‘Thread Bearing Witness’ is an art project which will use textiles to learn from, show solidarity with, and raise funds for displaced people. Textile artist Alice Kettle will be working with researcher Tamsin Koumis. This multi-stranded project will involve many groups, individuals and activities from across the UK.
Alice Kettle is a contemporary textile / fibre artist based in the UK. She is currently Professor in Textile Arts at Manchester School of Art, Manchester Metropolitan University
Her stitched works, many the size of huge figurative tapestries, exploit the textures and effects made possible through the harnessing of a mechanical process to intuitive and creative ends while in her large scale works she continues the tradition of monumental textiles.
Her work is represented in various public collections such as the Crafts Council London, the Whitworth in Manchester, the Museo Internationale delle Arti Applicate Oggi, Turin, Italy. Commissions include the National Library of Australia, the Scottish High Court in Edinburgh, Gloucester and Winchester Cathedrals and the School of Music & Drama at Manchester University. She’s recently completed a major commission for Lloyds Register Global Technology Centre at Southampton University.
“Alice Kettle is a contemporary textile/fibre artist based in the UK. She has established a unique area of practice by her use of a craft medium, consistently and on an unparalleled scale. The scale of her work belies their component parts: individual tiny stitches, which combine to form great swathes of colour, painterly backgrounds incorporating rich hues and metallic sheen.” Sara Roberts
See Alice’s website here.
Alice’s has been compelled to get involved with the movement to support refugees and asylum seekers partly in response to the work of her daughter, Tamsin.
Jenna C. Ashton is a researcher, writer, curator and artist working in the areas of heritage, archives, visual culture and the arts. She is the editor of two volume international publication “Feminism and Museums: Intervention, Disruption and Change” (MuseumsEtc, Nov 2017 & Jan 2018).
She specializes in women’s cultural heritage, spatial agency and activism, and participatory practices – intersecting with disciplines of art history, sociology, health, and geography. Her work is concerned with developing and evidencing methodologies of inclusive representation and heritage participation which support policy advocacy and social change for women and girls internationally.
Jenna is Creative Director and Founder of Digital Women’s Archive North [DWAN], an arts and heritage organisation supporting women and girls to identify, collect, disseminate and celebrate their cultural heritage through creative and digital interventions.
Other roles include Global Cultural Fellow, Institute for International Cultural Relations, Edinburgh University; Honorary Research Fellow, Sociology in the School of Social Sciences, University of Manchester; Curatorial Advisor and Research Partner on women’s histories, art and activism at the National Trust, 2017-19.
Tamsin Koumis has volunteered with migrants and refugees for the past five years, in the UK and abroad. She is Co-Founder of Dunkirk Legal Support Team, a human rights project facilitating access to legal information, advice and representation in Dunkirk Refugee Camp. Tamsin is now shifting her attention towards the inclusion of refugees and asylum seekers in the arts, through Thread Bearing Witness.
Tamsin Koumis: Thread Bearing Witness Chapter 1
Photo Knut Bry
Since spring 2017, artist Alice Kettle has embarked on a new project titled ‘Thread Bearing Witness’: using thread to explore the world of refugees and asylum seekers. The project has already received hundreds of hand embroidered contributions from members of the public to show their solidarity with refugees; Kettle’s first monumental embroidery ‘Sea’ was exhibited in the Winchester Discovery Centre; and Kettle has been working closely with a few individual refugees and asylum seekers to develop her new work for her exhibition in the Whitworth Gallery in September 2018, which will be the culmination of the project. It is an exciting project which is not only exploring a range of ways to use thread and textiles, but which also explores a variety of approaches to connecting with people about a social issue.
