Speaking for Ourselves

Detained Davincis: Artists in Lithuania draw attention to the plight of asylum-seekers

Detained Davincis: Artists in Lithuania draw attention to the plight of asylum-seekers

Gabriela Ramirez, Unbias the News

 Migrant Voice - Detained Davincis: Artists in Lithuania draw attention to the plight of asylum-seekers

How a civil society organization connected with artists caught up in Lithuania's unlawful immigrant detention policy.

This article was originally published on Unbias The News, a platform for journalists who experience structural barriers in the field. We are republishing the first part of this article here; read the whole story on Unbias The News.

Written and photographed by Gabriela Ramirez | Edited by Tina Lee | Illustration by Yorgos Konstantinou

In May 2021, several thousand people crossed from Belarus into Lithuania, seeking asylum in the European Union. One year later, most remain in detention, unable to make their case to authorities. But some have found a way to connect to the outside through their art.

“I have seen her paintings and drawings… like Leonardo da Vinci,” says one of the security guards while he checks my personal belongings. We are inside a bright blue shipping container about 6 m long by 2.44 m wide in Medininkai, a Lithuanian city bordering Belarus and home to one of five refugee camps across the country where nearly 4.000 people have been detained in precarious conditions since last summer.

He’s talking about Anna*, a woman I am here to visit.

Like the famed Renaissance artist, the human body is incorporated into many of her paintings, but unlike Da Vinci, Anna’s artwork is filled with bright colors and shows women surrounded by flowers and natural scenery.

Another difference between Anna and Da Vinci is that Anna does not use a wooden easel but rather the barbed-wire fence that borders the refugee camp where she has lived for the last 11 months as the primary support for her canvas.

This confined space is nothing new to Anna, a 22-year-old originally from Iraq. She has been living in a container like this with three other Iraqi women for almost a year. Her only new experience today is our visit.

“I know. They are beautiful. So sad that so many Da Vincis need to be imprisoned here,” I reply to the security guard’s comment about Anna’s paintings. He nods while he seems to be trying to look for the right answer. Breaking the silence, he says: “It’s politics. It’s all about politics. I just work and follow instructions.”

After that, the security guard gives instructions to a young female soldier to bring Anna while he continues to look into some bags I brought containing frames, canvas, watercolors, brushes, and other donated materials collected by the Sienos Group, an initiative that started in November 2021 to support the migrants coming to Lithuania.

Anna comes with a contagious smile and watery eyes. She doesn’t recall when was the last time she had received a visit from anyone. She has gone more than seven years without seeing her family, but today her unique paintings allow her to receive a personal visit, even when those visiting are complete strangers to her.

Though their artistic styles vary widely, the ability to connect to the outside world through art is something the detainees helped by the Sienos Group share in common.

Read the full story on Unbias the News.

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