Migrant contributions to art and culture

Ten amazing works of art by amazing migrants

For many creative people, moving overseas shapes their identities and the work they produce. That’s because many migrants often bring their traditions and combine them with the culture of their new surroundings. And the results are often spectacular. From music to architecture, and from literature to contemporary art, discover some of the greatest work produced by migrants. 

1. Willem de Kooning

De Kooning is considered one of the founders of Abstract Expression – an art movement based on emotional and spontaneous creation. A prominent figure in the New York art world, his arrival in the Big Apple was anything but. That’s because de Kooning emigrated to the USA from the Netherlands by stowing away on a freight ship. Although the Abstract Impressionist movement would be made more famous by the likes of Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Helen Frankenthaler, it’s de Kooning who is considered its most important figure. Among his many accolades, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964.   

2. Gloria Estefan

Gloria Estefan and her family fled to Miami during the Cuban Revolution, when she was just a baby. Estefan grew up to become one of the most successful crossover artists in music history, infusing pop tunes with her love of Cuban music and selling an estimated 100 million records along the way. With a monumental $500 million net worth, the Queen of Latin Pop has plenty to sing about

3. Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi

Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi is one of the leading African poets writing in Arabic today, after gaining recognition for his imaginative approach to emotional lyrics. 

Saddiq was born in Sudan in 1969 where he lived until being forced into exile in 2012. At the time, he was the cultural editor of Al-Sudani newspaper and had just been removed during the uprising against the dictatorship of Omar Al-Bashir. 

Saddiq only escaped imprisonment thanks to the miraculous timing of the Poetry Parnassus, the world’s largest-ever poetry gathering. Fortunately, he was attending the event in London when a series of mass arrests took place. He successfully applied for asylum and is now living in the UK.

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4. Dame Zaha Hadid

Migrant contributions to art and culture

Zaha Hadid was born in Iraq and moved to the UK after graduating from the University of Beirut in 1972.  Hadid studied mathematics as an undergraduate and then enrolled at the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London. Indeed, her mathematical influences, especially in geometry, can be seen in her most famous designs like the Sheikh Zayed Bridge in Abu Dhabi (pictured above).

The first woman to win the Pritzker Architecture Prize, her work and designs are all over the world, including the Bridge Pavilion in Zaragoza (Spain), the Evelyn Grace Academy in London (UK), and the Guangzhou Opera House (China).

5. Fela Kuti

Nigerian bandleader Fela Kuti is known for creating the Afrobeat genre – but that nearly didn’t happen. Firstly, he moved to London from Nigeria to study medicine but decided to study music instead at the Trinity College of Music. Secondly, upon arriving at the college he didn’t meet the criteria for enrolment. 

But realising how far Fela had travelled coupled with his love of music, an administrator at the college allowed him to enrol on the course. From there, Fela would go on to form his first band Koola Lobitos which would go on to fuse jazz and African highlife music to create afrobeat.

6. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie 

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s best-known work is her 2013 book Americanah, the story of a young Nigerian girl’s migration from her homeland to America. Her own story draws parallels to her famous book. 

At the age of 19, Adichie left Nigeria for the United States to study communications and political science at Drexel University in Philadelphia. However, in 2003, she completed a master’s degree in creative writing at Johns Hopkins University and later, a master of arts degree in African studies from Yale University. 

Americanah would go on to win numerous awards including the Chicago Tribune‘s Heartland Award for Fiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

7. Tamara de Lempicka

Tamara de Lempicka was born in Poland and spent her working life in France and the United States. She was known for her Art Deco artistic style characterised by precise and boldly delineated geometric shapes and strong colours. Lempicka was bisexual and she made bold, liberated female sexuality the linchpin of her art.

Her work often depicted her female lovers and other women in pairs or groups thus challenging the traditional way of depicting a nude woman for the pleasure of the male viewer. Several of her paintings including Self-Portrait in a Green Bugatti have had numerous admirers including the famous American singer Madonna.

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8. Frank Gehry

Migrant contributions to art and culture

Frank Gehry is a Canadian architect and designer who rose to prominence in the US. Gehry’s buildings are primarily inspired by his love of fish, mainly their scales and curvature as evident in projects like Barcelona’s Port Olimpico (above) and Louis Vuitton Foundation (Paris).

Technically speaking, his style is known as deconstructivist, a movement in postmodern architecture where elements of the design appear to be disjointed. To enhance this look, Gehry primarily uses corrugated metals which give his buildings an unfinished appearance.

9. Mika

When Mika was a year old, his family was forced to leave war-torn Lebanon and moved to Paris, France where he first learnt to play the piano. At the age of 7, he wrote his first piano instrumental, and at nine, his family settled in the UK. In 2008, the singer won an Ivor Novello Award for the Best Selling British Song “Grace Kelly”. 

The French-Lebanese singer was awarded the Lebanese National Order of Merit – Silver Palm, for his ‘I Love Beirut’ concert. The show featured nearly a dozen guest singers, including Kylie Minogue and Lebanese poet Etel Adnan. Proceeds from the show went to Red Cross Lebanon and Save the Children, which both remain involved in the recovery efforts in Beirut.

10. Jacob Epstein

Sir Jacob Epstein was the son of Jewish refugees who helped pioneer modern sculpture. He was born in the United States, and moved to Europe in 1902, later becoming a British citizen in 1911. He often produced controversial works which challenged ideas on what was appropriate subject matter for public viewing. Some of his most famous work includes the Oscar Wilde tomb in Père Lachaise Cemetery (Paris) and the bust of Winston Churchill (London and Washington DC).

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