From Duke to the United Nations: Building Links Between Art and Migration

October 28, 2021

A headshot of Romina Damini.
Romina Damini, MIDP ’21 (Photo: Courtesy of Romina Damini)

By Milena Ozernova ’22

Originally from Albania, Duke alumna Romina Damini is a law consultant at the UN’s International Organization for Migration in Geneva, Switzerland. Last year, while finishing her master’s degree in International Development Policy at the Sanford School for Public Policy, Romina took part in the Bass Connections project Migration, Urban Cultures and the Arts.

I sat down with Romina to discuss her Bass Connections experience and the way her research influenced her academic and professional trajectory.

“I always noticed that when people move, they bring their traditions and knowledge with them. This is why I have always been curious about how migration affects art, but I could never find much information or a class on this topic,” Romina explained. “I was drawn to this Bass Connections project because it gave me the opportunity to examine how migration shapes the artists’ identities and the art they produce.” The team investigated the impact of migration on local visual cultures and studied its social and political influences on immigrant and non-immigrant populations.

A Communist fresco in Albania.
A Communist fresco in Albania. (Photo: Courtesy of Dennis Jarvis)

In addition to developing her analytical and data-driven research skills, this project helped Romina understand how often artists’ local traditions and practices influence their work produced within their host culture. One of the project’s main themes focused on artistic migration in the Soviet Union and Albania; now that her Bass Connections project has ended, Romina continues to conduct her own research on the effects of Communism on Albanian art.

“Our team worked on two larger projects to examine overarching themes of artistic migration, both historically and in the 20th century,” Romina said. “Students worked with specific case studies focused on the Eighty Years’ War [1568–1648] and its effects on artist migration in the Netherlands and Belgium, as well as communism and artistic migration in the Soviet Union, Albania and Hong Kong, she continued.”

“We also researched ECARTICO,” a comprehensive collection of biographical data concerning painters, book sellers, goldsmiths and others involved in the Low Countries’ cultural industries, “to look at early-modern migration in and out of Amsterdam and Antwerp. We conducted data-driven research that combined humanities and social sciences and summarized our research findings in the final project, which we presented at the Bass Connections Showcase.”

The Night Watch by Rembrandt.
“The Night Watch” by Rembrandt in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam (Photo: Courtesy of Vaclav Pluhar)

One of the four graduate students on her team, Romina became a leader of a subgroup that examined Albania, Russia and Hong Kong in the 20th century. She was responsible for designing potential research questions and examining overarching themes of artistic migration in the 20th century. “My role was to think about which variables would be useful, and what types of documents might be available to mine for data,” Romina added.

However, when tackling larger research topics or brainstorming shared challenges, all team members had to collaborate to find solutions to their challenges. “Our main challenge was finding the data. It was very difficult to identify potential data sources and figure out which variables would be useful, and what types of documents we should be looking for,” Romina explained. “But our team leaders helped a lot. We made a round during our Zoom meetings to brainstorm avenues for further research as a team.”

Despite having to participate in the project online during the pandemic, Romina loved the learning environment. “I have built great relationships with both faculty and other students,” Romina said. “In terms of the projects, my team members were fundamental to success. I felt supported and this helped me better engage in learning and producing strong research.”

The team's research on the Eighty Years' War and its effect on migration in the low countries.
The team’s research on The Eighty Years’ War and its Effect on Artist Migration in the Low Countries

Conducting in-depth research on a narrow topic during a pandemic was a challenge, but through collaboration and with the guidance of their faculty leaders, the team members were able to improve their research skills, troubleshoot their problems and deliver impressive results.

“To me, Bass Connections seemed almost like a personal project,” Romina said. “My experience was very insightful, and working on two big projects was amazing. I enjoyed spending a couple of hours every day researching and learning in depth about migration and the arts. I also found it extremely helpful to share the project with my team and see how much we learned from each other and our findings.”

Above all, Romina found her Bass Connections experience helpful for her professional career as a law consultant for the International Organization for Migration. “I want to continue to create change through my policy recommendations.”

Duke University senior Milena Ozernova is a Bass Connections communications assistant majoring in Political Science. Milena loves to travel around the world, write articles on the issues that matter to her and the student community, and take photographs of street cats.

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