Art, Language and Culture: Co-creating with Refugees and Migrants

Art has the power to bring people together and break down barriers. This is particularly true when working with refugees and migrants, who can face challenges in terms of language, culture, and a sense of belonging when living in a new country. By using art as a tool for engagement, we aim to create a space where refugees can learn new skills, develop their English language abilities, and share their cultures.

While working on projects in East Leeds, we became aware of a number of ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) providers who were running classes out of community rooms at the bottom of the council run highrises. We wanted to make sure that our activities were accessible to as many people as possible so we began working with an ESOL specialist to devise sessions which incorporated elements of language learning. 

This led to us running an online Film and Photography course for ESOL learners during the pandemic and last year we delivered our community engagement project ‘Seeing Stars: Beyond The Naked Eye’ in response to an exhibition curated by Hondartza Fraga at the Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery at the University of Leeds. The project, commissioned as part of the gallery’s work with refugees and migrants, aligned with the University’s goal of gaining University of Sanctuary status.

We delivered a series of five workshops with a core group of participants, including members from the organisation, LASSN, exploring themes from the exhibition through experimental photography skills and techniques, including photomontage, portraiture, light, movement, cyanotype, and projection. Throughout the workshops, we discussed ideas relating to science, philosophy, fantasy, and history to represent the cultural meanings and significance of stars and space from the perspective of the participants. The final work was co-curated in the form of a digital slideshow and zine (self-published magazine), which was shown as part of the exhibition.

Although the workshops were tailored to refugee and migrant participants, we purposefully avoided questions about travel and journeys based on previous conversations with participants about how their identities are often framed in relation to the refugee experience. This created a space where people could explore all aspects of their identity, but also gave them the opportunity to discuss any memories or challenges as they wished. 

Additionally, although English was used as a Lingua franca, we made it clear that this wasn’t an English-only space and participants should feel comfortable sharing their own home languages, cultures and stories with other members of the group, drawing on our previous work with ethnographer, Jessica Bradley, into Translanguaging and Linguistic landscapes research. Overall we worked with 18 people, alongside ESOL specialist, Dawn Smallwood, and Nelson Rodriguez, a support assistant with lived experience of being a refugee, who we met as a participant through our previous Film and Photography sessions. 

We asked Dawn how the project had impacted her own practice and development. She said:

“The sessions have given me an understanding of how I can incorporate art and creatively into my mainstream ESOL classes. Participants have been exposed to a wide variety of expressions, idioms and metaphorical language which will no doubt enhance their language learning journeys now and in the future.”

Our support assistant, Nelson also provided feedback on his experience:

“I had a lot of fun supporting the workshops and was given the opportunity to participate and contribute in each workshop. The meetings prior to each session were helpful, as well as the worksheets given to me in advance. I learned a lot of new vocabulary and the interactions with other people helped me to put my speaking into practice.”

Due to the success of the project, we have been commissioned to devise another series of workshops for refugees and migrants in response to the current Treasures of the Brotherton Gallery exhibition, Shifting Borders, curated by Chris Taylor. We are currently in the development phase and are keen to hear from anyone who would like to be involved.

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