Art speaks all languages

By Eva-Maria Schnelten

As part of this year’s Refugee Festival Scotland, Bilingualism Matters teamed up with colleagues from the University of Edinburgh Alwaleed Centre and on Friday 28th June 2019 presented an exhibition of art works created by members of the refugee community in Edinburgh, with a special poetry reading, all on the Festival theme of “Making Art, Making Home”.

In the previous two years, as part of the Bilingualism Matters Refugee Working Group, we had organised talks in the Festival on the importance of using the home language in the face of disruption and trauma. This year, we were inspired by the Festival theme, which encouraged organisers to focus on “the talent, creativity and resilience of New Scots artists and community groups.” It might seem like there is no obvious connection to our work as a research and information centre on bilingualism, but after brainstorming and talking to different artists, we were excited about the potential, and came up with a name for the event: “Art Speaks All Languages”.

In partnership with our colleague Nadin Akta from the Alwaleed Centre, who works closely with the refugee community in Edinburgh, we hosted a series of workshops at St Peter’s Church in Newington. Members of the refugee community were invited to join us and create art based on their experiences of home, identity and language. It was mainly teenagers who attended, and they were inspired to create stunning and provocative pieces of artwork, including paintings, collages and poetry. We are lucky to have a talented artist, Kat Brown, among our volunteers, who worked with the participants to bring their ideas to life on paper.

The works of art created at the workshops formed the main focus of the event: an exhibition at the University of Edinburgh. The exhibition was launched with a live poetry reading from Ahmad al-Ejjah via video link from Syria, reading his moving poem ‘Details on the Walls of Nostalgia’ in his native language of Arabic. This was followed by the English translation read by Marwa Mouazen, from the Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at The University of Edinburgh. You can listen to the poem on YouTube.

We were delighted to have many of the artists present, and visitors were able to ask questions and discuss their works with them directly, which helped bring the art work to life even further. As is clear from the photos of the works, the paintings and poems were personal and emotional, which inspired visitors to reflect and confront their own experiences and ideas about the concept of home, refugee communities and bilingualism.

For making this event possible, many thanks to: all the amazing artists; our University colleagues at the Alwaleed Centre and the Department Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies; St Peter’s Church in Newington; and the Scottish Refugee Council.

A deliverable of the Scottish Refugee Council New Scots Integration: Rights and Communities project funded by the EU Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund (AMIF)