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Outsiders looking in

Who Am I? is a new book about an art studio that’s ‘a lifeline for people who have nothing…’

03 September, 2020 — By John Evans

Going Away by Paul

IN the 12 months to March 2020 the UK reported 35,099 asylum applications, 11 per cent up in a year but lower than the recent peak of 36,546 in the year ending June 2016.

Some 44,244 asylum seekers received support under section 95 of the 1999 immigration act.

Of these, 41,388 were in receipt of both accommodation and subsistence; 83 per cent were located in England.

From the outset, Tania Kaczynski’s message in her new book is blunt and obvious. “Though we are bombarded with words about immigration, we seldom hear from the human beings at the heart of it, or see how the experience appears through their individual eyes,” she says.

Shaka’s Still Awake

That’s really all you need to know about the thinking behind Who Am I?: The story of a London art studio for asylum seekers and refugees, which is to be published by The History Press later this month.

Except that this is not one story but very many.

When the group held an exhibition of members’ works in 2017 they called it Thirty-Six Pounds and Ninety-Five Pence, the amount that asylum seekers then received each week in vouchers from the government.

The current rate is £37.75 per week per person. Taking paid work is forbidden.

Still Beating

In 2014 Kaczynski set up the studio with colleague Jon Martyn, using as their base the Islington Arts Factory in Holloway.

The two art therapists had worked with a large charity running a similar project, but that had ended abruptly.

Without a permanent roof over their heads, at first, a small group took to meeting weekly in Finsbury Park instead.

Kaczynski explains: “The group would sit and chat, drawing trees and skies, birds and bicycles. One of the members told stories of sleeping here for two weeks when she had first arrived in the United Kingdom 10 years earlier. Lela, one of the longest-standing members of the group, explained which berries you could eat from the trees, trees I had walked past a thousand times before and now saw in a completely new light. Lela’s knowledge of foraging came from her years as a freedom fighter, when she became skilled at survival techniques.”

The book tells of a battle for survival not only of an art group and its need for funding, premises, and more but also of its individual members.

Generations Behind Bars

Kaczynski describes New Art Studio as “a lifeline for people who have nothing: no family, no money, no connections”.

Fearful too; names and countries of origin have been changed or omitted.

For example, it tells of Shaka, whose only “crime” was to have a boyfriend in the UK, meaning she could not return home. Shaka now lives in National Asylum Support Service accommodation, to which she must return each night, and hardly eats and rarely sleeps, says Kaczynski.

And she draws patterns “like the mazes asylum seekers exist within”.

One night, alone and afraid, Shaka sought help.

But she did not call on the Samaritans, rather on Apple’s Siri and, in this case, a male voice of the virtual assistant assured her “Don’t worry you’re not alone”.

A Bit Better by Wallid

The studio group is described as “an art collective like no other”. But its members are vulnerable and disconnected from their original contacts, making it hard to make connections with those who could help.

There is, too, the vulnerability.

There are harrowing tales, from rape treated almost as “a rite of passage” in some societies, a would-be refugee “living under the radar” for 10 years and working in a relative’s shop, and the real fears for family and friends who remain in the home states.

While there are no formal lessons at the studio there is a loyalty and camaraderie, says Kaczynski, “every image made here contains a history of terror; of injustice; of humankind at its most unkind.

“The worst of what we are.”

Yet the work is unusual and inspiring.

And, more often than might be thought, the art goes beyond depictions of darkness, with the imagination leading to something approaching freedom and solace.

You can donate online at newartstudio.org.uk

• Who Am I? By Tania Kaczynski is to be published on September 21 by The History Press, £20. Also available on Kindle.

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