Spotlight on Anna Olsson: The artist using textiles to fight the refugee crisis

Anna Olsson is an artist working from Sweden. Although her name is largely unknown, her recent exhibit of works in Edinburgh has been praised as one not be missed. Why? Her work communicates often hard-to-speak-about topics without appearing intimidating or patronising.

Using art to inspire political awareness is nothing new. Artists such as Banksy, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo all used their artistic space to highlight social and political injustices. Likewise, Olsson’s textile work focuses on asylum seekers and the struggles that come with being a refugee. In a statement explaining her work, Olsson commented that “My art is driven by political vision… There is much to be frightened by today – climate change, right-wing populism, racism.” She continues to say that her desire to portray asylum seekers in particular was driven by the fact that “they rarely have a voice in public life. I’ve had the privilege of hearing their stories and feel obliged to testify for them.” Her work is thus helping voices of a largely ignored segment of society to be heard, with hopes that it might help contribute to people’s understanding of why they have been forced to abandon their home.

Before working as an artist, Olsson worked as a psychologist – primarily helping young people who were convicted of crimes. It is therefore somewhat unsurprising that her tapestries look particularly in depth at the stories of children and young adults. It also adds to just how touching her works appear: Hand woven portraits of those who have been denied a safe upbringing. Like a mother’s hand knitted blanket, Olsson’s work has been crafted with the love and care of someone who is trying to protect the vulnerable.

Olsson’s tapestry To Me You are Valuable highlights just 9 of the many subjects she has looked to tell the story of. Each person is depicted to be looking directly at the viewer, with a colourful, patterned background behind them. Their gazes are strong and defiant. As a viewer, you can’t help but feel as if you have just been the listener to each of their testimonies.

Art such as this, which so thoughtfully addresses political issues is incredibly powerful. As the old saying goes, an image can speak a thousand words. In the case of Olsson’s art, it is most definitely true.

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Elizabeth Woor

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January 2022
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