The ‘Thread Bearing Witness’ project has been the first time that Kettle has met or worked with refugees and asylum seekers. As such, the project documents a shift in her perspective, as she has moved from a concerned citizen to an active member of the migrant and refugee support sector. Connecting; creating and volunteering with refugees and asylum seekers has enabled Kettle to connect to the topical issue of migration on both a human and a personal level. This shift in perspective will be visible in the final exhibition, mirrored in a shift within the work revealing something of the power and potential impact of human connectivity, as well as the way in which thread can operate as a powerful tool to create and develop such connections.
This is the first instalment of my writing about the project. I am her daughter, the second of three, and I have spent a lot of time over the past five years or so volunteering with migrants and refugees in the UK, and recently co-founding Dunkirk Legal Support Team, an access to rights project based in what was the Dunkirk refugee camp in France. I have been the first link in the chain between Kettle and the issue of migrants and refugees, and during the initial stages of the project I acted as her guide to the sector, to its language and to some of the people within it.
In this first chapter, I will examine the initial processes of meeting, researching and making which have kick started the ‘Thread: Bearing Witness’ project, and will show how these separate strands intend to enact the projects’ aims. The next chapter will examine the processes and work being created by Kettle together with individual refugees and asylum seekers. The project is changing and reformulating with time, as is common with art projects, as Kettle learns and explores the processes and connections in more depth. As such, what is written here may not be true when the project is over – but we think it is valuable to document these changes, and so therefore to chapter our intentions and reflections at this mid-point of the project.
The ‘Thread Bearing Witness’ project has four core aims:
- To use textiles as a communicative tool to create and strengthen social bonds, with the view that this will foster community and individual resilience.
- To learn about refugees and asylum seekers here in the UK, in recognition of their individuality; their immense value to our community; and in celebration of each individual’s unique strengths and resilience.
- To document through embroidery a shared public and individual sentiment of care and concern for the suffering that refugees and asylum seekers endure.
- To raise money and awareness about/for issues faced refugees and asylum seekers (50% of profits from artwork sales will go to charities supporting refugees and asylum seekers)
The various strands and processes of meeting, researching and making include:
- The ‘Sea’ piece
- The ‘Stitch a Tree’ Project
- ‘Stitching stories – Making Common Ground’ – exhibition at Winchester Discovery Centre, hosting the ‘Stitch a Tree’ Project
- English conversation class
- Saami’s map
- Susan’s beading
- Travelling Heritage Bureau
- Other artworks by Alice Kettle
I will explore the strands consecutively, starting where Kettle started – at the sea.
The ‘Sea’ piece is an expression of the overwhelming shock, horror and impotence instilled by the repeated media images of sinking overcrowded boats of refugees at sea. At the same time, it is an abstract pattern – made up of repeated motifs and layers.
“We know that sea, where they’re drowning. The sea has become dangerous, where before we had played in that very sea. All that swimming we’ve done – if you saw a body sept up on the islands, how would you feel about swimming in it? We’ve seen it as a magical thing, this blue sea…” Alice Kettle 15th July 2017
Greek islands have played a central role in our family life. They have always been a place of safety and of peace. The ‘Sea’ piece represents the abstraction from reality which Kettle felt, witnessing tragedy from the comfort of home through the media lens, and seeing once familiar settings transform into unfamiliar territories. This piece uses embroidery to document the impotence which so many people in the UK feel when seeing these media images, and also acts as an homage to the thousands of people who have drowned at sea in search of safety. The enormous scale of the artwork forces you to pause and be consumed by it, and the simplicity of the design with its repeated abstract motifs moves the artwork away from Kettle’s usual style and moves towards a more immersive and mesmerising effect. It makes you think and pause.
The sea is a space full of contradictions. On the one hand, its fluidity and unboundedness offers a potential escape route: people use the sea as a way out of danger. But this route is fraught with risks and deaths – its fluidity and unboundedness are merciless. In some ways, the sea is equalising: each human can be overwhelmed by the power of the sea, as natures’ immense power recognises no distinction between creed or colour. And yet, human spells of ownership and authority mark permeable boundaries across the waves, leading to violent games with cruel disadvantages. The transformative potential of the journey can hold a blessing or a curse. Kettle’s work recognises the cruelty and the beauty inherent in this liminal space, and we see the sea as a mythical and powerful force which continues today to be the stage for so many tragedies. We watch through screens and papers, feeling powerless and frozen, questioning reality, as hundreds are left to battle this immense unquestionable force.
