I’m in the second year of my PhD at Queen Mary’s SED and a Teaching Associate. I have been balancing my PhD work on portraiture and radicalism with researching and creating project refuge/e which has so far toured to Yorkshire Sculpture Park, The Millennium Gallery in Sheffield, BALTIC centre for contemporary art.
Next week the installation is coming to London’s Southbank where it will be part of M.I.A.’s Meltdown Festival from 13-18 June.
The project originated in Lebanon. I was driving with my partner from the mountains in the north back to Beirut. We saw encampment after encampment of makeshift Syrian refugee shelters stretching across the Bekaa Valley. In Lebanon, 1 in 4 people is a refugee. This recent arrival of Syrians has added to the refugee communities of Palestinians, Iraqi and Afghani refugees to which the country already host. It was like nothing I had ever seen. Many of these structures had been standing for five years. They were built by the families which lived in them.
The shelters, barrikea, were made from ramshackle materials, wood and plastic sheeting provided by UNHCR as well as found items to improve and weatherproof the structure: advertising boards, corrugated iron, at least ten tyres to hold down the plastic on the roof. Between 8 to 14 people lived in a 7m x 4m space. The land the each shelter stood on was rented for around $100 a month. The architecture of the shelters tells us about the political situation in Lebanon and the social and economic pressures the whole county is under. The government’s policy is to make life sufficiently uncomfortable that Syrians will not be able to stay long term. The kit that Syrians are given on arrival is flimsy and short-term, designed to allow them to build themselves a shelter that will last a year or two at the most. It reminds you of the £55 per week asylum-seekers in the UK are expected to live on – as it is impossible to live on that with dignity, it is supposed to be a sop to domestic voters and to put people off coming if possible.
We wanted to show people in the UK what is going on in Lebanon, to counter the myth that refugees could just stay in their neighbouring countries. refuge/e is a reconstruction of one of these typical Syrian refugee shelters found in Lebanon. With funding from Art Fund and The British Council, we planned with UNHCR Lebanon an extensive research and material gathering trip in November 2016. We learned first-hand how people coped with this challenge, then shipped a shelter kit and local materials back to the UK. We then crafted sculptures in plaster and brass of of possessions found in these homes. As you walk around the installation you can listen to refugees speaking about their daily experiences of living for years in tents or shells of buildings, struggling for normality in displacement. Hassan and Birra, two young men resettled to Sheffield from Syria and Ethiopia respectively, will be in the installation everyday acting as our guides and experts by experience.
Each day there are live link ups to emerging refugee DJs from around the world at 18.30 most evenings and a talk on the role technology has played in the refugee crisis. There will be Iftar each evening too.
More details can be found at www.projectrefugee.co.uk