Journeys Festival International: Exploring Refugee Experiences Through Great Art

The 2017 Journeys Festival International is funded by the Arts Council England and launches today, running through to 29th October, for its second year in the city. It aims to celebrate and showcase the creativity of refugee and asylum seeker artists and share refugee experiences through the arts. The festival is delivered in partnership with local community groups and organisations including Aspex Gallery, The British Red Cross, Portsmouth Festivities, New Theatre Royal and Trash Arts. Dianna Djokey interviews festival organiser Charlotte Mountford to find out more.

Dianna Djokey: Can you tell me how the Festival came about?

Charlotte Mountford: Yes, this is the second time the festival is being run in Portsmouth. There was a smaller version of it last year, which was bit of a tester. And we are back again this year in Portsmouth with a little bit of a bigger version than before, then next year (3rd year running) it will be the big ‘shebang’!

In terms of how it came about, Journeys Festival International started in Leicester in 2012, and its’ grown from there inn Leicester ever since. Last year ArtReach put in a funding bid to Arts Council England called Ambition of Excellence [which] is all about growing an existing project or idea. The idea is to expand the festival from the Midlands to the north and to the south. So ArtReach got in touch with partners and colleagues in the north and south of England, and 2 places – Manchester and Portsmouth – came back saying yes.

We had lots of meetings with the partners in Manchester and Portsmouth and worked together a successful festival. Now we’ve been granted 3 years of delivery (this year being the 2nd year) and it will hopefully grow beyond to 2018.

DD: It would be really great to see the festival grow further in Portsmouth in the coming years. You mentioned partnership and coming together with local communities groups and organizations. Why were partnerships for the festival so important?  

CM: As it was going to be the first festival in Portsmouth and Manchester, we were coming in with the ideas of the festival framework but what we really needed was the expertise to guide us on the who, what, where, when and how; and also [to] inform us [of] the local issues around refugees and asylum seekers.

In Portsmouth, The British Red Cross have a really strong refugee support base and [also there’s] Friends Without Borders, who we work very closely with. They’ve been extremely important partners for us in how we can be a complementary service. They provide refugees and asylum seekers [with] food, warmth and housing. And what we hope to do is create more of that holistic support and provide creative workshops and artist opportunities for refugee artists that serve as use for them.

In terms of cultural partnerships, they tend to give us a guide on what audiences in Portsmouth want and want more of, New Theatre Royal, Portsmouth Festivities, and the Guildhall have been really valuable partners in guiding us in audience engagement.

For example The Belarus Free Company‘s theatre piece Burning Doors last year: we were questioning was it going too risky for Portsmouth, this really contemporary, physical theatre piece? But the partners came back to us saying no, Portsmouth was ready for this and they want it. The numbers and feedback that we had really proved that, which is why we are really excited to be back with the contemporary South Asian Dance piece from Turkey this year, which is really exciting.

DD: Yes, it’s definitely something to look forward to. During the week of the festival you will be delivering Coffee Shop Conversations. What were your inspirations for this concept and what conversations have you heard?

CM: [One] of the questions we often get asked is: are you preaching to the converted? The message is very much about creating a culture of welcome. Are [we] telling that to people who [already] believe in that?

So, the coffee shop conversation is a strand of work I think really opens that out to people. If anyone in a cafe is sitting there and wants to join in the conversation with refugees and asylum seekers, who have the facts and knowledge and can have a really informed discussion, anyone can join in on that. So we really hope we can entice people with free tea and cake, which is always important! That for me is really a way to enter into those conversations with people who may not be as convinced, or may need a bit more information, and to engage with ideas and open a new way of meeting new audiences who may not have thought about these issues before.

DD: So, the Coffee Shop Conversations is about offering an open space for these types of discussions to take place, which is known to be an uncomfortable topic for many people?

CM: Definitely, I think it’s a domestic space, a safe space and it’s also nice, there’s something quite British about it as well, having tea and cake, so I hope it welcomes people and they feel secure and feel safe to talk about these things.

DD: What barriers are you aiming to break down during the festival this week?

CM: The festival is a celebration of refugees and asylum seekers and their experiences: the journeys they’ve made and also their contribution to British society. Specifically in our case, [we celebrate] the artistic contributions they have made and can make if they are offered the correct platforms.

And in terms of what barriers we can break down, hopefully the festival can challenge the negative press we might see, and some pre-held misconceptions people might have. People can hear about their experiences. Rather than make a big sweeping statement, the festival might help personalize it and humanize it a bit more for people.

DD: What’s wonderful about these types of events is that the audiences always leave learning something new. But what I would like to know is from your experience while being the producer of the festival with ArtReach, what have you learned? 

CM: On a general human level, the majority of people are so welcoming, and the cultural of welcome that we try to promote is a human condition. And I think everybody understands the meaning of home, a safe home. And once that is presented to people, many people get it. I’ve seen that in every city including Portsmouth, Leicester and Manchester.

There is this overwhelming sense of pride in people’s home and they want to share that with people. The press media have said [to refugees and asylum seekers] ‘I don’t want you here’, and I don’t think that true. I think the British public is a welcoming bunch. They want to share and want to help and want to join in and be part of the culture.

I think it really restored my faith in humanity. At a grassroots level it’s about meeting people and getting involved in the amazing work people are doing.

Professionally, I’ve learned about what works best on how to get messages out there to people. Almost like this triangle of engagement, so on top of the triangle are the people who will pay to come and see Belarus Theatre at New Theatre Royal.

What the festival does, we don’t just have that as an offer. We have [events] right down at the bottom of the triangle, we’ve got Coffee Shop Conversations, the Look Up exhibition which is our outdoor gallery, made by local refugees: poet Majid Dhana and artist Natalia Michalska. [They are] Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award winners, who’ve made artistic portraits of refugees and asylum seekers in Portsmouth. And that is a free outdoor activity and conversation starter for people.

So, as a professional I have learned it’s really good to have these access points for people to come and have these different ways they can get involved.

Find out more about the festival here or download their brochure to find all activities and events taking place from 19th – 29th October.