After the ‘Sea’’s expression of abstraction and impotence comes Kettle’s call for unity, connection and expression, taking shape in the ‘Stitch a Tree Project’, which invites members of the public to contribute hand stitched trees in solidarity with refugees. The trees will be assembled to make a large ‘Forest’, which represents an imagined place safety and solidarity which participants collectively create.
The original idea for the ‘Stitch a Tree’ project came from the Refugee Resilience Collective, who worked with refugee children in Dunkirk refugee camp in April 2017 and used the ‘Tree of Life’ – a strength based narrative therapy tool – to begin conversations with the children about strength and resilience (Hughes 2014:150). Using the tree as a creative metaphor, the approach invites participants to consider their lives, mapped onto the tree: roots representing cultural and social histories; branches representing hopes and dreams for the future, and so on. “Some of the children made metaphorical links between the trees and their own lives, commenting, “Just as the water feeds the tree, our mothers have fed us”” (Refugee Resilience Collective April 2017). This idea of using a creative metaphor and a creative process to invite conversations is echoed in the ‘Stitch a Tree’ project, with the idea that using creative methods to facilitate discussion of social issues, community resilience can be built. “if we think imaginatively together…this helps build resilience…and the creative capacity to deal with great challenges” (Gauntlett 2013:20).
The powerful ‘Tree of Life’ methodology provides a simple tool through which to examine and represent the layers of human existence and the interconnected humanness which is so easily forgotten within the modern existence, but which is so essential for all people in moments of need. By adapting this methodology to inform the public participatory ‘Stitch a Tree’ project, the project aims to invite everyone to reflect on their shared humanity; to feel part of a connected community through shared practice and intention; and to remind people of their “power” or “capacity” to turn thought and intention into action, through engaging in a craft activity (Bratich and Brush 2011:255). The common feeling of impotence and the desire to “do something” can be put into a small yet symbolic and potentially part of a larger action – enabling some feeling of agency for the concerned citizen. “Small gestures won’t do much, but they can connect you to what it is to be human” (Moore 2015).
The ‘Stitch a Tree’ sub-project is expected to be the most effective within the larger ‘Thread Bearing Witness’ project, in terms of engagement and participation – creating connectivity between a wide range of concerned citizens and strengthening social bonds between various groups of people. The project has already incorporated various groups local to Kettle – including groups of refugees, of school children, and of local embroiderers. Through seeking to bridge the gap between these groups, the project aims to create a more cohesive local community, creating opportunities for crossover between groups in the gallery space. These small interactions between different groups are in many ways as significant as part of the ‘artwork’ as the final visual product itself. Furthermore, the artwork will be an opportunity for individuals to visualise themselves and their groups as important parts of a larger body of concerned citizens.
The ‘Stitch a Tree’ project was hosted as part of the ‘Stitching stories – Making Common Ground’ exhibition at Winchester Discovery Centre between October – November 2017. During the exhibition, local artist Vanessa Rolf ran workshops with members of the public, to stitch together a giant patchwork map. The outcome was successful, with not only beautifully stitched maps, but also because the “resources sparked all kinds of interesting conversations about places travelled or unexpected connections.” (http://threadbearingwitness.com/2017/11/06/making-common-ground/) Furthermore, cross fertilisation has taken place between groups, such as one individual introduced through the ‘Stitch a Tree’ project has now begun to volunteer in a local refugee support group, which she heard about through Kettle. Such examples may for now be small, but it is these seeds of change and connection which can grow into something more lasting and permanent.
Stitch a Tree November 1st 2017.
