On 15 January 2016, a Northern Postcolonial Network (NPN) art and poetry workshop including refugees, lecturers and students from Greater Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield and Liverpool took place at the University of Manchester’s Graduate School of Arts, Languages and Cultures. The event was jointly hosted by the universities of Salford and Manchester.
The creative outputs of this workshop were installed as part of an exhibition that was displayed at the Third Biannual Northern Postcolonial Symposium: Asylum, Refuge, Migration two weeks later, 29 January 2016, at MediaCityUK, University of Salford. The workshop itself built on a similar Engaged Curriculum initiative at the University of Sheffield in summer 2015 (titled Material Stories of Migration), with Dr Veronica Barnsley, a co-founding member of NPN, as its lead organiser.
The broad themes of the Manchester workshop were asylum, refuge and migration. Five work stations were set up to engage with these themes drawing on a variety of activities based around words and images. Workshop facilitators included the artistic directors of the refugee arts group Pod Collective, the poet and Reader John McAuliffe from the Centre for New Writing at the University of Manchester, the poet and Reader Dr Judy Kendall from the School of Arts and Media at the University of Salford, and workshop co-organisers Rena Jackson (English, University of Manchester) and NPN co-founding member Dr Jade Munslow Ong (English, University of Salford).
In order to pull off successfully a collaborative event of this kind, we, the workshop co-organisers, sought advice from experienced partners and gained further knowledge and awareness from participating at a variety of refugee support events across Greater Manchester. We met very early on with Anna and Emily from Pod Collective, who would in due course help facilitate two of the workshop activities. We also took part in monthly Conversation Club meetings led by Manchester City of Sanctuary as well as events organised by the asylum seeker-led advocacy group United for Change, including a November 2015 Dignity Not Destitution rally, march and candle-lit vigil. These experiences all highlighted the importance of conversation, hospitality and flexibility: ingredients that would become important to incorporate in plans for the workshop.
The NPN workshop kicked off in the Graduate School atrium where participants got to know each other over teas, coffees and doughnuts, before heading upstairs to where the real work began. Around 30 people attended for some or all of the day, including 15 asylum seekers and refugees; undergraduate and postgraduate students from English Literature, Anthropology, Translation, and TV and Radio; a representative from the Parasol Research Initiative; academics from NPN steering committee; and facilitators from Pod Collective, as well as the University of Manchester and the University of Salford.
The room was informally arranged and people were invited to move around the five work stations as they liked. John McAuliffe led a poetry writing group working on images, emotion and memory. John explains his approach as follows:
Sometimes an image can be more effective than an argument in making people understand how you feel: in this session I asked participants to ‘cartoon’ a response to short poems (by Colette Bryce and Norman MacCaig), which manage to bring a speaker’s relation to a whole world to light. The participants then used that exercise as a model to draft a poem that also uses a sequence of images to describe a place and a community from their childhood.
One of the poems produced using this method is copied below:
Hot summer days. On the hills of the
windy lazy days
Blowing wind through
the mango trees
On the swing
Pushing back and forth
Falling asleep under the
Mum calling out
Have you done your
Waking up with the
sound of her voice
Calling out to me
Saying where are you?
I am under the mango tree
A second poetry group was led by Dr Judy Kendall where participants were invited to respond to media images of migration through haiku. Judy provided an accessible and thoughtful introduction to the form, emphasising its reflective and surprising qualities. A great number of poems was produced that responded in emotive ways to the shocking and devastating aspects of the media imagery relating to asylum, refuge and migration that we encounter daily, whilst also managing to convey moments of hope and beauty.
Emily Hayes (Pod Collective) guided a large group of dedicated embroiderers who worked with material, pens and thread to produce four banners depicting the terrifying journeys that many asylum seekers are forced to undertake in their search for safety, as well as the ongoing struggles that people encounter once they arrive in the UK. The slow and meditative qualities of embroidery allowed conversation to flourish, and participants were able to reflect on the lengthy asylum processes that often drag on for five, ten, thirteen years at a time, leaving many destitute when their applications for leave to remain are repeatedly rejected.
Saif, a lecturer in hydrology from Sudan, noted as he was embroidering that he was forced out of his job in Khartoum. He described seeking asylum in the UK as being in ‘limbo’: ‘I can’t go back. My family can’t come here […] I don’t have enough warm clothes for winter. I haven’t seen my children for over three years.’
Sabah, an asylum seeker from Syria who has been in the UK for eight years and also embroidered at the workshop, is frustrated by the appeal process and highlighted the need for action. He cited events like these as proof that refugees can be treated with respect even when they’ve experienced a lack of care in other ways. Sabah volunteers most days at a shelter for the homeless, cooking and serving food.
The fourth work station, led by Anna White (Pod Collective), created a large body of colourful monoprints that combined original words and images to represent the migrant experience. Many of the printed images produced focused on individuals’ experiences of belonging to new communities in Salford and Manchester, emphasising peace, hope and friendship, as well as the pleasures to be found in a tray of English fish and chips!
We facilitated a final work station that provided two large canvases for the creation of collaborative pieces using paint, pen and collage techniques. Participants were invited to scratch terms they associate with refuge and migration into one paint-covered canvas, and contributions included words and phrases such as ‘hellish wait’ and ‘injustice’, as well as ‘welcome’. The second canvas included commentaries on media images, questions and responses, focusing on political engagement with asylum issues, and emphasising requests and offers of help.
After a relaxed lunch, everyone was eager to get back to work, either choosing to remain and finish work they had started earlier (particularly the case with the haiku and embroidery stations) or move around the room to explore new artistic mediums. Joseph Pelan and Bianca Smith, second-year undergraduate students on the BA (Hons) TV and Radio programme at the University of Salford, also arrived to document the day. They produced a short film of the workshop that was also shown at the Third Biannual Northern Postcolonial Network Symposium. You can watch this here.
The day was regarded by participants as an enjoyable and successful endeavour. At the end of the workshop, certificates of attendance and appreciation were provided, and many were keen to know if there would be similar events held in the future. One participant (who wished to remain unnamed) approached us at Conversation Club the following week to point out that the arts as a tool for empowerment and well being, especially of refugees, were undervalued.
The universities of Manchester and Salford are currently discussing a follow-up conversation and reception with Manchester City of Sanctuary to enable further reflection on workshop outcomes and the role of the arts more broadly in supporting the aims of refugee support networks across Greater Manchester.
NPN members and affiliated groups are also busy forging relationships with charities, institutions, other organisations and individuals in order to develop a series of similar events in line with a new research project tentatively entitled ‘Refugee North’. Workshops of the kind held in Manchester and Sheffield will take place in other key Northern English cities in order to support asylum seekers and refugees in the narrativising of their individual experiences.
NPN would like to thank all participants, as well as Arts Methods Manchester, the University of Manchester, University of Salford and the Postcolonial Studies Association for their generous support for this event. Thanks also go out to Manchester City of Sanctuary and United for Change for their help with promotion, and to Refugee Council for supplying ‘Tell It Like It Is’ leaflets.
Photographs by Dr Matthew Whittle (Leeds)
A full photo album can be viewed on NPN’s Facebook page here.