Look Up: Telling the Stories of Refugees in Portsmouth Through Art

The Journeys Festival International launched last week with the opening of the Aspex Gallery Artist in Residence programme: poet Majid Dhana’s and artist Natalia Michalska’s collaboration exhibition Look Up, which explores the stories and experiences of asylum seekers and refugees in the Portsmouth area through art and poetry, and forms a walking tour of artworks placed in 6 locations in the city. S&C’s Dianna Djokey speaks to the two creators to find out more.

Dianna Djokey: Can you tell me about your partnership and how that came together?

Natalia: We started working together around 2 years ago. When I first heard Majid’s poems [I} straight away knew this was something different [that] came from his experience, from the heart, and from there we started to establish an artistic connection. And he understood my work as well so as time went by [we began to] perform together. He would do his poetry and I would do my drumming – I perform with a steel tongue drum as part of my artist practice as well – so we started to perform at different local open mics and different events, the recent one being the Victorious Festival.

So, when I saw the advertisement for this project, I just thought let’s go and work on this art project together. And Majid straightaway said, yes, let’s do it. I knew that Majid had experiences with the local refugee and asylum seeker community as well because he helps out at the Red Cross, and I came from the artistic side where I am very passionate about my work and inspiring connection between people and nature.

DD: Brilliant, can you talk about the process of the Look Up project?

Majid: The process actually began about 5 months ago by meeting up with people and having a chat. I’ve known all of them for 3 years. So, [I was] just asking them what the future looks like for them and what do they think about Portsmouth; trying to stay away from the past because the past is a negative space for a lot of asylums seekers and refugees.

[We] looked at what they would like to be in [the] future, and one of them said he would like to be a pharmacist, someone else wants to be a baker, someone else wants to be a mechanic, and they are working towards it. They want to go to college [and] they are learning English which is really positive.

Each individual story is so uniquely different even though the journeys were the same. Using their stories I created individual poems telling each individual’s personal story. With the portraits, it’s interesting using poetry and using art based on the truth from the actual people. It’s quite unique what you then create which is something so special. It brings tears to my heart and I’m so happy that this project has brought joy to the people we’ve been working with.

Image credit Majid Dhana and Natalia Michalska.

DD: That’s wonderful and great to hear. What does your artwork represent for refugees and asylum seekers in Portsmouth? 

Natalia: Our main purpose and [the] goal of the project was to create a platform for connection to happen between communities. So through creating our portraits, we teach [others about] the people from the asylum seekers and refugee community; we are letting them be seen and heard.

Within that [is also] the way we portray them visually. We bring a lot of colour which symbolizes celebration of their journey, of their lives and of the future. A lot of what Majid and I do is really based around thinking about a new start in life. Portsmouth is a new home. We create a direct local link within the portraits themselves by using Portsmouth local landmarks [to display] portraits of different people [in the refugee community]. Then we added some words that we extracted from interviews we conducted with the participants during the course of the project.

DD: What themes will the artwork explore? 

Majid: The themes we’ll be exploring are: hope, heroes, freedom, the future, [and] every kingdom needs a queen, [alongside] the theme of connecting locals [in] Portsmouth with people who ended up here [and] are now calling it home. They love Portsmouth as much as the local people.

So, the main theme is if you come to understand our culture, we can learn your culture and by learning [about] each other, we can then understand and be strong together, because anything you don’t know you can always become afraid of.

And that’s probably the biggest issue, where people tend not to learn other people’s cultures from here or from other countries and that’s where the stigma comes. But trying to get people to mix, mingle and taste different foods, maybe learn Arabic, have a coffee – it’s the little things that are helping. We’ve seen a lot of change in people’s thought process, how they look at asylum seekers and refugees.

Natalia: Yes, and if I may add, I think of how we are impacting both sides of the communities. For instance the local community, we want to encourage them to interact, tell them more [about refugees and asylum seekers] and hopefully empower them to seek connections. We welcome it because very often when you are afraid of what you don’t know, a lot people don’t want to connect with other communities: simply because they don’t know how, or they haven’t gotten the opportunity.

