Young survivors of torture, war exhibit their art at top London gallery

by Alex Whiting | @AlexWhi | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 7 November 2013 14:00 GMT

The Bridge by Ahmed. From "The Journey of surviving to survive". Wood, nails, acrylic paint. 2013. REFUGEE COUNCIL YOUNG ADULTS IN TRANSITION PROJECT (YAIT)/Ahmed

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Asylum-seekers in Britain, often waiting years for a decision, express their feelings about past sufferings and present frustration in art, soon to be exhibited at a top London gallery

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Warm orange petals cluster together to form a flower, surrounded by fragments of what looks like a broken mirror and drops of blood-red paint.

The artist, Edwige, is one of a group of young refugees and asylum-seekers who have been using art to try to make sense of their past, and find ways to cope with the limbo in which they now live as they wait – sometimes for years – for the British authorities to decide whether they can stay.

Edwige says she and her mother were targeted by pro-government militia who attacked their home in Ivory Coast in 2011, killed her mother for her connections with the previous government, and gang-raped her. She went into hiding for 10 months, then fled to India, and came to Britain early this year, aged 25.

“I long to be surrounded by my family, but that is impossible. They are all dead,” she wrote for an exhibition of the group’s work to be shown at one of London’s top contemporary art galleries. “I am still surviving, but not like any ordinary person, or someone who is free. I feel like a prisoner. That is the reality of being a refugee.”

Andre, from Angola, painted a man and a woman with tears of blood flowing down their cheeks. “They are on the roundabout of asylum, going round and round in circles, waiting for a decision,” he wrote for “The journey of surviving to survive”, featuring the work of 20 young adults to be shown in the education room at the Saatchi Gallery from Nov. 20 to Dec. 2.

When Andre joined the group earlier this year he wouldn’t talk, said Lindon Rankin, psychotherapist and coordinator of the group run by the Refugee Council.

“If he did say anything he would be sobbing, or trying to put a brave face on it, telling jokes but really crying behind the jokes, behind the smiles,” Rankin added.

Andre says he was 15 when members of Angola’s ruling Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola came knocking at the door, demanding that he and his brother join their ranks.

They dragged his father – a representative of the Front for the Liberation of the Enclave of Cabinda rebel group – into the street and killed him when he refused to hand them over, and Andre went into hiding until his family was able to get him to Britain two years ago.

Now 18, he is still in limbo; he’s lost touch with his family, doesn’t know if his brother is still alive, and is waiting for the British authorities – who dispute his age – to decide whether he can stay.

“I thought that when I got here my journey would end, but that is not the case. I came full of hope but find myself daily frustrated by the system and distressed by the fact that I am not believed,” Andre said.

Angel, from Uganda, smashed up glass bottles and used the shards to cover her painting of a road winding through green hills, to emphasise the loneliness and fragility of living in foreign places.

Some of the most revealing works in the exhibition are masks whose fronts are painted in large blocks of colour and, in one case, the words “everything is cool”. But the backs portray brokenness, anguish and pain.

A few artists made objects that reminded them of their childhood – a toy car, an umbrella stand.  Others created disturbing models of what they or their relatives had suffered. One Eritrean used paper to shape organs – hearts, kidney, liver – that had been taken by criminal gangs from four young refugees who left Eritrea on foot.

“FRAGMENTED SOULS”

Britain rejects most asylum applications. In 2011, only about 30 percent of the 36,000 applications reviewed were granted.

Asylum-seekers in Britain often have to wait years before they know whether they’ve been successful. In the meantime they are not allowed to work, many subsisting on about £5 ($8) a day in state benefits to pay for food, clothing and toiletries. 

Many in the group survive on hand-outs, “literally surfing from one kind soul to another kind soul”, Rankin said. For the exhibition, they had to use paint scraped from dried-out paint pots, old canvases, and bits of discarded metal, wood, and cloth.

Even if an application is successful, the person is usually given permission to stay in Britain for just five years, and the authorities can review the case at any time. This makes it difficult for people to find work and plan a future.

“A lot of them were just sitting around waiting for a result from the Home Office (Interior Ministry), some of them for years,” Rankin said. “So the idea is, OK, who do you want to become? Let’s start working towards who you want to become.”

Some members of the group are now in further education, including Andre from Angola who is doing a diploma in engineering.

Even in the worst case scenario, if they have to go back, they will take with them some skills, confidence and drive to fulfil their potential, Rankin said.

“Human beings can be such barbaric animals, but at the same time we’ve got amazing potential and we can achieve amazing things,” he said.

“These young adults arrive fragmented individuals, fragmented souls. But it’s about being able to help them … to find those pieces and put them back in the way they want to be put back together,” he added.

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