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Aren’t We All Potential Refugees by Corina Karstenberg (Netherlands)

Twenty years ago I saw some black and white pictures in The Times made of people that were murdered by the Red Khmer in Cambodia. One woman looked at me right in the eyes. The expression in her face struck me and for the first time I made a portrait of somebody with material I had lying around.

After finishing the portrait I looked at her and called her Potential Refugee as she didn’t had the chance to flee from the cruelty that surrounded her in search for a safer place; and even if she could have done this you can wonder if she would have found a place that welcomes her with open arms and dried her tears and softened her sorrow.

Since that moment I made several portraits of people that had or still have to deal with injustice, but who stand proudly for their human dignity and who fight for their rights. In The Netherlands on October 26, 2005 the Schiphol Fire took place whereby thirteen refugees lost their lives. Why ? Because there was a growing political and public awareness that the refugees where to blame for abusing the Dutch system, which resulted in a prison for ‘illegals’ that was built quickly with material that burned down easily. The people who died were not criminals, the only ‘crime’ they committed was that they wanted to live a peaceful life. By making this painting my idea about the portrait of the Potential Refugee developed into the title Aren’t We All Potential Refugees ? I renamed the portrait as a reflection for anyone who thinks their freedom last for long.

Last year the opening of the exhibition Aren’t We All Potential Refugees was on October 26 in Amsterdam. That day it was exactly nine years since the Schiphol Fire took place. Some weeks before the opening I met one of the survivors, his name is Papa Sakho from Senegal, he is a painter. I asked him to join me with his paintings and that we take a moment at the opening of the exhibition to remember the people who have died that day, nine years ago. Some other survivors of the Schiphol Fire came, and some refugees who are now living on the streets of Amsterdam attended at the opening. We stood in a circle and took one minute silence, and started to discuss the paintings and current situation of refugees especially the ones that are called ‘illegal’. It was an emotional meeting, but important for all of us to show a human face to injustice.

I was born in in 1967 in The Netherlands, near the Belgian border. She grew up in Stein, a small village nearby before her family moved to Heerlen, a former mining town. After obtaining her first qualification as a florist, she became a qualified carpenter and upholsterer. When she was twenty years old, she started to study wood and polychromy restoration at the Brussels Academy of Visual Arts.

During her five years of studies, she started to read books by Simone Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Friederich Nietzsche, Gabriel García Márquez, etc… In the meantime she studied the basics of painting at the Art Academy in Leuven under the supervision of Pol Mariën. This period has been very influential for her later artistic development; she spent her last two years in Belgium. Corina worked as a ethnographic art restorer in the Central African department at the Royal Museum in Tervuren (Brussels). She also worked closely with art dealers who specialised in African Art from the famous Place du Grand Sablon.

Coarina’s multicultural experience convinced her to quit job as a restorer and she started to study at the Radboud University in Nijmegen in The Netherlands. Her aim was to better understand what had happened to the people in Africa, and how they had come to be treated as objects. The first part of her study involved Religion, covering Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism. After completing her bachelor, Corina continued at the Department of Arts and studied the History of Culture and Mentality (of Europe). In Swansea (Wales, 1999/2000) she wrote her final paper ’The history of the development of gender categories’. These two studies gave her renewed insights into how the world is influenced not only by Religion and the dominant Western Culture but also by binaries of gender, race and identity.

In the meantime, for nine years Corina worked as a volunteer for an anti-discrimination organisation based in her former home town of Heerlen.

As a professional she also worked for the government, employed to advise and liaise around issues of sex trafficking, drug addiction, poverty, diversity and gender and sexuality. In general she feels fortunate in her life to have had the chance to look into many kitchens, and to be able to confront and imagine reality from many different points of views. This makes her feel a true citizen of the world. It was almost exactly twenty years ago that Corina painted her first portrait of a woman murdered by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and gave it the telling title Potential Refugee.

Since that moment Corina became more and confident about her artwork, which she continued to develop in a natural way and according to her own particular style. Human Rights remains the core of her attachment through art and her life’s work to people all over the world, wherever there is a story to tell. In a way you can see her painting as being the work of a story teller that gives people a human face through the images she makes. In 2012 Corina’s first solo-exhibition was in Brussels, and the title: ‘Aren’t We All Potential Refugees’ was a reminder of the continuity of her vision in spite of the passing of time.

As with all articles published in WCA, the opinions expressed and factual research are entirely those of the article’s author.

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