The link between engaging in a craft activity and active engagement in social issues is explored within the realm of ‘Craftivism’. Betsy Greer explained that “it’s about making your own creativity a force to be reckoned with” (Bratich and Brush 2011:16). Through engaging with a craft activity, an individual realises their ability to manipulate a medium: their ‘power to shape the world around them. Not only does “making things for ourselves gives us a sense of wonder, agency, and possibilities in the world” (Roszika Parker in Gauntlett 2013:2), but it also helps us to conceptualise ourselves as the protagonists of the change-making. The act of creation can help us to imagine the potential for how we can build the world around us, giving us the “tools to make the world [our] own” (Ivan Illich). In this sense, through craft, we become aware of our own power.
Bratich and Brush “conceptualize craft as power (the ability or capacity to act)” (2011:233). They explain that “Power here is not equivalent to hierarchy and domination (potere in Italian; pouvoir in French) but more like capacity or ability (potenza and pouissance)” (2011:255). They continue, “Craft fastens the concrete and the abstract into a material symbol. Fabriculture is a materialization of a series of relationships and symbols” (2011:246). The anger, frustration and detachment which characterise the feelings of many UK citizens towards the issues faced by refugees and asylum seekers can all be put into an action and enacted towards a tangible outcome through the stitching process of the ‘Stitch a Tree’ project. Furthermore, craft is an action which can be seen to break down boundaries and binaries, as it “stitches across common distinctions between old/new, material/immaterial, economic/semiotic, bio/info, and digital/tactile and opens to a new fabric of relations” (ibid). In this sense, craft provides a powerful tool through which to attempt to consider human experience and connectedness, both broadly speaking and in relation to the issues faced by displaced people.
Corbett argues that the power of craft is inherent within its slower pace and perception as ‘delicate’ and feminine, as “Gentleness can be a great strength, and quiet action can sometimes speak as powerfully amid the noise as the loudest voice.” (Corbett) Corbett argues for use of “the process of ‘making’ to engage thoughtfully in the issues we are about, to influence and effect change”. In some senses, it is perhaps the softness of a textiles approach which makes the message approachable – enabling certain audiences to contemplate an issue which they might otherwise reject. There is room for ‘soft power’ to influence the outcome of politics.
During the ‘Making Common Ground’ public workshops in Winchester Discovery Centre (WDC), (as part of the exhibition where the Stitch a Tree project was hosted in October 2017) with Vanessa Rolf, she explained that the group, “spoke about stitch as having been a long used method of quiet subversion or expressing a voice for otherwise disenfranchised groups. Examples included the quilters of Gees Bend whose utilitarian patchwork developed into an expressive art form for cotton plantation slaves in the USA; beautifully embroidered Suffragette banners and the Craftivist Collective using cross-stitch as their tool for ‘gentle activism’. Our stitching of maps has allowed us to contemplate the significance of place and what it might mean to be displaced. It has also shown the value of coming together to share ideas and stories.” (http://threadbearingwitness.com/2017/11/20/quiet-protest/)
As such, the local people engaged in the project have themselves recognised the potential power of stitching as a tool for change making.
The Embroiderers Guild are the UK’s leading charity promoting embroidery. They represent one of the core participating – and also facilitating – groups in the project. Many of their members are exhibiting in the ‘Stitching stories – Making Common Ground’ exhibition at WDC – where the ‘Stitch a Tree’ Project is initially being exhibited as a participatory exhibit, as more and more people stitch trees to add to the forest. The Embroiderers Guild have also encouraged participation of their youth group – the Young Embroiderers – whose small hand-embroidered refugee dolls were also exhibited at the WDC show. The participation of these groups in the show represents an awareness raising element of the project – as the majority of the Embroiderers Guild + Young Embroiderers members have not personally experienced asylum, and the majority have never met a refugee. As such, inviting them to explore issues of asylum and refugees through the arts offers a space in which they can creatively engage with the subject matter, with the hope that this may lead to engagement with the people within the (abstract media) ’stories’. Nickell explains that “Textiles as a media can play a particular role in facilitating conversation” (Nickell 2015:247) – as the shared creative activity can provide a space and time in which communication on a particular topic can be instigated.
