Today was the first day of a five day annual summer course on refugees and forced migration organised by the Centre for Refugee Studies at York University. It’s one of the main perks of my visit to Toronto. An opportunity to engage with academics, policy makers and practitioners working mainly, though as it turned out not exclusively, in Canada where narratives and political responses to the growing number of people forced to leave their homes and seek international protection are vastly different from those in Europe. On paper at least. And a chance to talk about the findings of my latest book exploring the journeys of refugees and other migrants who crossed the Mediterranean in 2015 looking for safety and an opportunity to build a new life for themselves and their families.
What I wasn’t expecting was the chance to create a monster – or how that would make me feel.
I’ve used visual and creative methods in my own work in the past. I’ve also worked with artists and musicians who have engaged people from a wide range of backgrounds and communities to better understand migration issues – and one another. I adore the work of my good friend Ricky Romain whose powerful figurative images portray the deep sense of the pain and injustice felt by many refugees without mention of the 1951 Refugee Convention or international human rights law. Music in Detention provides immigration detainees a powerful way to voice their feelings, concerns and hopes, at the same time creating opportunities to help break down barriers of prejudice. I’ve never doubted the power of the arts and creative processes to engage people in a way that the written and spoken word cannot.
What I hadn’t realised until today was how powerful that process can be in creating a sense of solidarity and shared ownership.
Paola Gomez is a writer, a human rights lawyer and a humanitarian who also happens to be a refugee: “Canada is my adopted mum…Colombia is my birth mum” she told us, “but she couldn’t protect me”. Together with her partner in life and love Alex Usquiano, a visual artist, photographer and teacher, Paolo established Sick Muse Art Projects which uses the arts to build and inspire communities based on anti-oppression principles.
As Paola told us the story of how she came to be in Toronto and the work in which she and Alex are so intensely involved, we were invited to ‘create a monster’ by adding our own mark to a small blank canvas circulating around the room. My contribution – a partially shaded oval – felt small, insignificant and meaningless. An hour later when it returned it had taken on entirely new meaning and form. Our collective effort had indeed created a monster, every line influenced by the one before it and shaping the one that followed. Our monster had hair and wore earrings. S/he was by the sea, with flowers and an artists palette. S/he was not the most beautiful monster and this was not a piece of work that any one of us would have wanted to take home or put on display, at least not as far as I am aware. But we had created it together and that very process of co-creation had created a sense of solidarity, of shared ownership. Whilst none of our contributions had been significant individually, they added up to something much greater than the sum of its parts.
And that’s when the penny dropped.
Whilst there is a lot of talk about the important of co-creation and co-production, this only works in practice when everyone in the room is on an entirely equal footing, is willing to participate, engage and contribute to the process regardless of the outcome, and has no expectations about what the final product might look like. In the end I struggled even to identify my own personal contribution to the whole. But my small, seemingly insignificant oval became our monster’s right eye. And it helped me to see.
Eyes to see