Refugee Nation, Yara Said. Refugee Flag. 2016. Nylon, 44 × 58" (111.8 × 147.3 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Refugee Nation. Installation view, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, January 2018. Digital Image © 2020 MoMA, NY. Photo: Manuel Martagon

At the opening ceremonies of the 2016 Rio Olympics, for the first time, a group of refugee athletes carried a flag symbolizing their temporary Refugee Nation. Yara Said’s design for the Refugee Flag draws inspiration from orange life vests and her personal experience of crossing the sea from Turkey to Greece. We recognize World Refugee Day—which has its 20th anniversary on June 20—as an opportunity to raise awareness of the millions of refugees worldwide who are forced into exile because of natural disaster, persecution, conflict, and war. Arièle Dionne-Krosnick, curatorial assistant in the Department of Architecture and Design, corresponded with Said about the flag and how it signals survival, resilience, and agency.

How did Refugee Nation approach you and ask you to design the Refugee Flag?

I was contacted by the Refugee Nation in June 2016, when I was doing a two-year residency at a studio in Amsterdam, Netherlands. I received an email asking me to design a flag for a refugee team that was going to the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in August. I had one month to design it, and complete freedom to choose the design. They had formed a 17-day temporary nation, and this nation would have an anthem by Istanbul-based composer Moutaz Arian. The “residents” were 10 athletes from the Republic of the Congo, South Sudan, Syria, and Ethiopia. A flag would bring all of these athletes together who could not be represented by their own countries due to the political situation.

Original sketch book of the Refugee Nation flag thought process

Original sketch book of the Refugee Nation flag thought process

What were you trying to communicate with your design choices for the flag?

Before agreeing to design the flag, I was really curious to understand more about the people behind the gesture. I asked for information about the athletes and the context of their participation. My mind was blown: I was extremely touched by the amount of strength and resistance these athletes showed. It made me feel less singular in my own struggle as a recently relocated artist in a new country, and reconfirmed my astonishment with human survival. These athletes were running, swimming, and fighting for their beliefs in a different form of activism.

I based the design without any hesitation on my own experience of crossing the sea from Turkey to Greece in a life vest, which turned out—as often is the case—to be poorly made. After moving to Amsterdam I became familiar with the life vest graveyard located in Greece—a dump that contains thousands of life vests. These life vests were worn by thousands of humans—mothers, daughters, students, workers, doctors, and children—who all shared one experience: crossing from danger to safety. Usually a life vest protects people, but in this case it was harming them; it was a sign of danger and an indication of where the Western and Eastern political agendas stand in our age. The colors of the flag are black and orange. The flag is supposed to form a life vest when wrapped around the body, offering the audience a brief moment of association.

What did you learn when you researched flag design?

On the practical side of the design process I started researching what a flag should look like and what it means: A flag is a signal, a sign of life, a human presence.

I also made sure that it would follow three rules:
*A maximum of three colors
*Minimalist in design
*It should look like a six-year-old could also draw it or make it (which was extremely fun because I am quite playful with my artworks).

From there I started sketching. My own experience made the decision-making process quite easy. I was making an artwork that, like all of my other works, represented me and my experiences.

Refugee Nation, Yara Said. Refugee Flag. 2016

Refugee Nation, Yara Said. Refugee Flag. 2016

The presence of war shaped my artistic practice daily. It was something I couldn’t run away from at that time so I tried to fight back through painting and making.

Yara Said

What did it mean to you to see the Refugee Flag carried by refugee athletes at the 2016 Rio Olympics?

It was a very beautiful moment. I remember crying very hard when I watched one video, in which athlete Popole Misenga talked about how much it meant to him to be at the Olympics. He was hoping that if his family saw him on television (he was separated from his family at a very young age), they would recognize him and contact him. It meant the world to me to be able to offer a very small gesture to these amazing people. I was speechless.

You’ve said that the beginning of the war in Syria sparked your artistic practice. How so?

I became an artist during the war. I started painting when I was three years old but had official artistic training when I was 16, and since then I have never stopped making art. The presence of war shaped my artistic practice daily. It was something I couldn’t run away from at that time so I tried to fight back through painting and making. I still do that in different ways. I hope for the emergence of a new kind of activism, which I believe is already happening, that will create space to understand both the oppressed and the oppressor, without judgments or expectations. And I want to be a part of it :)

Do you see your role as an artist intersecting with politics or activism?

In one of her interviews, Nina Simone talks about the duty of the artist, and my own thoughts are transmitted through her words:

An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times. I think that is true of painters, sculptors, poets, musicians. As far as I’m concerned, it’s their choice, but I CHOOSE to reflect the times and situations in which I find myself. That, to me, is my duty. And at this crucial time in our lives, when everything is so desperate, when everyday is a matter of survival, I don’t think you can help but be involved. Young people, black and white, know this. That’s why they’re so involved in politics. We will shape and mold this country or it will not be molded and shaped at all anymore. So I don’t think you have a choice. How can you be an artist and NOT reflect the times? That to me is the definition of an artist.

This interview appears in conjunction with MoMA’s free online course What Is Contemporary Art? on Coursera.

Courtesy Yara Said

Courtesy Yara Said