So far, the project has been effective because the simplicity of the message means that other groups are able to adapt the project to suit their needs. The high quality of the materials means that people enjoy the aesthetic process of participating – it means that they are involved in making something which will be a beautiful. Effort is being invested in assembling the pieces to a high quality – meaning that each contribution is a valued and credible part of a powerful output. This is to represent the real beauty of a shared, common ground. The hope is that teachers and workshop facilitators will continue to engage with the website and the accompanying information that is sent out with the stitching packs, in order to learn and inform themselves of about different practical ways to support asylum seekers and refugees in the UK.
Participants have written moving sentiments to accompany their trees. One participant wrote that “My grandmother planted the Tamaracks when my great grandfather built our cottage on Lake Huron in Canada. She watched it grow, as did my father, myself and my children. The Tamarack Tree is a symbol of continuity, strength, resilience. Continuity will, I hope, be provided for #refugees in the future” (https://twitter.com/TamsinKoumis/status/922093845415854080). Another wrote that “this has inspired me to find other ways to help refugees”. Another, “I was born in heavily forested Guyana. Trees represent safety, home and shelter to me”.
By considering the ‘Stitch a Tree’ engagement as a form of image making, with the tree as a stated symbol of compassion for refugees, then we can see that this process of image making is also a way of creating a specific narrative, or “fiction”, as Ranciere would say. “Politics and art, like forms of knowledge, construct ‘fictions,’ that is to say material rearrangements of signs and images, relationships between what is seen and what is said, between what is done and what can be done” (Rancière 2004:39). Ranciere further emphasises the relationship between something as simple as a picture or an image, and the politics which shape our society. Once we consider our social world to be made up of stories which can be changed, then we begin to recognise the power of each individual to alter the outcome of political movements. The symbolic statement of stitching a tree becomes like a public display of devotion to an ideal – one of collective goodwill and of creating spaces of safety. Whilst the symbol is small, it forms part of a new narrative or fiction, which counters the “hostile environment” and its accompanying narratives which dominate the press, espousing islamophobia and a fear of the ‘swarms’ and floods of migrants, as if they were a venom.
In an iconic display of socially engaged crafting, artist Christi Belcourt in 2012 asked for donations of hand-beaded “vamps” (tops of moccasins) to be sewn in honour of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada for Walking With Our Sisters, a large-scale commemorative installation. After receiving over 1726 contributions, they were displayed in an exhibition/ commemorative space. The power of this project was largely documented as being the “sense of connectedness, [it facilitated] and thus responsibility and solidarity… as “solidarity is built stitch by stitch” (Anderson 2016:91). Furthermore, the process of making is linked to “experiences of storytelling, thinking, mourning, healing, showing care, passing memory, and the expression of agency”, and the repeated movements involved can be an opportunity for a meditative and reflective experience (ibid). In this sense, the stitching is not only a form of medicine on an individual level, with its capacity for ‘healing’, but it also has the power to transcend the individual and connect individuals to a shared sense of social responsibility.
The production and distribution of objects has long since been considered by anthropologists to be significant for the production of community – primarily through gift giving, but also as a way of creating public signs, and as a practice within families (Bratich and Brush 2011:234). As a communal and public craft activity, the ‘Stitch a Tree’ project has the same potential – a public sign of commonality and of shared practice is a way of breaking down social boundaries and finding points of connections between otherwise separate groups. In a way, it can be seen to be a joint act of gift creation and gift giving, to a group of people we don’t know how to give to. The need to create something as a substitute for what we dream of making is inherent within the tool of ‘utopias’, as a means of creating fictional, idealised alternatives which allows us to imagine other possibilities. In this project, the ‘Forest’ represents an imaginary safe space which we all wish we could create for displaced people. By stitching a tree, each individual invests in this utopia, and the ‘Forest’ becomes a documentation of one communities shared concern for others, through their investment in imagining an alternative.
