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This Place As A Sanctuary

It is extraordinary that my working life has gone full circle. Its mentoring artist’s practice but the thing about me is that I trained in art therapy and mental health social work and I do feel that helps inform aspects of what I did even though that my role is very different. I became involved in the building to begin with as an artist and I think I really didn’t understand what the relationship with Crisis was about. I was asked very early on if I would mind working with the intern from Crisis and I was very pleased to do that, but I didn’t really know very much. I never could really understand the concept, I said this to Jeremy quite recently- I think until you get very close to what's going on, you don’t really understand…

Sarah contacted me by email and explained that one of the Crisis Member artists who’d been involved as an intern during my exhibition in the past was using the Art Room and had shown interest in being involved in ‘Our Place’. We’d developed a good relationship during the time doing my install and she’d also visited my artist studio. She was involved in my artist talk, which was good way in to a pre-existing relationship. I was asked ‘would you be interested if we floated it to the Crisis Member?’ and I said ‘absolutely yes’, because I had obviously formed a bit of a bond really. I was interested in her artwork anyway and I’d expressed an interest in seeing her practice, so it felt like that was a coincidence, a ‘happy coming together’.

It was quite a memorable first meeting. I’d thought a head of time and I’d brought some materials in which I thought she might like to look at. I’d thought about the fact that her practice was probably going to be about exile which is where we overlap in our work. I’d been to see an exhibition in London, a massive retrospective at the TATE which just totally blew me away. I brought in the catalogue which we had a look through together, and there was an extraordinary coincidence that as the Crisis Member was showing me her paintings on her iPhone, and I was showing her paintings from the catalogue, there were two images which completely overlapped in terms of content- it was in fact one of the paintings that ended up in her exhibition. So there was this kind of like ‘oh my god’ moment- extraordinary that these two kind of metaphors, visual metaphors, had been used. It was at that point that I realised that this artist wasn’t going to be using the project in quite the same way as the other artists.

When I said to her ‘what do you feel that you would like to bring to this?’ it was all about the struggle of women in Iran. The issue of exile she explores in her work is very live for her, she is living this as a reality and I didn’t feel that she would want to do more conceptual work which was about the building or in the way that the other artists were exploring the space. This has been the extraordinary thing about working on this project in that the Crisis Member involved only really disclosed her status as an exile when she spoke to me at my install, so nobody at Crisis knew that background and the reason for her homelessness. We had this thread that went back to ‘Our Place’ because this happened at Arts at The Old Fire Station in the Gallery because of an art practice. Because my art practice is about exile, she just went ‘oh, I recognise this’ when she saw the work and learnt what the themes were, so for me that was very very powerful.

What she and I discussed on that first day was this place as a sanctuary and what holds this need to express this as part of the project together. It was a very powerful, all-encompassing reason and concept. I felt my role at times was holding that and trying to keep it within the project but realising that this was actually something quite exceptional in a sense, not saying that it’s any greater or lesser than the other artists on the project and the struggles, just that this is a different cultural experience. When I first started working with her I went off and I did some research, mainly on Iran and I’m very conscious that you know, I don’t have sufficient knowledge to comment on that particular sort of scenario, but none the less just a very quick look enabled me to see that there are parallels, really interesting parallels about how women are treated under dictatorships. It really triggered something in me the piece that Rahe and I ended up doing together was really my way of showing solidarity for their struggle. The lovely thing about that was that my mentee got involved in it and brought her own pieces in too.

There is such a sense of a bond and a similarity in terms of themes and the fact that Rahe jumped so readily into many of the forms of expression that I was offering. It can feel like sometimes you’ve discovered something for yourself, but then if you stand back and introduce what you do to somebody else you can begin to see that actually this is what practice is for many people like it’s not just me that’s obsessed with trying different things and gets a kick out of that, other people do too. A lot of the people that I work with, in mentoring may have one form and perhaps Rahe’s unusual in her enthusiasm and appetite for trying different things but it kind of made me think ‘yeah this is not just me’. My method was to show her examples of what could be done and then she would say ‘I really like that’ or ‘I really want to do that’ so we’d hone in on it and try it.

There are overlaps in our lives. What she and I do and in our work and what she and I have experienced is what's called ‘post-memory’. I grew up with my father in political exile not knowing what had happened and most of my work is about uncovering this history which affected us greatly as a family but nonetheless is second-hand experience. Rahe is going through this as a first-hand trauma so I see her experience as being more akin to his which is very interesting and valuable. The first thing she said to me was how amazed she was to see in my paintings was that they were very peaceful, she said this was a new idea for her that you could paint and express trauma as something that wasn’t dark and terrible and that really, really struck me. She repeated it in the artist’s talk I think I specifically asked her because I thought people would find that interesting.

Here, you're working across organisations and even though you're all in the same building, you're working together very closely. I think people worked very hard to explain to you what's happening and who they are and I felt very held throughout the process and very looked after, certainly in comparison with other projects in organisations I’ve worked with, it was superb. All kind of things can go wrong and be confusing with organisations that bring creative people in- but they don’t seem to have this ethos which I think is really wonderful. It seems to be that the same care that’s taken with Crisis Members is taken with people who are brought in on projects. I felt I experienced that. This is the first experience I’ve had of mentoring somebody who is actually in the state of political exile and I think this just happened organically as part of my practice.

I would say I’m far more interested in thinking about working with exile as a genre, whereas before I would have probably just been thinking very much in my own practice, but I’m thinking of it more in more general terms. I hadn't really had time to step back from my own work and think about that and I probably would look for more information and examples of people working in this area, of practice. I’d say there was a lovely atmosphere that was generated by this project and it felt like that was across all artists. The mentor artists did not feel like they were ‘the professionals’ and the Crisis Members weren’t ‘not the professionals’-there was a real sense of, equality in the room. Some of the relationships that developed, it was almost as though mentors – mentor artists were mentoring each other at certain points, I think there was a lot of interesting dynamics and interactions going on between the artists.

When my mentee came into the Art Room, I think second or third session she arrived with all this body of work that she’d created, and there was just a gasp in the room, and I just remember thinking ‘oh my god, she’s an artist’. And from that moment onwards, I never thought of her as anything other than somebody who was exceptionally good at her craft, who was using incredibly powerful expression and who deserved total respect in terms of her artistic practice. There was no sense of hierarchy whatsoever, only a sense that I had more privilege and advantage in my life, at this particular moment in time. I suppose what I’m picking up from this is that really my understanding of my own practices is actually about displacement and homeless isn't it? And that is so universal, the problem is that a lot of us don’t realise how close we could be to that state and there's nothing really between us.


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