The arts offer the means for people to express who they are. Painting, drama, dance, photography and other art forms provide first and second generation migrants and refugees a creative space to tell stories, recount powerful memories, and share thoughts and feelings of freedom and joy, trauma and pain. Participating in the arts gives viewers and audiences a different perspective on the experience of migration and exile, the search for belonging and sense of exclusion. Creative workshops can be fulfilling spaces for people of all ages and types to meet and mix with those from different backgrounds, identities, and life experiences.
© Maggie O'Neill, Women's art workshop © John Perivolaris of sculptor Emmanuel Changunda
Writing about black British artists, the cultural theorist, Stuart Hall, distinguished between two groups: the last ‘colonials’ and the first ‘postcolonials’. The first group, who came to Britain after the Second World War, were modernist, avant-garde artists who favoured abstract expression. The second, British-born generation pioneered the Black Art Movement. They were anti-racist, and motivated by identity issues.
"Separated from their homes of origin, marginalised from society’s mainstream, excluded and stereotyped, discriminated against in the public sphere, pushed around by the police, abused in the streets, and profoundly alienated from recognition or acceptance by British society at large, [the ‘postcolonials’] were haunted by questions of identity and belonging. ‘Who are we?’ ‘Where do we come from?’ ‘Where do we really belong?’" (Hall, 2006:18)
The desire to address these questions led these second wave artists to confront issues of migration and transnationalism as well as racism. They examined them through their own experiences and family histories. Their focus on home and belonging, journeys and memories has led to them being known as ‘diaspora artists’, thus stressing their interconnections rather than their racial or cultural differences.
The artist and researcher, Susan Pui San Lok, has been working on Golden since 2003. In this project she explores questions of “nostalgia, aspiration, cultivation and translation”, focusing particularly on the Chinese diaspora. Through video and sound pieces and installations referring to ballrooms and allotments, she considers how identities, memories and territories are cultivated and tended, and how people hold together their simultaneous desires to both settle and return.
Reflecting on Susan’s work, another artist said “it’s easy to understand why the past is often viewed through rose-coloured glass – because we generally deal with trauma by forgetting it … the high points acquire a glamorous sheen that might not have been evident in real time” (Naomi Siderfin, in Golden (Notes), 2006:76).
© Susan Pui San Lok © Heather Connolly
Refugee artists, forced from their home countries because of civil war, or political, ethnic or religious differences, have also addressed these issues. Many have confronted memories of violence, destruction, the death of friends and family, and the trauma of exile though their art practice. They have also raised questions about the problem of being categorised as a refugee or migrant artist as this can at times marginalise or exclude them from wider opportunities to show their work and gain employment.