The various forms of ‘utopia’ have been a common creative response to problem solving. Utopian thought has been a tool to point out what is wrong with the current system, and to construct possible alternatives. Some argue that this power to imagine an alternative brings us closer to making this a reality, inspiring us of the possibilities of change and motivating us to guide history in the right direction. As Open Democracy state, “If the old hierarchical spatial configurations are no longer sustainable, or are only sustainable with the violence of walls and razor wire, then there is a role for art to set out alternative ways of mapping our predicament” (Open democracy). However, the utopian tool has also been criticised by others for its abstraction, and for its lack of impact on reality. They would argue that we must try to actively change the current circumstances, in order to make actual (not just imaginary) progress towards a better future. This tension arguably reflects a tension that lies between the art world and the world of activism: whilst many artists believe in the power of statement and of vision; many activists believe in the primacy of action.
An activist perspective and frustration at the vision and statement of artists is poignantly expressed by Thomas Bellinck, who supported ‘sans papiers’ migrants who were participating in mass hunger strikes in Brussels in 2009 amidst a political crisis. As a last resort after months of failed negotiations and multiple demonstrations, the hungers strikes were a desperate plea for immediate systemic change. Bellinck organised for a group of migrants to sing the Belgium national anthem, as part of this ongoing struggle, and was then deeply surprised to be awarded a prize by a national cultural organisation for this protest action, which they viewed as a significant act of community theatre. In Bellinck’s speech at the award ceremony, poignantly titled “We were dying and we got a prize”, Bellinck says that “a battle is no place for our cherished pose of the right-minded artist…our much-treasured critical distance almost a priori inhibits our ability to take action…Surely social commitment also implies human commitment?” (Bellinck 2011:50). In times of crisis, art’s role is troubled.
Whilst art will never be able to replace the need for direct political, humanitarian and emergency response action; art can instead push for changes outside of the critical epicentres of these “battles”. In the context of the ‘Stitch a Tree’ project, the artwork is not being made in an emergency context, but instead it is growing in the context of the safety of the UK – and the intended ‘aim’ is not to fix the emergency, but instead to bring together the community in the UK whilst thinking about the emergencies that so many are facing overseas, and have been previously faced by many of our asylum seeking and refugee population in the UK. This can, according to Bourriad, also be conceptualised as a form of utopianism.
‘Participatory art’ is considered to involve many people who are not the artist who designed the project (Bishop 1). Bourriad sees participatory art as a potential form of art which moves away from abstract utopianism and moves towards a real, engaged, ‘concrete’ utopianism, which he coins ‘micro-utopia’. Bourriad’s concept is centred on power and agency and the expression of a practical politics, and he argues that certain relational or participatory art practices can be an experimental space which makes room for transformative politics (Blanes, Flynn, Maskens, Tinius 2016:16). Bourriad argues that “Artworks that focus on the creation of concrete instances of intersubjective and social encounters arguably provoke a glimpse into a democratic, “micro-utopian” space” (Blanes, Flynn, Maskens, Tinius 2016:9). Bourriad’s concept of ‘everyday micro-utopias’ (Bourriad 2002 :31) reflects on features of art practices which are based on social ‘interstices’ and relations between artists and participants – finding power through the creativity of daily life. For Bourriad, the boundaries between life and art become blurred through these interactions, and the actions of ‘normal’ people become valued as a source of creativity.
