'Imagination will take you everywhere'
The biggest ever Refugee Week is taking place this month with more than 400 events due to take place across the UK. It has a particular resonance for the London borough of Islington. During December 2015, ten Syrian refugees arrived there as part of the Government’s pledge to resettle 20,000 over the next five years.
With around three million more migrants predicted to arrive in Europe this year, I investigate how art enables refugees to express and explore their trauma, as well as raise awareness of their plight.
An army of easels cluster in the corner of a room. Art paraphernalia lies piled up beside the sink, and white-washed walls are scarred by Blu Tack and pins. Bulky chests of drawers are stashed with pictures – pencil drawings, sketches, paintings, collages and watercolours – artwork which to a regular viewer would appear pretty ordinary.
But these pieces of art carry a deeper resonance.
A few hours earlier this studio was bustling with life – life hard fought for. Refugees and asylum seekers gather here every Monday for a day of collective art-making. This is a place where they can forget about their harrowing journeys, forget about their everyday struggles and immerse themselves in the freedom of their imagination.
The New Art Studio is an art therapy initiative founded by art psychotherapists, Tania Kaczynski and Jon Martyn, based in the Islington Arts Factory, which supports and encourages refugees to make art. Their students have fled conflict and human rights abuses from countries like Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, China, Russia and Ukraine.
Martyn says; “I think art-making can say things that are really hard to put into words. We offer something where their voices can be heard and their experiences can be acknowledged.”
Two weeks ago, a student told Martyn that the only place she feels free is when she’s painting. He says; “She can move freely in this city but also she’s like a prisoner here; she has no rights to work, no rights to travel or actually leave the country, and people are often waiting for five years for a decision on whether they will be deported or not.” Kaczynski adds that it’s like “an open prison”.
Making art is a form of relief from that entrapment.
Another student, a smartly dressed Ukrainian asylum seeker who wishes to remain anonymous, told me that his biggest concern is society’s attitude towards refugees. He said; “Sometimes people think that we are only here for money, but no sensible man will leave his own country if there is no danger – especially if this country is Ukraine, Russia or Belarus, because these are beautiful countries with great potential.”
He adds that “Unfortunately people have to seek asylum here and if we could change society’s view of asylum seekers, then we will change the world for the better.” He believes that all refugees have potential and if we develop it together from the first day of them arriving – through proper education – then “we will have a completely different society”.
Islington is leading the way in embracing different cultures. It is a diverse borough with 36 per cent of residents born outside of the UK, which is double the national average. The Ukrainian asylum seeker says that’s why he loves the borough and spends a lot of time here.
“I go to the Islington art therapy classes two times a week, and spend almost the whole day there. On Wednesday I did life drawing there and that’s an excellent experience.”
He eagerly shows me a portfolio of his work – including a beautiful painting of a vase of colourful flowers – while chatting happily about how he would like to eventually teach art to children.
Art as a Vehicle of Communication
Almir Koldzic, Co-founder of Counterpoints Arts, a Hoxton based charity that champions art by and about refugees, believes art is an “amazing communicator” which creates new ways of looking at things and telling stories – particularly human stories that otherwise get lost.
Refugee Week celebrates those stories; coordinated by Counterpoints Arts, it is a national arts and culture festival that “raises awareness of the contributions, the resilience and the versatility of refugee communities.” It’s held in the week around World Refugee Day on 20th June. This year, Koldzic predicts will be the biggest Refugee Week ever, with over 400 events planned.
“The whole recent interest in this area has produced an unprecedented reaction, in terms of people wanting to do something – creating welcoming initiatives all over the UK – so we wanted to recognise that enthusiasm and goodwill happening on the grassroots level, and we hope to use Refugee Week to amplify those stories,” says Koldzic.
Highlighting The Human Story
Indeed, art is a powerful tool in shining a light on the human element of the ‘Refugee Crisis’; an event too often referred to in terms of numbers and statistics. That was the aim of Baraa Kouja, a Syrian student at Exeter University who curated the exhibition ‘From Syria with Love’.
The exhibition features artwork by Syrian refugee children from the Al-Abrar refugee camp in Lebanon. It is currently touring the UK and was shown at The Laundry, an arts venue in Hackney during February 2016.
The artwork clearly depicts how war has impacted on the children’s imagination. One piece shows a building being bombed, while civilians flee with blood pouring from their sides. In another the body of a child lies face down in the sea – a stark resemblance to the photograph of the drowned Syrian boy, Alan Kurdi.
Kouja says the exhibition is all about connecting people with the children, as well as showing how “all they think about is destruction, war and death, when they should be having their childhood”. He describes them as Syria’s “lost generation”.
The exhibition has so far raised around £5,000, all of which, Kouja says, goes directly back to the children in the camp.
Art as a source of inspiration
Deepening people’s understanding of the experiences of refugees is one important by-product of art, which Jane Ray, a children’s book illustrator and art teacher at the Islington Refugee Centre thinks is crucial.
But Ray also hopes that art-making can help refugees to integrate into their new environment.
“There’s one woman in particular who had done a lot of art in her country of origin – but when she arrived here she just couldn’t work and hadn’t been able to make anything, and we actually got her a whole lot of art supplies. She found a corner in her room to paint and she’s just been making these amazing canvases and she speaks very eloquently and movingly about what that has meant to her and how it’s reclaiming her sense of self, which had been really shattered,” says Ray.
When asked how that made her feel as her teacher, Ray is visibly moved and whispers that it makes her feel “very humble” as tears fill her eyes.
Similarly, Kaczynski describes how one of their clients – who walked all the way from Afghanistan when he was young – has used art as a source of inspiration.
“He had the most horrific journey. I think the art-making for him, allowed him to step into a world he had never known about before, and now he’s very prolific – he’s painting at home, we’ve got thick amounts of portfolios of his work.” She points to a few of his paintings; large swirling masses of colour and texture which would not look out of place on the walls of a gallery.
Kaczynski continues: “He’s learning about different artists and techniques on YouTube. It’s a world he never even knew existed and that he feels quite at home in, even though it’s quite alien to the culture that he came from. So he’s united in this new language and new way of being.”
She describes refugee art as being like “the grit that makes the pearl”; powerful imagery can come out of adversity – and more importantly it can help to rebuild lives.
Refugee Week is on 20th – 26th June 2016, for more information click here.
A shorter version of this article was originally published by the Islington Gazette.