“I visit Rwanda all the time, time and again, because it is possible now” says Patrice Shema, a Rwandan-born British artist. “But that sense of being a refugee is so strong. It’s been so many years, right from my grandfather’s time. So it’s stays raw, it’s always there.”
“I don’t regret it though. It makes you feel more determined to make a home for yourself and, especially, to use your talents to explain to innocents how it feels to be a refugee.”
© British Red Cross
Shema, who has lived in the UK since 2006, is one of several refugee artists currently working on a project celebrating 150 years of the British Red Cross. An innovative cross-art-form event, Seeking Sanctuary invites participants to “spend an hour in the shoes of the displaced”, recreating the refugee experience.
Using theatre, installations, traditional dance and more, the event tracks the challenges faced by nine case-study refugees as they search for sanctuary. Each visitor’s experience will be different, their progress through the exhibition determined by the identification papers given to them at the start.
Created in partnership with Mahogany Media Group and Emergency Exit Arts, the show takes the form of a journey through The Vaults underneath Waterloo Station. Ten spaces, all inspired by a different story, depict crises in Somalia, Zimbabwe, Rwanda, The Ivory Coast, Uganda, Bosnia, Syria and Vietnam.
“The old national railway tunnels below Waterloo are an incredible space to work with,” says Chloe Osborne, who works for EEA.
“We had a discussion about how exciting it would be to commission UK based refugees to respond to case studies of people who have been helped by the British Red Cross, creating an interactive art experience.”
At the end of the journey there’s a chance for people to sit and talk about their experiences. A Red Cross tent hands out tea, while Patrice Shema’s sculpture of seven figures in conversation creates a dialogue, encouraging people to challenge their assumptions.
“People need to know exactly what happens,” Shema says. “It’s quite energising to hear the British public say they need to know.”
The show is curated by Paul Conroy, an acclaimed Sunday Times photojournalist whose portraits of UK-based Syrian refugees are featured in the final exhibit. Injured while covering the Syrian conflict, Conroy has first hand experience of what it means to escape from a warzone.
Talking of his involvement, he says: “I was drawn to the idea that a multi-art form project of this type could influence the public’s ability to see refugees as real people who have individual stories and who, because survival dictated it, fled their homeland...Refugees are so often faceless in our minds. These portraits show their individuality.”
This commitment is central to Seeking Sanctuary. In Osborne’s words, the aim of the project is “to give voices to people who don’t usually get heard, without over-theatricalising or sensationalising their experiences.”
“We want to encourage people to challenge their assumptions and the way refugees are portrayed in the media. Hopefully people will begin to think about how that can be changed.”
Shema, though vocal in his love of the UK, which he describes as a “safe haven for many people”, expresses the same wish. “What I’d like is for people not to label in a prejudicial way.
"Refugees are human beings and they are just as important as other people. But because they look vulnerable, people think that they are different and don’t relate to them.”
A truly ambitious project, Seeking Sanctuary is currently scheduled for only a short run. Taking place over the 15th and 16th of November, the nature of the event means that only 25 people can take part in each journey. But all those involved seem keen to develop it further.
“We would love to take it forward,” says Osborne. “The refugee experience is by no means something that only people in London should have access to.”
Shema agrees: “Most definitely. The work of an artist is work to be exposed. I wish to have the show extended across the country.”
In the meantime, the two days in The Vaults seems set to be a memorable anniversary for the British Red Cross, celebrating humanitarian aid and the hopes and fears of those that it reaches. The extraordinary personal stories of the artists involved richly inform the narratives they relate.
“150 years of the Red Cross. Whoever came up with that idea is quite brilliant.” It’s not clear if Shema is talking about the event or the institution, but the sentiment could equally be applied to both.
- Get tickets for the Seeking Sanctuary here.
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