Envisioning a compassionate future with refugee communities

Envisioning a compassionate future with refugee communities

Envisioning a compassionate future with refugee communities
Some of the project participants holding their textile autobiographies. Photos by JC Candanedo.

May 2023 marked the end of the second work package of the AHRC-funded ‘Decolonising Fashion and Textiles’ project. Through this participatory action research, we aim to investigate and value the lived experiences of London-based refugees and asylum seekers, in relation to the themes of cultural sustainability and community resilience. We are continuously listening to the needs and aspirations of our collaborating refugees, making informed decisions and planning together the types of activities and outcomes they would like to see. We have embarked on a mutual process of textile making to conceptualise and reflect on important aspects of the participants’ identities, cultures and lives, and on collective visions for the future.

The first activity in this phase of our research project was a series of storytelling sessions. The participants shared their experiences in relation to their personal and local identity, heritage and material culture, community resilience, textile and fashion skills, and employment. At a collective show and tell session, each participant was photographed by JC Candanedo wearing or holding a culturally relevant fabric, item of clothing or accessory, and the portraits were then printed onto fabric. In the subsequent workshops facilitated by our team together with community artist and designer Alisa Ruzavina, the participants used design tools to develop their concepts and customise their artworks as ‘textile autobiographies’ through painting, beadwork, hand stitching, appliqué and fabric collage.

three people sitting at a desk, looking at patterned fabric
Francesco Mazzarella and two project participants at Rosetta Arts, discussing their culturally significant fabrics and clothes. Photo by JC Candanedo.

One of the things that became clear is that people who are seeking asylum often migrate to forge a new life. In doing so, they need to create a new sense of belonging, a new identity in a new place. Based on the feedback we received, the project creates a safe space for our participants to reflect on their old identity, but also on the new identity that each one would like to create as they process past trauma, suffering and memories.

“I’m here to find myself. I’m here to find myself […] The reason why I do this is because I know [that] a picture can send a message to the outside world. If someone sees this [referring to her textile photo-story], they know that this lady is still fighting for her freedom.”

two collaged photos of a person
The transformation and shifting identity of one participant evidenced by the artworks created in the pilot (image on the left) and subsequent project phase (right). Photos by Francesco Mazzarella.

Another important aspect emerging from our ongoing research is the redefining of what fashion and textiles mean in this context. Fashion here is not defined through the Western lens of the clothing industry that dominates mainstream narratives. It refers to social and cultural practices, and related material objects created in the peripherals where diverse multi-ethnic communities flourish. This research provides a unique opportunity for design interactions and collaborations so that diverse communities can develop new identities as they rebuild their lives in a new place.

“Throughout this project, we constantly question ourselves as facilitators and our positionality, analysing the power narratives for a decentred approach, and we learn so much from the participants. Working alongside participants in the workshops I learnt new stitches, and noted that participants had a lot of untapped skills such as drawing or calligraphy that they had not even considered as useful or creative.”

collage of three people posing with textile portraits of themselves
Seher Mirza, Francesco Mazzarella and Lucy Orta holding their textile autobiographies. Photos by JC Candanedo.

The mapping workshops that followed contributed to outlining the present and future connections of each participant on a textile map of London. The participants mapped out organisations providing services, community centres where they volunteer, training and education providers, textile and fashion related spaces, and personally meaningful places. Useful information was shared to build a support network and foster resilience within the local community.

close up of a map of London with embroidery and thread connecting different locations
Map of connections between people and places. Photo by Mehrdad Pakniyat.

This research phase culminated with each participant writing a postcard to the future, and then working all together to develop a collective manifesto for a more compassionate future. Three textile banners were made by each of the groups, expressing their collective voice and power. When seeing the ideas materialise and working together to give shape to this collective voice, one participant looked on at the banner,seemingly elated, and witha sense of accomplishment she stated:“I didn’t know I could do this…it is beautiful”.

a group of people smiling and holding a large canvas with writing and heart illustrations on it
The project team and some of the workshop participants at the Leyton Green Studios holding their collective vision for the future. Photo by JC Candanedo.

The project participants who initially might have felt powerless in situations, either in their own countries or while waiting for their refugee status to be approved in the UK, are discovering forms of power within themselves – such as an enhanced sense of self-worth. Our research has also helped enable them to achieve personal and professional goals. Participants are starting to build collective power with the communities that they have begun to identify with and belong to.

“The project so far has enabled the development and application of research methods from a decolonial perspective, the creation of a crucial grounding space for the participants to reflect on their shifting identities and build power within themselves, as well as collective agency to shape a better future. We have also activated meaningful connections with the local community and partnerships with relevant organisations, as well as contributing to advancing the social purpose and place-making agenda of our University.”

– Dr Francesco Mazzarella


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