As such, art is no longer about disengaged statements, but it can instead be about actual changes in our social worlds. Rather than an object made by one individual being revered for its impact on a receptive audience, instead this form of artwork values the impact of the actions of non-artists: which have the power to change society. Arguably the ‘Stitch a Tree’ project creates opportunities for ‘micro-utopian spaces’, as it invites participants to participate, to interact with other groups, and to also to take action beyond the gallery space if they choose to. Whilst the ‘Forest’ created at the end will be a literal utopian space, the process of creation will foster ‘everyday micro-utopianism’, with the hope that the overall ‘Thread Bearing Witness’ project will in some ways shift social interactions and create actual moments of change between individuals participants. As Ingold and Hallam argue, social life itself is embedded with improvisational creativity – quite simply, life is constantly “in the making” (2008).
Overall, the ‘Stitch a Tree’ project dares to dream of an alternative future where refugees and asylum seekers have safety, community, and therefore are more resilient. The act of sewing something can be seen as an act of hope; rejecting the hopelessness that is a consequence of the modern ideology; and refusing to be frozen by the overwhelming media presentations of infinite catastrophes which render us impotent, without voice nor action.
One of the projects aims is centred around connecting people – and the internet is the most powerful tool for doing so. “Social media can be a platform for action taking place in the real world” (Garlow 2013), so long as the action is able to transcend from the virtual sphere into reality. Indeed, the internet enables participation from many people beyond the potential access of the exhibition space itself, and the “enormity and scope of [the] initiative can unfold and expand infinitely” leading to “alternative modes of experiencing and interacting with the project” (Anderson 2016:90). Technology, the internet and social media “under certain circumstances, can have a positively democratising effect for many people by opening access to communication networks” (Kesselring and Vogl 29). One potential outcome of this public and participatory part of the project may be that new audiences attend the exhibition space, re-formulating who uses what public spaces, and opening up new possibilities of engagement. This has the potential to make micro changes to the structure of our society – perhaps an example of when “Utopia becomes fundamentally an expression of practical politics” (Blanes, Flynn, Maskens, Tinius 2016:10). The soft ideals shared by a collective of safety and solidarity have the potential to create a more inclusive environment within what is often a site of exclusivity.
As such, the ‘Stitch a Tree’ project achieves three of the ‘Thread Bearing Witness’ projects aims: it documents through embroidery a shared public and individual sentiment of care and concern for the suffering that refugees and asylum seekers endure; and it uses textiles as a communicative tool to create and strength social bonds, with the view that this will foster community and individual resilience; whilst raising awareness of issues faced by refugees.
To inform her own artworks, and to learn more about issues faced by migrants and refugees in the UK, Alice has been volunteering with a local English conversation class for Syrian refugee women; as well as joining as a member of the Southampton and Winchester Visitors Group. These activities have opened up her world, and have introduced her to new people with vastly different lives and backgrounds. These meetings with individuals have marked the shift in Kettle’s perspective from one of ‘abstraction’, as seen in the ‘Sea’ piece, to one of connection. The issues faced by displaced people was before something anonymous and overwhelming (Sea), where as it is now increasingly becoming an issue which she can connect to through the individuals she has got to know.
“You’ve just been telling me names, lots of names and stories. And these mean nothing to me. It’s like the way you see the media – a mass, a collective. But the moment you meet someone, it changes.” (Alice Kettle July 2017)
I find the motif of a change particularly powerful, as it reveals the potential for a human relationship, encounter or connection to alter your own perception and understanding of the world around us and the events we face. Carter states that as we move between “degrees of distance, rates of recognition and spheres of influence” (Carter 2013:18), we come to find shared meanings and points of connections with others, building a picture of where each separate relationship stands amidst the swirling global forces. It is this distinctly human impression which will mark the project – the social interstices revealing themselves to be catalysts for new creative directions. The project represents a range of tones – the expert and the amateur, the public and the private – and it is the interface between these tones which has creative potential.
