In a time where borders and walls seemed to burst onto the global agenda in the context of halting spontaneous movement of refugees and migrants escaping violence and persecution, a very small group of artists and activists, led by Samantha Robison, decided to travel to some of the affected areas and instill hope to the youth who are often deprived of their most basic human rights.
Samantha Robison, who is born in the Washington DC suburbs, studied art and politics at Lewis and Clark College, a private liberal arts college in located in Portland, Oregon.
Shortly after graduating She moved overseas and founded Awareness and Prevention through Art (aptART), an organization of artists and activists dedicated to sharing artistic experiences with conflict-affected and marginalized youth throughout the world. AptART coordinates workshops for youth that result in large-scale public art in countries such as Syria, Iraq, Palestine, Jordan, Cambodia, Myanmar, Turkey, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Mozambique.
Robison’s goal is to give kids living in tough circumstances a creative outlet for expression, and to amplify the voices of people who are often ignored.
I have been following Samantha’s work for while and I must say that I have the utmost respect and admiration for people like her who would leave their comfort zone in order to give a bit of hope to kids facing an uncertain future.
Hi Samantha! thanks for participating in the Street Art United States interview series. For any readers unfamiliar with you or your work, could you provide a brief description of what is aptART? Why you created it?
aptART is an organization of artists and activists. We’re mini but mighty. We believe all people should have access to art regardless of their circumstances. We use Street Art and all the social and conventional media that goes with it as a tool to build awareness about issues affecting people’s lives. Our aim is that through art, awareness and connecting people we can prevent issues that damage people’s lives. We mostly work in refugee camps, war zones and post conflict areas. We organize workshops with the community existing around the area and find out what they might like to paint about. After the workshops and discussions, a concept is formulated and we work with the community to paint the wall. We work mostly with kids and youth but, adults are invited too.
Humanitarian aid isn’t based on need; it’s based on the political and business interests of the donor. Over the last 10 years my perspective of aid and development has changed drastically. Rather than trying to “develop” the rest of the world, I think many of the larger donor countries should reflect on themselves, their impact on the environment and how they can reduce the damage their lifestyles have on people and the planet they are trying to save through their aid.
What is your background?
I grew up in the suburbs of Washington DC, so life was always political. When I was 18, I moved to Portland, Oregon where I attended Lewis and Clark College. I studied Political Science and Art. It’s a bit of an unconventional combination but it suites what I do now quite well. A year and a bit after I graduated I was on my way to registering aptART with the help of a couple friends.
AptART first began its work in Mozambique developing art projects to help children address the HIV and AIDS epidemic affecting their communities, branching out and into The Democratic Republic of Congo a year later in 2012. Then you went to work with refugees inside Syria and Jordan’s Za’atari Refugee camp. My question to you is, how was working in Africa different from working in the Middle East? And what did you learn from all this?
It’s difficult to compare the Africa and the Middle East places because they are so diverse within themselves. I would say one of the largest distinctions is the funding. In the Middle East the amount of money and resources per person is significantly greater. An anecdotal example is from Zaatari in 2013 when the riots over water were pretty serious. Some staff had just arrived from South Sudan to help with the new camp. The staff all noted that per person, the residents of Zaatari were receiving 2-5 times more water than the resident of any camps in South Sudan. This is a micro example but it’s indicative of a macro disparity. Humanitarian aid isn’t based on need; it’s based on the political and business interests of the donor. Over the last 10 years my perspective of aid and development has changed drastically. Rather than trying to “develop” the rest of the world, I think many of the larger donor countries should reflect on themselves, their impact on the environment and how they can reduce the damage their lifestyles have on people and the planet they are trying to save through their aid. Every everyplace you go in this world teaches you something. Mozambique taught me patience. The Democratic Republic of Congo, taught me the importance of roads and how much the UN likes to party. Syria taught me that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.
When I moved to the USA in 2002 I couldn’t help but notice the level of misinformation among people here about the Middle East. Were you one of the few that educated themselves on the region and wasn’t culturally shocked?
I think it’s best to do a little research before starting working someplace. The most shocking thing was how much tea I was expected to drink and food I was expected to eat.
There is the widespread idea that women in the Arab world are all oppressed, with no opportunity for self-expression, to hold public positions, or have social status. Having worked in a few countries in the Middle East, what is your opinion on that matter?
It depends on the country and also where in the country. Like anywhere in the world, cities are generally more diverse and open to different ideas than villages. Saudi Arabia just recently allowed women to drive, where in Lebanon I have encountered female Taxi drivers. As an obvious foreigner, I am treated differently than women who are from the country or culture, so I can’t speak from personal experience. I would say that women don’t have the same opportunities as men do.
