The Early Words: (Un)told stories

The Early Words: (Un)Told Stories features Barat Batoor, André Dao and Abdul Karim Hekmat discussing the complexities that exist in the intersections of activism and creativity and creative communitites.

The event was developed with the help of Writing Through Fences. We spoke with Writing Through Fences and the Refugee Art Project about the complexities of using art as activism.

The value and politics of art

Hani Abdile, leading member of Writing Through Fences, says “Art means the world to me and I see it as its part of my identity It is the foundation of my inner strength and a treasure that I can share with world.”

Imran Mohammad, member of Writing Through Fences, says, “Writing has been my greatest strength,” and writes:

With words straight from my heart

Paper fills with my soul

Pen in hand my mind awakes…

Written words light up the path I must follow

Peace and clarity fill me

as the paper fills with words…

I feel my self

Safdar Ahmed, founder of Refugee Project, says “Because their narratives are suppressed by our government, any true expression of their humanity is politically subversive.”

Art as activism

Behrouz Boochani, member of Writing Through Fences, says: “Writing for me is a means to live in this prison. I write to be alive.  Writing is resistance and resistance is life. Writing is the hardest work for me but I don’t know any better way than writing to keep my personality, to say to myself I am alive and I will survive. Writing is hard but I cannot stop writing.”

“The language of journalism is too weak to describe the reality in this prison. As both a journalist, writer and now film-maker, I know there are many gaps that journalism cannot bridge, experiences it cannot convey.  It is through a literary language, a cinematic language, an artistic and poetic language that more of the depths and complexities of experience can be represented, can filter into the reader or audience.  An artistic language makes more sense.”

Safdar Ahmed says, “Meaningful change doesn’t come from establishment figures with a stake in the status quo…but from the voices on the margins…good art has a power and meaning that is felt on many levels, and cannot be rationalised away.”

Why the process is often more important than the outcome.

Hani Abdile: “As I writer I had a very good mentor within Writing Through Fences.  This was important but also very important, especially when I was behind the fences, were the contacts that we made as part of this group.  This was significant in creating positive experiences and connectedness around my writing. Working with people from diverse backgrounds, with their own values and identity, gave me the strength to learn more about my own identity and the art history of my own ancestors which I have become proud of rather than just leaving that behind.”

“My experience as being part of Writing Through Fences has been extremely positive because a bird can’t fly with one wing and Writing Through Fences was my other wing when I deeply needed courage and the resilience to overcome such huge barriers and pursue my talent. Hopefully in return I can help others who are in the position I was a few years ago and help them to rise up as well.”

Rahman, Writing Through Fences member: “How else can I engage with the world beyond this prison camp? It is survival. I must commune with art and nature. My writing is very important.  It is my existence. Three and a half years’.

Janet Galbraith: “The focus of the art made through Writing Through Fences is…about acts of resistance and survival.”

Safdar Ahmed: “In the context of our workshops, the first priority is to create a space in which people can engage socially, form new friendships and feel a sense of security and trust. We make art together which fosters a sense of community… When powerful work emerges from our workshops it’s a testimony to the success of that process, though it’s never the primary goal. The process really is the most important part, rather than the finished work. Having said that, the art is stunningly powerful and deserves to be seen widely, so we try to make that happen, as a form of advocacy, in partnership with our participants.”

The difference between being a refugee artist, and being an artist with a refugee background

San, Writing Through Fences member: “These questions are talked over again.  Some of us are artists who have always been artists, always be artists.  Some write and make art because we have to.  We are not artists but we are prisoners with no voice.  There is no law, no human rights, no one sees us, now we have no choice we must write.”

Behrouz Boochani: “I am an artist.  I hate the word refugee. It steals everything away.  Many people write that I am only a refugee even when I have done so much work. I am a journalist, an artist, a writer first.  I am in a situation where I had to flee my home because of my work but I am an artist.”

Safdar Ahmed: “…most of the people in our organisation would never consider themselves ‘artists’ in a professional context…sometimes the pretentious use of that term has become a running joke in our workshops. Now and then, someone will finish a picture and say: ‘Now I am an arrtteeeshsht!’ and we roll the r.”

Order zines from the Refugee Art Project here.

 EWF be participating in Writing Through Fences’ Free Poetry Project at (Un)told stories. You can also visit their website to buy books written by members.