Sinthujan Varatharajah

MIA released her latest video "Borders" recently and caused, as she so often does, an Internet uproar. Her self-directed video is a visual commentary on border regimes and the so-called "refugee crisis." Similar to her previous works, "Borders" immediately gave birth to a number of critical conversations across social media on the politics behind MIA’s imagery. 

In her video, the 40-year-old multimedia artist performs in front of a large number of male actors who climb border fences, are cramped together on fishing boats, build a human vessel and sit in thermal blankets on wave breakers. The slick video is impressive and beautiful, to say the least. But it also carries a scathing political message by critiquing the nation-states that construct borders to separate the "haves" from the "have-nots" of this world. In addition, the lyrics also mock hashtag activism by asking "Slaying it / Whats up with that?... Love wins/Whats up with that?" 

So far, the video has received widespread critical acclaim and has been called both "daring" and "timely." Since its launch, it has been described and labeled across media as "MIA travelling with refugees" or "MIA embarking on a refugee journey". Some journalists wondered why it was MIA, rather than Kanye West, Rihanna or Bono, who first approached the topic of refugees. Others were in awe of the British Tamil artists’ ability to metaphorically visualise an issue that has been marked by dehumanising labels and imageries with, for instance, refugees climbing in a pattern across wire fences to spell "LIFE" with their bodies.

Critics, however, have not been absent. MIA was accused by some of having "exploited" refugees, portraying them as "faceless masses" of dark-skinned people, and "invisibilising" female refugees. Leaving aside that it is probably not refugees but actors who perform in MIA’s video, it’s been remarkable how little attention has been brought to the fact that MIA isn't just making political commentary on a current crisis. In fact, the discussion on MIA's own facebook page is still raging.

Unlike Kanye West, Rihanna or "white savior" Bono, MIA is not just any ordinary artist with political interests, but a former refugee herself. This isn’t news, per se, but a trajectory that can be followed throughout her many works. MIA has integrated her Tamil refugee identity throughout her long career, long before there were ambivalent concerns or sensationalist interest for refugees in the headlines. Yet her autobiography somehow always ends up being obscured when it urgently needed to be considered, as was seen in the analysis of her "Born Free" video, which was directed by Romain Gavras.

MIA’s family fled Sri Lanka and underwent experiences of forced displacement and asylum before MIA became a world-renowned artist. Unlike many other commentators on the crisis, she has personally experienced and trespassed many of the borders that she sings about. When she talks about refugees, she doesn’t just talk about strangers, but about her own community, family and, most importantly, herself. On a telling note, MIA dedicated "Borders" to her uncle, who arrived in the UK in the 1960s and enabled her to survive. The issue of borders is, in other words, not a mere abstraction or theory to MIA, but a very personal tale that reflects her own journey from Jaffna to London. 

MIA's critics fail to consider her history and experiences as a refugee. She isn’t just a director and artist who is able to transmit a media-savvy anti-border message to a hip audience, but also someone who has been subject to the very regimes that she today critiques. So when MIA sits on the vessel sailing through the Indian Ocean, she isn’t just "traveling with refugees" or "accompanying refugees" on their journey, as many reporters have described. No. She is a part of that very journey, albeit positioned in a different tense. Such autobiography with such difficult subject matter is something we only rarely encounter in pop culture.

This is also reflected in some of the imagery used. Scenes in which dark-skinned refugees sail on crammed, colorful fishing boats through the sea or wade through steep water connect to images from the exodus of Tamil people from Sri Lanka towards India and Southeast Asia. Despite such visual and historic connections drawn by the artist, the music video being shot somewhere in South Asia and not Europe (as are many of the Tamil artists’ videos) and being released on Tamil Remembrance Day, Western media somehow still managed to reduce MIA’s political commentary to a Europe-oriented one, rather than a global one.

MIA intentionally erases female refugees, besides her own presence as a former refugee. The absence of women reflects patterns of migration: today, almost 61% percent of refugees arriving in Europe are male, which reflects how conflict and flight are informed by patriarchal systems, and how forced migration is gendered. MIA's decision to cast men only illustrates a play with media misconstructions and racist as well as sexist fears of dark-skinned refugees. The group of young, dark-skinned men do not just wear similar clothes, but also have similar haircuts. Such visual effects enable us to perceive them as masses that lack individuality and diversity – precisely how todays refugees are construed across media. When MIA submerges herself within these masses of dark-skinned men, she stands out by her gender though not by race. She is the in/visible anomaly. This isn’t a coincidence but strategy.

As a Tamil woman and refugee, MIA has been subject to racist and sexist discourses on refugees before they became public grounds of debate. She today applies these tropes as a political strategy to subvert mainstream conceptions on refugees, borders and security regimes. Shorthanded accusations of exploitation made by some, specifically people of color with no refugee background, divorce her from the tremendous work she has done for her own refugee community - and beyond to support refugee advocacy over years. MIA has always articulated her art and politics from the position of a former refugee, a position not many of her critics can claim for themselves. Her "refugee-dom" has always been paramount to her career and has been reflected in her multimedia art long before her most recent video. It was never a trend or bandwagon she jumped upon, but one that was created and picked upon by others: non-refugees.

What needs to also be highlighted is that MIA produced a music video and not a documentary. A five minute music video shouldn’t have to cover every aspect of an incredibly complex political issue. With "Borders," MIA did something we still rarely see in the mainstream: a refugee creating content on refugees for refugees. MIA self-represents, organizes and articulates as a former refugee and creates a powerful message on issues faced by refugees. In her case, however, and in the case of many old refugees who have moved beyond the tropes of refugee-hood (e.g. poverty, paternalism and dependency), she is rarely considered ‘authentic’ as a refugee anymore. According to some, she has gone beyond the normative statute of limitation for refugees set by non-refugees and is thus subject to forms of criticism that dismiss her voice and art in reductive languages as inauthentic and opportunist. But sorry to say, refugees have voices and politics that don’t expire with time. And refugees appear in diversity and can also reclaim against your wishes. These journeys are after all not everyone's - but specifically ours.


Sinthujan Varatharajah is a doctoral student in Political Geography at University College London, University, He holds a Masters in Race, Ethnicity and Postcolonial Studies from the London School of Economics and Political Science and is the founder of Roots of Diaspora, a multimedia storytelling project on refugeehood and migration. Follow him on Twitter @varathas.