Some say that Arab women are finding in art, as opposed to other fields, a world that is open to them. And they are welcome in that field partly because most men ignore the power of art, as they consider it harmless. Do you agree/disagree with that sentiment, and why?
In geopolitics we have hard power and soft power. Art is a part of culture and culture is soft power. It plays a different role than hard power but it has influence just the same. I don’t think it should be underestimated.
Gaza is a fascinating place. The blockade and the complete isolation that people face is by far the most damaging thing. The Internet allows people exposure to the outside world, but they are unable to travel and so few travelers are able to visit them. It’s the perfect breeding ground for radicalization, yet so many of the people we met and worked with were pacifists. The lack of opportunity is what plagues people in Gaza.
For the “Open Space” project, your focus shifted this time on gender parity. I was wondering how it was received by the local community.
We worked with the local community to develop the concepts, so it was well received. We had a few people in some of the places that opposed the ideas, but the art jump-starts conversation and that’s what we aim to do.
“Paint Outside the lines” project in Beirut came to a halt after Ernesto Maranje and Kevin Ledo painted their murals. Could you shed a light as to what happened?
Along with Myrna Domit and film maker Selina Miles I spent a month in Beirut. We worked with artists and Lebanese communities to paint a couple wall in the city and in the refugee camp of Bourj el-Barajneh. Ernesto, Kevin and two other artists, Suhaib Attar and Fintan Magee worked with youth and elderly refugees from the United Lebanon Youth Project. Thanks to the support of donors and organizers in Miami, the project was made possible. No one was paid and everyone donated their time, however we underestimated the costs of lifts and general logistics in Beirut. We were there in August, which is a busy and expensive time in the country. Fintan experienced some issues involving government regulation of street art regarding the concept he created with Palestinian refugees so he wasn’t able to paint a wall. Due to limited funding we weren’t able to finish the walls planned with Ashekman, Ruben Sanchez, Jad El Khoury, Moe Calligraffiti and Ali Rafei. We’re hoping to finish the remaining walls in 2018. If anyone would like to support the work, we’re currently looking for funding. Every little bit helps.
Of all the projects that aptART was involved in, which project was the most rewarding for you?
I would say the projects in Zaatari Refugee Camp from 2013 to 2014. It was also probably the toughest conditions. We worked with the organization ACTED and it was during Ramadan in the hottest months of the year. Specifically, there were these boys who worked with wheelbarrows and we painted them together. Below I put a little excerpt that explains the project. It’s from a book we’re working on:
Policy and practicality are often at odds. Officially the residents of Zaatari refugee camp are not permitted to leave. No persons or goods are to enter or exit unless granted official permission from the Jordanian authorities. The reality in 2013 however was a different scenario. There were and still are today bustling markets filled with food, household goods and clothing smuggled through the gates or loopholes in the perimeter of tanks and trenches that surround the camp. The main shopping street inside was even nicknamed “Champs-Élysées,” highlighting the amount of merchants and items available, if you had the money. Given the general lack of transport available to residents of Zaatari, the main mode of transport for these items to move throughout the camp, as well as into it, was the wheelbarrow.
Wheelbarrows dotted the landscape, and groups of young boys were always attached. For a small fee you could hire one of these boys, each had their own story as to why they worked, but they were some of the child laborers of the camp. We often invited them to paint with us, but they always shrugged us off, claiming there was work to be done and they had no time for childish things. One cold winter day around February 2014 someone had the idea to paint the wheelbarrows. It was a long shot that turned into one of the greatest child involvement success stories, maybe ever. Queues of excited wheelbarrow boys and their entourages would start in the morning, and we would go until the paint ran out with kids still asking for more. Over several months we painted wheelbarrows with more than 150 kids, each with their own unique design and concept.
Outside of the helping realm, away from screens, what activities occupy your time? Is it difficult to find a balance between “work” and “play”?
The “work” versus “play” balance the single most important thing a person can learn. I’ve border lined on a burn out many time because I didn’t understand how important it is to step away from work. I love my work and when you love something sometimes it’s hard to put it aside, but if you don’t, you’re useless to everyone. My activities outside of work mostly entail surfing. I love surfing! I also volunteer with a skateboarding organization called Make Life Skate Life (MLSL). With MLSL I help organize the building of skateparks with kids and their communities in places that don’t have the means to build one independently.
Tell us something about you that would surprise our readers?
I have never owned a car.
What can we look forward to seeing from you next? What projects do you have planned?
I’m working with one of the other artists, Jonathan Darby on an aptART book concept at the moment. It will be a retrospective of sorts chronicling the past 7 years of work. I would also really like to do some work with communities in Mosul, Iraq as they rebuild. Like everything, it’s just a matter of finding the funding.
Thank you so much Samantha for your time!