones in social design and demonstrate the potential for individuals and communities to effect social change on a global scale.
Claudia Banz, ‘Design without walls’, in Social Design: Participation and Empowerment, Lars Müller Publishers, Zurich, 2018, p. 120.
ibid. pp. 88–94.
UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, ‘Figures at a glance’, published 2019, https://www.unhcr.org/en-au/figures-at-a-glance.html, accessed 4 Aug. 2019.
The Refugee Nation operates in collaboration with a group of refugees and, in addition to Amnesty International, is supported by FilmAid, Makers Unite and U-able. For more information about the project and its supporters, see The Refugee Nation’s website: http://www.therefugeenation.com/, accessed 3 Aug. 2019.
Art Director’s Club, ‘Caro Rebello: The Refugee Nation’, ADC Blog, 9 Aug. 2016, http://adcglobal.org/caro-rebello-the-refugee-nation/, accessed 1 Aug. 2019.
Yara Said, interviewed by Chris Bahara in ‘Yara Said: the artist in exile’, Citizens of Humanity, https://mag.citizensofhumanity.com/blog/2017/02/24/yara-said-artist-exile/, accessed 12 Nov. 2019.
Yara Said, interviewed by Chris Bahara.
Quilty’s High tide mark was acquired by the NGV in 2016 (acc. 2016.416) through The John McCaughey Memorial Prize Trust.
Ben Quilty, interviewed by Elisha Buttler in ‘Interview with Ben Quilty’, in NGV Triennial, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2017, p. 38.