‘Thread Bearing Witness’ marks a significant shift for Kettle – not just in her creative practice, but in her understanding and relation to the events around us. She has come to realise the potential impact this project could have and the potential relevance of it, despite doubts which punctuate the creative process. Previously she felt that “because I’m doing textiles, and embroidery, and I’m a woman, and I’m doing it in a decorative way – there is this sense that you’re not doing something serious enough to comment” (Kettle June 2017). She later explained that she had come, with time, to realise that “there is an underlying power within what I’m doing, and I have every right to comment as well – I’ve come to recognise that my view is just as relevant as somebody else’s” (ibid). This change reflects what Friere terms as ‘conscientization’: “the development of critical consciousness of, and action upon, reality” (Friere 2000). This process reflects more than just becoming aware of ones power, but also acting on this awareness.
In many ways, ‘conscientization’ is tied up with both a growth and a weight. On the one hand, there is a growth in awareness, and in the power to act, but there is also a weight as one understands better ones position. Seeing herself through the eyes of an asylum seeker made Kettle feel “deeply aware of my own privilege, and embarrassed about it” (Kettle 8th July 2017). The awareness of ones position of immense privilege is one which is uncomfortable and difficult to deal with. On the one hand, ones instinct is to deny it, to explain it, and to justify ones own lack of privilege, or its relativity. However, this is the quiet foundation lying beneath this project, which demands both mum and I to interrogate exactly how privileged we are, as white women, as artist, as volunteers; and to face up to the huge responsibility that comes with that privilege, finding better ways to use that privilege to create a more equal and safe world for all people. As such, during the continual process of ‘concientization’ that we are experiencing through this project, we are battling with big questions, of how do we use our position the best we can? How do we use the materials and connections around us to achieve change for those with less privilege than us?
So far, this is taking its shape in the form of creating opportunities within the exclusive art world for those who occupy positions of less privilege than us. By putting the names of emerging asylum seeking and refugee artists on the walls of the galleries, the space becomes occupied by different people, which has significance. This is one expression of our aim of learning about refugees and asylum seekers and recognising and celebrating their strengths and skills.
By using the art to raise awareness and to raise money for other grassroots projects working with refugees and asylum seekers, the project hopes to have a knock on effect, supporting these projects who work directly with communities in need. Connections are made between members of the public who share a common concern and who seek a common change in the world, with the hope that this will inspire others to take action – and we have already seen this happening as a result of the Stitch a Tree project, which used textiles as a communicative tool to foster individual and community resilience. These connections are made partly through encounter, and partly through the documentation using embroidery of shared public and individual sentiment of care and concern for the suffering that refugees and asylum seekers endure.
However, all of this effort and engagement with a call for change is tied up with a real disillusion in the efforts of politics and a skepticism of many powerful NGO’s. As such, the project in part is an expression of the need for people to do and say something about horrors taking place, whilst acknowledging that it is difficult to know how to make change.
I believe that it is the deeply entrenched violence of our political, economic and juridical systems that sit back and don’t look too closely at what is going on, enabling the current situation to take place, and failing to protect hundreds of thousands of people today in Europe alone. It is hard to know, as individuals, how to battle this, and how to create the change that you want to see, when faced with a tall barbed wire fence up ahead. The current situation across Europe is not under control, and it is individuals and communities who are picking up the pieces.
As such, this project is very much a part of journey of discovery for mum and I – a way of interrogating how an individual and a collective energy of people who care can most effectively be channeled to make lasting change. In part, the project invites discussion, ideas, and a hope that we can together better understand the problem, as concerned citizens, and better formulate a response. This is just the beginning of what we hope to be an ongoing conversation and learning.
We have a support and help from various people. In particular:
Patrizia Costantin : curator
Miriam Jones: freelance writer and editor working mainly in the charity sector
Miesje Chaffer : designer/maker
Alex Jordan: designer/maker
Kelly Quinzel : artist/maker
Suzanne Partridge: Paper People Beauty : artist
Simone Frater Russell http://simfr70.wixsite.com/simonelorentextiles