And similarly the local refugee and asylum seekers’ community, very often when they come here they really don’t know anyone. They don’t have any friends or a safe network around them so they become afraid to go out, or don’t know where to go and that has stopped them, in a way, from engaging and integrating, but they would like to because they all have enthusiasm and are very positive and open people [who] really crave that connection.

DD: You both mentioned your connection with the local community, could you tell how important that was for this project?

Majid: I think it was extremely important. I [have] volunteered at the British Red Cross for 3 years and I could see that there wasn’t much of an offer for connection [with local people], maybe because people didn’t know or people didn’t want to know. [I wondered] what we can do [to] make people curious and wonder and ask questions.

We [ran] a children’s workshop at the Aspex Gallery, which is an open space to teach local kids; we are also doing an art class on the 25th Oct in Portsmouth. The public can come and look at some amazing designs with henna, which is absolutely mind-blowing.

By doing little things like that, we hope we can connect and engage [people] in understanding that we are all one person. When you look at the actualities of it, we are all one person with one mind, one world, and one voice. And that’s the way we try to approach it.

Natalia: If I may add [to that], we say the local community and the asylum and refugee community but in a way it’s actually one community. So, just for the sake of the explanation we differentiate the two, but in fact this project is about creating one strong community, we are all within this community now. And this is the main point we would like to get across.

But one thing again for the sake of explanation, we [are] in a unique situation which has benefited the project, as we both are migrants. We don’t come from the UK, we travelled here and settled in Portsmouth and we feel that we are part of the local community. We all have friends that come from here and [I] also work in Portsmouth. In the past [I have] worked with Portsmouth’s maritime heritage where there are strong links to local history.

I think having that understanding and knowing what it takes to integrate into a new place, in search of a new life almost from scratch, allows us to really understand and to tell that story in a truthful and accurate way.

Majid: For Journeys Festival International, this is the second year running and what they are doing in Portsmouth is absolutely amazing. The festival is on till from the 19th -29th Oct – so a big thank you to the Aspex Gallery, because without them this project wouldn’t be happening. We would like to say how touched we are for the organization to take the time to celebrate local talent for asylum seekers and refugees. I think Portsmouth needed something like this, last year’s festival was a success and this year it seems to have grown even more, with more people engaging and hopefully next year it will get bigger, so again thank you to everyone.

Natalia: Yes, a big thank you to everyone!

DD: I am really excited for what’s to come. During the artistic process of the project, what have you learned about yourselves as artists?

Majid: Most of my poetry has been written about myself, and I talk a lot about my emotions and tell [my] stories. Going through the process of the project and telling someone else’s story has made me understand, I shouldn’t use my words only to tell my story. My words need to be used to tell stories for those that can’t tell their stories. And I’ve grown a lot in the way I am now writing and I understand that words are extremely powerful. They can change people’s perception especially if you are telling the truth and telling the story as it is and not sugar-coating it. There are a lot of people that are shouting out and nothing is coming out. And what I’m hoping to do is to capture that sound, give it a space to come out so the people can hear.

Natalia: Yes, for me what I’ve learned is similar to what Majid has been saying, conveying those messages and incorporating those voices. In my practice I use art to inspire, and this is what the project was about. Seeing the impact it had on the people involved, it affirmed to me my task to use art to inspire people and to do good in the world. And it just empowered me to do more with that.

With every artistic project you are always learning something new and pushing your boundaries. It was interesting to work with other people’s visions, it was important to convey the message and represent [it] in an authentic way for the people involved. So, for me it was important to learn and [to] understand how to represent the refugees and asylum seekers throughout the project.

Also we would like to say, we’ll be having the Look Up art walk on Sunday 29th October 2017 and you can find the information about it on the JFI website.

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