by Megan Daly
"As an activist, I want to heal communities and bring people together... supporting migrants and refugees is important to create thriving, stable communities."
For artist and activist Salma Zulfiqar, storytelling is the healing force we desperately need.
Hosting free, craft-based workshops, Salma creates space for vulnerable people to share their story through creative expression. In early 2018, she ran a series of events inviting a diverse community of refugee women in Birmingham to come together to create a quilt, the Migration Blanket. Through conversation and creativity, the women were able to share their fears, hopes, and challenges. The Migration Blanket has been exhibited locally and internationally, from the Birmingham Library to its current display at the European Cultural Centre as part of the Venice Biennale.
We caught up with Salma to talk some more about storytelling, the outcome of the project and the future of her practice.
To start with, could you discuss with us some of your feelings about storytelling, and the effect that creating a space for people to tell their stories can create?
I believe storytelling is the best way to create understanding between people, as it allows people to connect on a personal level. By creating these connections through storytelling, we can promote social cohesion in a non-threatening way. This type of work is essential in the times we are living in, as hate crimes increase all over the country - particularly in the West Midlands where this project took place. To me, the divisive effect of Brexit on the nation has created a situation where racism is becoming more acceptable.
As an activist, I want to heal communities and bring people together. I believe supporting migrants and refugees is important to create thriving, stable communities. Allowing vulnerable women a safe space to tell their story through art is powerful as it gives them a voice they may not otherwise have, allowing them to express themselves and reach out to an audience they would have no contact with.
I've had high ranking officials and others often tell me it's 'too difficult' to work with refugees or migrants in this way, but as a humanitarian I believe in creating equality and promoting diversity is badly needed right now.
"The project has shined a light on the untold stories of refugee women."
What outcomes have you witnessed from the Migration Blanket project? How did it impact the artists differently to the audience?
Firstly, it's allowed vulnerable women who took part in the project to learn new skills and be empowered and deal with the pain of their starting a new life in a new country. The creation of the Migration Blanket encouraged them to think about their future and dreams. Prior to this they said they did not feel they had a future to look towards. For the women, it is a personal, educational journey which helped to empower them rather than live in fear.
Feedback from audiences in the UK and abroad has been phenomenal! People have told me it is powerful and educational, enlightening them on what these women go through. The project has shined a light on the untold stories of refugee women.
Left: Salma with the Migration Blanket discussing the project. Right: Audience interaction with the work. (Photos: Salma Zulfiqar)
What effect has taking the work to an international exhibition created? Have you noticed a distinct response from when it is shown on a local level?
As part of my activism I want to reach audiences far and wide. Exhibiting the Migration Blanket abroad in Venice, which attracts people from all over the world, has been wonderful. I've been told by curators at the Venice exhibition that The Migration Blanket is one of the most talked about artworks in the collection at the European Cultural Centre.
Both local and international audiences said they learned more about the complexities of migration and how it affects women.
Birmingham is a City of Sanctuary and best known for its diversity - but migration has become a controversial topic in the UK and is a crucial issue all over the world.
People are living in their own little bubble and interaction between different communities is stifled right now due to the political climate. I hope this project helps to cross those boundaries and create some empathy.
Can you tell us some more about the workshops you run and how they operate?
I started delivering ARTconnects workshops in the West Midlands in 2017, but this has now expanded to other cities such as London, Manchester, Norwich and abroad to Venice and Greece. ARTconnects workshops are free, safe spaces for women to tell their stories through creative expression and conversation.
And finally, what’s in the future for yourself as an artist and for the Migration Project?
I'm currently the lead artist on the creative Syrian Resettlement project run by Celebrating Sanctuary, a project supported by Birmingham City Council promoting social cohesion of Syrian and other refugees in the city. I've already created an artwork called A Syrian Journey with them, and I'm finishing another artwork at the moment. Women and young people are my focus with this project.
My work is growing and expanding around the world, so I hope to continue to spread the message of peace and unity through future workshops and art collaborations.
The Migration Blanket is on display at the European Cultural Centre as part of the Venice Biennale from May 12th until November 24th 2019. To find out more about Salma Zulfiqar's work, click here.
Megan Daly is the Visual Director of the Radical Art Review