The Harbour Project teams up with the Wyvern Theatre to showcase refugee and asylum seeker artwork

By Jessica Durston - 11 January 2022

CharityArts and CultureCommunity

The Harbour Project has launched its 'Here I Am' exhibition, showcasing artwork from some of the refugee women, and ladies seeking asylum that it supports.

Haixia and her children

The 'Here I Am' exhibition has been created by the female visitors of The Harbour Project, a charity in Swindon supporting people seeking asylum or with refugee status.

The project was inspired by a series of workshops with the Swindon Art Gallery, and aims to explore how an individual can express themselves through artwork. 

The Harbour Project's Mia O'Sullivan said: "One of the attendees of the workshops commented on a painting during workshops we were holding online with the Swindon Art Gallery. She said 'I could see myself in her shoes', while looking at a picture of a woman carrying a baby. Thanks to The Ashley Family Foundation we were able to start up the 'Here I Am' project, allowing for self-expression and an opportunity to build on an interest in art.

"Under the guidance of six local artists, the women participating have learnt new skills, strengthened their solidarity and improved their confidence to try new things. The artists helped them explore a variety of art mediums and techniques. From a trip to Roche Court Sculpture Park they have learnt more about displaying artwork and how we can all interpret the same art work very differently."

The exhibition will run for a month - being taken down around 10 February. It is free for members of the public to visit during Box Office hours (Mon - Sat, 11am - 3pm and 4pm - 6pm). People attending shows at the Wyvern will also have the opportunity to view the artwork before seeing the performance. 

Mia said the Wyvern was chosen as the exhibition venue after a discussion with the women taking part in the project. She said the women participating wanted their work displayed somewhere with a lot of footfall, and perhaps somewhere that people may attend who would not necessarily know about the Harbour Project and the work it does.

Mia added: "It’s been such a privilege to be part of this project. To actually see people’s confidence grow each week with each session was wonderful too.

"We know that people with refugee status and those seeking asylum live in the town, so the Wyvern being central made it seem like the perfect place. We thought about how many people from all different walks of life would come to the theatre to see shows, and could also then see the exhibition.”

One of the women involved in the project was Haixia, who moved to Swindon from China around three and a half years ago. 

She said: "I have contributed to the teacup wall feature. Mine is the one with the Chinese flag and writing on to represent the country I am from. There’s a mountain I’ve painted on the side with a figure down at the bottom of it. The meaning behind this was to show my daughter that she is taking her first steps. She has finished Year 1 and I am teaching her Chinese at home at the moment. I have told her that if she keeps climbing, she will reach success and get to the top of the mountain."

Although the project was just for the ladies that the Harbour Project works with, Haixia's children joined in, and her daughter's piece has made its way into the exhibition. 

Haixia added: "My children had the chance to attend the Harbour Project’s art sessions that were running. At that time, we did not think they would be able to stay for the whole thing, but noticed that they took to the sessions well and sat quietly and did not disturb anyone.

“We enjoyed the time spent together at the sessions and my children behaved so well. It was nice for the three of us."

In addition to these art workshops, Haixia has attended other sessions run by the Harbour Project. She reflected on her time spent with the organisation and how they have helped her during her time spent in Swindon.

She said: "I’m so glad we’ve met the friends at the Harbour Project. They support us a lot. They run a kids club during afterschool hours and run women’s groups too. They also run yoga sessions and ones for your mental health. Sometimes they will support us by bringing in a GP to explain things to us, and help us with any questions we might have. They run English classes and I am also learning Maths with a volunteer called Edward. I always want to learn more so I can teach my children.

“If I need to ask for support, they are more than happy to help. The staff are very kind people.”

The art sessions ran for 12 weeks in partnership with Visual Art Swindon, with 6 different artists working with the Harbour Project visitors and teaching them different art mediums and techniques. 

Sue Bardwell, one of the artists leading two out of the twelve sessions said: "I was the session artist in charge of the hoop artwork that is up in the exhibition. The ladies were tasked with basing their hoop artwork around a place that was important to them. One of the ladies chose the country she is from, another lady chose the idea of the journey to school and another lady chose more of a hypothetical place with hot air balloons. It was a theme that the participants could interpret themselves.

“We started with their images and they traced them out on paper, working from a photograph as reference. Then they added layers and collage and texture. In the second session, we used this transfer paper to print an image on the paper and then iron it onto fabric. After the transfer to the fabric was complete, the ladies then stitched elements and used layers of paint and ink and embroidery. This was the first time I’ve ever done these sessions using this kind of technique and I was really pleased that the ladies were able to achieve what they achieved.

“The embroidery and little details employ a repetitive technique which can be really mindful. I’m serious about art but I don’t believe it should be serious or difficult. It’s about having something that’s the right level of concentration that it takes your mind off things without becoming stressed or your work becoming too complicated."

One of the participants in Sue's classes who wished to remain anonymous added: "The Harbour Project have worked with me for around a year and a half now. I really enjoyed the embroidery hoop classes, and found them relaxing and good for my mental health. I was happy for the opportunity to take part in the 'Here I Am' exhibition and I hope we do something like this again!"

Sue also runs art sessions that members of the public can pay to attend, at Artsite in Swindon. She hosts monthly makers sessions called 'Make and Cake.' She was keen to add: "We don’t make the cake – we just eat it while we’re creating!”

As well as 'Make and Cake', Sue runs free art sessions every Wednesday morning and afternoon, during term time at the Pinehurst Community Centre. These sessions are part of a partnership between Pinecones and The Olive Tree. More about this partnership can be found at https://www.therecoverytreecharity.org.uk/

More information about the Harbour Project can be found online at https://harbourproject.org.uk/

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