Samra Mayanja reflects on her experience at the recent Platforma Festival 2017
Platforma Festival has been an invigorating and challenging two days for me. Usually, I split my time between spaces primarily focused on art or activism but rarely the two. I seldom find myself in a place where art is used as a tool to elevate the realities of migration. I felt energised but I’ve got to admit I was slightly intimidated by this new environment and the level of experience in the room. It was uncomfortable and unusual to feel this way, given that people were really helpful and happy to share what they’d learnt. I suppose I’m still trying to figure things out, in terms of my practice and role in projects.
The manifesto writing workshop helped generate loads of questions, a few answers and ideas. I was keen to talk about what I had done wrong as the basis for questions/ideas that would frame the manifesto (in progress). I stuck post-its like:
– What can be constituted as art and what is it for?
– How can we use art to solve problems rather than raise more unanswered questions?
– How do we create long lasting and substantial relationships with the community, for the community and across communities?
I can’t quite remember the others but I’m sure that they had a similar sentiment. I suppose what I was hoping to address was the responsibility of the artist, whoever that person may be. I wanted in some way to urge people to think about how this could be used for the benefit of the groups represented. In order to provide the tools for creative approaches to problem solving in their everyday. The diversity of backgrounds, occupational and otherwise, led to equally diverse opinions.
Photos by Nelli Stavropoulou
Main image: Abid Hussein (Director, Diversity, Arts Council England)
Forage by Henna Asikainen, Free Balloons by Richard DeDomenici
The ideas that I had in Newcastle had evolved from those of two years ago, when I first started initiating arts/migration projects. The process of creating this manifesto ignited a template for a really critical view of our practices and an opportunity for betterment. It is an evolving document much like me and you. I have changed from those days in Hong Kong, and I’d like to share that journey here.
It’s just over two years since myself and around 30 volunteers found ourselves in a heavy load van hauling furniture, art supplies, musical instruments and food (most importantly) across Hong Kong island for the Imagine That! Community Arts Festival. Ten months before that momentous three day festival, myself and around seven others were carrying a dramatically lighter stock of similar things on the train from Hong Kong island to the New Territories for our weekly arts and crafts lunch sessions with around five families. This was the project we called the Refugee Art Movement.
A lot happened in Hong Kong and it all started with a demonstration organised by Refugee Union; an advocacy and support group led by the very people it served, refugees and asylum seekers. I had already spent a bit of time there drumming and dancing with a group of musicians. I thought of them as activists by day and musicians by night. Spread across two floors, the space was filled with movement and action. It always sounded like everyone was there and I loved that. Whatever time of the day I arrived there was a bustling combination of the women’s group and the Cantonese classes or the rooftop drumming and political campaigns or financial aid and legal assistance.
The demonstration was organised on the same day that many cities around the world had marched to fracture fortress Europe and the silence of its leaders sat firmly at the top of that impermeable tower. Refugees and asylum seekers had come from all over Hong Kong to speak out to the government about the inhumane conditions that they were experiencing across the islands. We marched and eventually got chatting to a group of mothers, whom invited us to visit them in the New Territories.
We took at least three trains into an unknown part of the island, Lam Tei (New Territories). It was difficult not to be taken aback by the drastic change in landscape. The amount of concrete and noise was almost none existent. Mountains stood on either side of us. We made our way to A’s home, through a makeshift gate and corrugated iron roofs. We met her husband and two children. We chatted and played with the kids. She cooked us dinner and bought us fizzy drinks to accompany the meal. Conversation continued and she asked us to come back again. Her three year old F had warmed to games and weird songs we’d sang to make her laugh.
This set up became a regular thing, mothers and children, and sometimes fathers. We would come equipped with arts supplies and food. Our space was a series of mats that we dragged with us and we’d hang out in the village for as long as we liked. Playing games and singing or making.
I remember one song that F taught me:
After a few months of going to Lam Tei we were told by A and others that they were being relocated by immigration because their homes were unfit to live in. Around the same time I was approached by a church in Wan Chai to expand the project. I remember being really excited by the prospect of having a space and getting another organisation involved. The church kindly offered their space and funds for travel reimbursement of the families attending.
We were able to play every Saturday and generate a spectacle each week. By creating musical instruments, collages, circus inspired dance moves and more; the families and volunteers were always experimenting and making together. A group of 10 newly arrived students from Mainland China joined the group as volunteers. They were hoping to improve their English so they would relay ideas and instructions to people in the group. As the months passed it became a stronger and more exciting group to be a part of. Several volunteers decided to provided one-to-one Cantonese, English or Maths tutoring for the kids at their homes. For those children that had newly arrived we tried to create exciting educational materials for these subjects.
The other arm of the project was raising awareness through film and discussion. We hosted intimate film screenings all over Hong Kong, showing films that had themes of/or related to institutional racism, displacement, migration and war. It seemed like a engaging way to encourage a conversation and sharing of information. People were able to be apart of the dialogue despite not joining the weekly sessions. Every screening, I wished that those who were represented in the films could have been present in the room. The two arms of the project seemed distant and it bothered me.
By about March 2016 we had been running the project for about 6 months. I was always critical of the project. I started to feel that despite our best efforts we weren’t enabling the project to become what the name had indicated. The project was run by myself and other volunteers, hardly a Refugee Art Movement. A project organised by and for the very people that it serves. I believe that this is what the project should have evolved into. Refugee and asylum seeker families utilising the resources, applying for funding and organising sessions for one another. I had envisaged that the volunteers would take on a more supportive role, but when this didn’t happen I was greatly disappointed in myself.
I had continued joining the drumming group at Refugee Union each week. Honestly, that space was a real saviour for me. After realising that I wasn’t so good at drumming, I’d dance in a contemporary African style for about an hour and the drummers would continuously respond to my movements. On that rooftop in Sai Ying Pun I would sweat and smile after whatever had happened during the day. I admired this group. It wasn’t over thinking things, they just did and people would join if they could. We’d laugh when things went wrong and continue.
The Imagine That! Community Arts festival was inspired by this group. We invited artists, musicians, poets, photographers, dancers from various backgrounds to make in collaboration with one another. The families from our weekly sessions were all invited. The festival was hosted around the city across three days with a cosy base at the Pier that looked like we’d converted it into a living room (or an Ikea showroom).
Hundreds of people came over the course of the weekend and the kids had an amazing time. The pastor from the church brought food and a comforting smile, as he always did. Friends brought instruments for impromptu jamming sessions with the kids. At one point a lovely lady grabbed me by the arm as we danced frantically to the marrying of a French fanfare and West African drumming troupe!
As I said, I was always critical of the project and there were so many things I’d change about it.
I would change the structure to a flat non-hierarchical structure. I ran the project, which at times didn’t give people enough room to take it in different/better directions.
I would change the name. Names are tricky but I felt that the project didn’t quite live up to it.
I would have changed the financial structure. Relying on funding at times compromised the happenings within the project because funds would only be reimbursed for certain things. The film screenings could have been a paid event and that cash redistributed to the project. Whether this works or not I’m unsure but it’s just an idea I’ve thought about since.
However…I wouldn’t change the unexpected friendships that cropped up as a result of it and I’ll forever be grateful.
I’m now living in Leeds, worlds away from those days in Hong Kong. I support refugees and asylum seekers in my community more as an activist than an artist. I’m still trying to figure out what the words ‘activist’ and ‘artist’ truly mean and how the process/practices/priorities of both can connect in some way, if at all.
Thank you Platforma Festival. – Samra Mayanja Samramayanja@gmail.com