Print-making — and gift-giving — with London’s young refugees / by Karen Frances Eng

Photo: Saeed Taji Farouky

Photo: Saeed Taji Farouky

Documentary filmmaker Saeed Taji Farouky explains how a pop-up print shop is empowering young refugees to connect with the public by creating and sharing art.

It’s a busy summer Saturday at London’s Southbank Centre — Europe’s largest center for the arts. Just inside its main entrance, a delicately built structure of wood and fabric stands out in contrast against the vast, modern hall. Beyond the welcoming benched seating area and a corridor hung with fluttering paper prints, shadows move behind translucent walls.

Inside, the space reveals itself to be a small pop-up print studio. A group of young people wearing blue aprons teaches visitors how to make monoprints — rolling ink, marking plates, and running them through a tabletop press to produce beautiful images. The young teachers and visitors take turns pulling prints, then, if they wish, exchange them as gifts.

But these aren’t just any London youth. Subtle signage outside the structure says they are refugees and asylum seekers, working with artists Saeed Taji Farouky and Afshin Dehkordi in a special collaboration marking Refugee Week, a UK festival promoting understanding of the refugee experience. Here, Farouky — best known as a documentary filmmaker and a TED Fellow — tells us why he chose the platforms of printmaking, gift-giving and architecture to offer young refugees and the general public an opportunity to rewire social structures.

A print made by Kisanet, one of the young artists, as a gift for the author. Photo: Karen Frances Eng

A print made by Kisanet, one of the young artists, as a gift for the author. Photo: Karen Frances Eng

How did the project begin?

It started as a conversation with my friend Afshin, looking for ways to respond artistically to the refugee crisis and to contribute to Refugee Week. Both of us have a background of facilitating participatory, community-based art — where we collaborate with participants rather than teach. We both come from refugee backgrounds — so this subject is important to each of us personally. We also collaborated with two psychiatrists — Dr Kami and Dr Hodes — who work with young refugees around mental health.

There’s very little discussion about the mental health of refugees. What did you learn about how the refugee experience affects neurology, and how did that shape the project?

In his research, Dr Hodes identified three main sources of trauma, of which one is loss of social meaning. Your community’s not there, your familiar surroundings aren’t there, your house isn’t there. So we wanted to find a way to counteract that loss, and try to recreate social meaning.

Gift-giving is one powerful way to reestablishing these social bonds. During our research, we came across a classic anthropological text about reciprocal gift-giving called The Gift, by Marcel Mauss. He says that once you start a gift-giving cycle, it never really ends. If I give something to you, you give something back to me, but it doesn’t end there — because now I feel like I have to give back to you, and then you give back to me. For a lot of Western cultures, that seems like a real burden, and it becomes something very difficult. But it’s the foundation of social structures for a lot of other cultures.

Drying prints hung above the structure’s corridor. Photo: Saeed Taji Farouky

Drying prints hung above the structure’s corridor. Photo: Saeed Taji Farouky

At the same time, we wanted to give the opportunity for the young people who are adapting to life in London as refugees to engage with the general public, and vice versa, in a different way than we normally think about. The young people are in control of their own space, instead of being excluded from it, and when visitors come, it’s the young people who hold the knowledge, who are doing the teaching, passing on their wisdom. We really liked this as a political act: young refugees who are normally thought of as disenfranchised are now the ones in charge, not just in terms of space, but inverting the power structure between the general public here in Britain, and new arrivals, people fleeing from war.

As artists we interrogated the psychiatrists so that our approach would be not only robust medically, but also ethically. How we should approach the young people, what kinds of questions may we ask them, what sort of work we can do with them that’s not going to retraumatize them? These conversations informed everything about the project in terms of structures, workflow, scheduling and so on.

One of the goals of the installation was for the general public to meet refugees in person, something many will have not had an opportunity to do. But did the young people find being labeled a refugee problematic?

What’s interesting is that a lot of the young people don’t even necessarily identify primarily as “refugee” — even though we met them in a refugee support group. Halfway through the project, I said, “People might be interested in talking to you about your experiences, because they’ve never met refugees before.” A few of them were really surprised. They said, “Oh, I see, right. It’s about my refugeeness, not my other identity.” It’s not something that, for them, is always on the table.

Visitors are not prying into personal stories, for the most part. Most of the dialogue is about the art-making process. And that’s the point: it’s about being able to just have an ordinary conversation. On a pragmatic level, these young people are being supported as professional working artists. They sign up for a shift, they show up, they work with the public. It was always important for us, from the beginning, that this was done on a socially equal level.

Why did you choose monotype printing, rather than another medium?

Part of it was metaphorical, in that the etching of the plate is an analogue for the way our experiences are recorded in our brains and bodies — the way that our memories are physically etched in the brain as well as how trauma damages our nervous systems. With PTSD, events subsequent to trauma will trigger the re-experiencing of a memory or feeling due to the effects of the original traumatic event on our neural pathways.

Pragmatically speaking, neither Afshin nor I knew how to print, and with our collaborative approach, we wanted to be on an equal level with the students, learning together. It’s also a very accessible art form. You don’t need to know how to draw, nor do you need to be artistic. It’s much more about mark-making, textures and lines, than it is about illustration. But it’s also very manual — the press, and the plates — and there’s something magical about it that people respond to really well. Plus it’s fun, and it’s relatively fast. It also created an object that could then be gifted.

This is an excerpt of an article originally published on 6 July 2017. To read the full article, visit the TED Fellows blog >>>