Exhibition shows healing power of creativity for refugees coming to terms with life in UK

A unique exhibition will combine photographs, layered maps and first-hand testimony to tell the stories of refugees and asylum seekers now living in the South West of England, UK.

‘Refugees Mapping Memories – an exhibition of creative recovery’ is taking place during national Refugee Week (17-23 June 2019) at UNDER (behind KARST), 18 East Street, Plymouth from Thursday 20 – Sunday 23 June.

The exhibition is the culmination of a project begun last year with volunteers from Plymouth’s growing refugee and asylum seeker community, led by University of Plymouth researcher and founder of the Displacement Studies Research Network Dr Sana Murrani. In partnership with the British Red Cross, ‘Creative Recovery: Mapping Refugees’ Memories of Home’ set out to help participants creatively use their memories of home and homeland to come to terms with a new life in the UK.

The opening night will also feature an Open Conversation between project participants and an audience. The event is free and everyone is welcome, but please register (link below).

In a series of nine workshops, and with instruction in experimental mapping, the refugees created detailed maps that encapsulate their lives at home – the memories as well as the place. During the workshops, they were able to share memories and physical objects like diaries, photos and home videos with each other in a participatory ‘action research’ process - where participants engage in the making of research. The process was also intended to have therapeutic outcomes.

Funded by the European Cultural Foundation’s Courageous Citizens 2018 programme and the University of Plymouth’s Sustainable Earth Institute, the project is part of the latter’s Creative Associates scheme. This pairs researchers with creative professionals, and Dr Murrani and the group of participants worked with documentary photographer Carey Marks of Scarlet Design, who took personal portraits of each participant.

As a result, the project and its participants are depicted from start to finish, both at work, and in their new homes in the city, in a series of powerful images.

Dr Murrani said:

“The complexities of recovering and relaying memories of home are as diverse and varied as the spaces and places in which the original events took place.

“After a while, we stopped speaking of ‘home’ as a specific geographic place and instead memories of the everyday replaced its physicality. Home then became a notion that each and every map conveyed differently. We found synergies between the recovery of memory and its spatial representation manifested in layers and overlays, collages, and different scales. Each one of these maps represent a journey through time, scale and complexity – it’s the individual’s recovery space.

“Visiting participants’ homes in Plymouth was an important part of the process, drawing attention to the often stark contrast between the homes they have left, and the sometimes dire housing situations they now find themselves in.

“Our Open Conversation on the exhibition opening night will be led by the participants themselves – a fascinating opportunity to hear their thoughts on the project and their situations more widely. I expect great insights into the best ways we can help displaced people to settle in their new homes.”

Carey Marks added:

“When I met Sana and she explained the project, the idea really resonated. When I first became a documentary photographer I travelled to the Syria / Jordan border to photograph a landfill site where lots of refugees worked. The population had exploded as a result of the conflict in Syria and they had this mountain of waste. It was an incredible experience, and I was really keen to do something involving refugees and asylum seekers in this country.

“I attended all the workshops and took candid photos of the participants working, but I also wanted to shoot intimate portraits that showed the nature of the person, yet also somehow captured the emergency of the situation. I realised that to do this I needed to go to their homes in Plymouth, which I did, although in some cases you could barely call them homes they are so rundown.

“Some of the participants couldn’t be identified for various reasons. So it was a challenging project but a hugely rewarding one, and the results I think are fantastic.”

To read more about the exhibition, and register for the opening night event on Thursday 20 June from 5-8pm, visit https://www.plymouth.ac.uk/whats-on/refugees-mapping-memories.

Following the opening night, the exhibition is open on Friday 21 – Saturday 22 June from 10am-4pm, and on Sunday 23 June from 10am-3pm.

Basma (Iraq): I graduated from Baghdad University Fine Arts with a Bachelors degree in 2005 but since then I haven’t had the chance to practise my skills as a ceramicist nor touch any clay all these years because of my country’s problems. Now I am here in the UK and this [Creative Recovery] is the first art project I get involved in. Happy to be part of this project, help each other and make my story heard.

Tarig (Sudan): The east side of the River Nile witnessed my birth, in a historical city called Khartoum North. I grew up in a spacious house with yards opening against each other, in an extended family which surrounded me with constant and unconditional love. I grew up observing and spent most of my life in search for my voice, until I found film which became my voice. I recently graduated from a Film Studies Masters degree. Now I make films mostly about unnoticed details of life; aspiring to make change, and one day I will.

Mohammed (Palestine): For me what I like the most about Gaza is how motivated Gazans are. They have never given up with all the destruction around them and they are not just trying to reconstruct their city but also the whole world. I wish in the future to set up an initiative to support real peace building for a sustainable world where each and everyone of us [humans] can live the life he/she wants, not a life we are forced to live in.

Zahra (Sri Lanka): I loved and looked forward every weekend in my childhood to visit the golden sandy beach of Mount Lavinia. The smell of sea salt still lingers in my memory, collecting seashells was my favourite hobby, and thirst-quenching king coconut trees that I’m still longing to taste. I travel back to my golden memories I have treasured in my heart, and feel how lucky I was to be born there. Those memories still make me happy even now, when everything seems blue around me.

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