Before he fled Myanmar in 2017, a witness to unspeakable horrors in his Rohingya village, Mohammed Nur would produce art in hiding, drawing on napkins and trash with bits of charcoal. Art, poetry readings and a university education were among many aspects of life that were not allowed for Rohingya Muslims like himself.
As his village was set ablaze, part of a campaign of mass slaughter, rape and arson by the Myanmar military and mobs from the country’s Buddhist majority, Nur, then 22, escaped with five family members, leaving behind “burning people,” including his beloved uncle. By day, they concealed themselves in holes covered with dirt, traveling at night. A week later they crossed the Naf River, the perilous liquid border between Myanmar and Bangladesh. Along with hundreds of thousands of others, Nur and his family set up new lives in ramshackle tarpaulin and bamboo shacks in Kutupalong, what is now the largest refugee settlement in the world — a fraught and densely packed environment seemingly at odds with art.
Yet in this unlikeliest of places, Nur has finally achieved his long-held goal of becoming an artist. He is one of 25 Rohingya and local Bangladeshi muralists who have earned the nickname “ronger manus” — the colorful people. He and fellow Rohingya artists, all trauma survivors, are using the power of the paintbrush to create life-affirming — and potentially lifesaving murals — about Covid-19, safe hygiene practices, neonatal care, the dangers of domestic violence and other public health concerns. Folk art with a message, roughly 200 murals adorn everything from latrines and health clinic waiting rooms to “monsoon walls” snaking up hillsides, meant to prevent mudslides in heavy rains.
Muralists like Nur, who in turn teach children, are part of an ambitious initiative by Artolution, a New York-based arts education nonprofit working in global crisis zones that include refugee camps in southern Bangladesh where roughly 740,000 Rohingya fled in 2017. The organization’s mission is to deploy the arts as a humanitarian tool. Its executive director and co-founder, Max Frieder, an intrepid 31-year-old dreadlocked artist and educator, trains refugees within the camps to become muralists and teachers, drawing on and augmenting their own flourishing craft traditions.
Nur’s views on the healing powers of creativity have expanded since his early, secretive drawings. “Artwork is food for the mind,” he said. “When we draw, our ideas become more open. It’s a way to make a voice to the world.”
The Rohingya, whose culture is based on oral tradition, have high illiteracy rates because of a lack of access to education in rural areas, especially for women. Murals offer a universal language. Placed strategically throughout the camps, they provide refugees the opportunity to shape their harsh and chaotic surroundings with dollops of color and pertinent narratives.
A mural in Kutupalong addresses the issue of forced child marriage through a portrait of a young girl in a vibrant red hijab weeping as her husband stands impassively beside her. In another the facade of a women’s community center is covered with a huge eye suggesting the wakefulness of Rohingya mothers fearful of harm once again befalling their children.
Frieder, a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, with a doctorate in art and arts education from Columbia University’s Teachers College, arrived in the Rohingya camps shortly after the 2017 wave of refugees, with the intention of identifying artists who might be resourceful enough to shepherd the mural project in his absence.
“Arts and culture need to be at the forefront of the humanitarian response,” said Frieder, who has created similar programs at the sprawling Bidi Bidi camp for South Sudanese refugees in northwest Uganda and elsewhere. “But the images and stories need to come from the hands and voices of the refugees themselves,” he added.
Frieder began knocking on doors in remote areas asking people if they knew any Rohingya artists. Eventually, he connected with Nur, who had heard about a crazy American looking for potential muralists. “People tell me, ‘Sir, you must show us one drawing every day,” Nur said.
For the artists — who have collectively witnessed killings, disappearances, sexual violence toward loved ones and their communities obliterated — the freedom to document issues and experiences can be transformative. This is especially true for women, whose lives are circumscribed by conservative social strictures and deeply held stigmas about working outside the home.
Dildar Begum, 22, now a leader and teaching artist, did not speak for nine months after her arrival in Bangladesh. Her husband disappeared in what she calls “the clash.” She saw dead bodies floating in rice paddies and her close friend was raped and killed. “I wasn’t able to speak because I didn’t feel anything — that I was alive,” she said with the help of a translator. She was speaking of her life before atrocities committed by the military, or Tatmadaw, which recently seized power in Myanmar and has used live ammunition against protesters.
Begum gradually reclaimed her voice by sharing memories with other women about what they missed — cows, mango trees, flowers — and recreating them in murals. “They say ‘Oh my gosh, we cannot believe we are able to see our home!” she said. “I tried to make them understand that beautiful drawings can transform trauma.”
Boshirullah, a refugee whose flowing gray beard befits his status as an elder, was forced to watch the rape of his daughter. He was then beaten so severely that he collapsed. “In Myanmar, I became older with many sorrows,” he said.
He somehow made it to a hospital in Bangladesh; before his discharge, a doctor instructed him “to do something to make you happy,” he said.
He connected with Artolution through word of mouth. Already a gifted artist, mandolin and flute player, singer and storyteller, Boshirullah had honed his talents as a boy in what was then Burma. That was before ethnic tensions reached a breaking point and the national identification cards of Sunni Muslim Rohingya were confiscated. Over time, the government took control of prayer, marriage and burial. “Now we are a lost generation,” Boshirullah said.
On a recent Zoom call he sat cross-legged on the ground with his mandolin, accompanied by a friend on a red tambourine. He sang a song he composed about crossing the border. Being reunited with the arts, and mentoring children in the camps, has been “a rebirth,” he said. “Art is not only my medicine,” he added. “It is my life.”
Artolution’s efforts and its $1 million annual budget are bolstered by partnerships the group has forged with the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, UNICEF, the World Health Organization and other entities.
A W.H.O. study last year underscored the benefits of the arts to mental and physical health and well-being. Frieder’s work with Rohingya muralists coincides with Artolution programs in the Azraq camp for Syrian refugees in Jordan, and with programs for displaced Venezuelans in Cali, Colombia, led by the group’s chief executive and co-founder, Joel Bergner, an artist. Their efforts are part of a growing international awareness of the positive role of the arts in fostering resilience in public health emergencies — from the Liberian musicians who produced radio hits to inform people about the Ebola virus to comic books and board games addressing H.I.V. and teenage pregnancy in Uganda.
Jill Sonke, director of the Center for Arts in Medicine at the University of Florida, said that in contrast to typical public service announcements,“aesthetic experiences linger in the senses so the ideas stay with you.”
The recent military coup has underscored the futility of hopes that the Rohingya might one day safely return to Myanmar, furthering a widespread sense of despair in the camps, advocates of refugees say.
Suza Uddin, Artolution’s coordinator on the ground for the artists, said the relocation by Bangladeshi authorities of some 7,000 refugees from the camps to Bhasan Char, a remote island of silt in the Bay of Bengal, has exacerbated the feeling of hopelessness. “They’re living under the shadow of the dark,” he said.
In Bangladesh, where Frieder spends months at a time, he shares the fundamentals of composition, color theory, and age-old Indigenous art practices from Mexico and elsewhere with the new painters. “We don’t want to create a Western-focused idea of what art needs to look like,” he said. Many muralists, especially women, have incorporated motifs from Rohingya textiles and other traditional crafts into their work, from henna and embroidery patterns to images of elephants and other animals that recall woodworking artisanry. Themes emerge from lively conversations among the artists and the refugee community about which issues to represent.
Frieder — whom the artists call “the Max” — typically begins by asking groups of children, sometimes 100 or more, to sit in a circle, eyes closed, as he plays a meditation drum. He sometimes shows up in costume as a zany “paint creature” with a multicolored brain, a trunk nose and pockets full of art supplies.
“Max doesn’t teach — he oozes something that kids grasp,” said Vik Muniz, the Brazilian artist and star of the 2010 documentary “Wasteland.” “He looks into their eyes like he’s jumped out of some sort of mythological book.”
Muniz, a UNESCO good-will ambassador, has visited the camp twice and is collaborating with Frieder on a documentary. Observing children who have never seen paint is “life-changing,” Muniz said. “They put it on their face and do everything short of drinking it.”
The visual arts are supplemented by music and dance workshops taught by Bashirullah and a young break dancer who taught himself while in Myanmar by accessing Bollywood films from India through a SIM card. Artolution pays teaching artists a full-time stipend, a rare source of income for a population dependent on outside food assistance and unable to work or go to school in Bangladesh.
The explosion of refugees has taxed local resources and worsened tensions between the Rohingya and the Bangladeshi. Art, though not a panacea, has been a mini-bridge: Early on, Artolution trained groups of Bangladeshi and Rohingya youths to create murals together.
Safety remains a tremendous concern in the camps. It is not uncommon to see physical abuse of wives or children play out in public. Gang warfare over lucrative cross-border drug smuggling and sex-trafficking result in an undercurrent of violence at night.
The murals are an opportunity for those whose past has been erased to “leave a mark of your presence,” said Lena Verdeli, the director of the Global Mental Health Lab at Columbia University’s Teachers College.
They can also help change the perception of what is possible, particularly for youth, said Steven Corliss, the U.N. Refugee Agency’s representative in Bangladesh. “The most important thing we can do for children is retain their dignity and self-worth in a situation where there is not a clear way forward,” he said.
Two years ago, the agency donated 15 bamboo structures for an Artolution ad hoc art school. The young artists promptly covered every inch with painted stories, many portraying the flight from Myanmar and portraits of family members still there.
That was before the pandemic brought the village to a standstill, presenting the artists and Frieder with perhaps their greatest challenge.
Since last March, when the authorities closed the camps to all but public health personnel, the artists have been producing murals about the coronavirus from their cramped homes. Some portray the virus as green Grinch-like beings with spiky hair hovering menacingly over humanity. Others illustrate the precautions necessary for daily life, from hand sanitizers to masked friends social-distancing like repelling ends of a magnet.
Begum and her fellow artists had a digital tête-à-tête with local imams who were concerned about the transmission of Covid-19 at the mosque, especially men sharing prayer mats. The imams wanted a mural that might encourage people to bring their own mats.
The result is a charming panorama showing worshipers engaged in prayer on their own mats placed six feet apart. The work, painted by Beauty Aktar and Sharmin Jahan, two female Bangladeshi artists, remains proudly installed at the entrance to the main mosque.
The artists have been sharing their latest creations by smartphone and Zoom arranged by Uddin, who has interviewed witnesses to mass graves in Myanmar and considers art a counterbalance to the prevailing sense of trauma. “It asks, ‘What is your future?” he said. “What beautiful things are in your mind?” It helps people understand Rohingya artists “not as survivors but as human beings.”
In Balukhali camp, there is a mural of a big fish releasing little fish in a blue sea. The big fish represents the Rohingya. The small fish are their sufferings.
In Kutupalong, Nur and his wife, Hasina, sleep beneath ceilings blanketed in rich textiles, installed according to tradition by family members on the night of a couple’s wedding. The pair has been painting a mural recalling their home village in Myanmar — they call it “the motherland” — while caring for their baby, Fatima.
“Art is a voice, a language,” Nur observed. “It was something we already had within us.”