When Zimbabwean poet Majid Dhana first arrived in Portsmouth he went straight from the train station to the seafront where he spent an hour simply marvelling at the expanse of water in front of him.
‘When I first came to the UK I lived in London for many years, but I decided that actually I had never seen the seaside. I looked at the map, thought: “That looks really nice, there’s loads of water there,” and I came to Portsmouth, and I’ve never left.
‘I remember when my train got in, it was late evening, it was winter, and I went straight to the seafront and stood there for about an hour, I was just amazed by all this water. There were locals walking past me who must have been wondering what I was doing. I’ve been living here for 10 years now and I love it, I love Pompey.’
Majid came to the UK by choice in 2002, and has worked for his living since he arrived. But his experience as a foreigner – and an outsider – setting up life here has helped him appreciate how tough it can be for those less fortunate in the refugees and asylum seeker community.
‘The UK has made me who I am today, how I appreciate life in general and I have so much respect for this country,’ says the 35-year-old.
He is taking part in Journeys Festival International, which is back for a second year after a successful launch in the city last year and runs from October 19 to 29.
The festival aims to explore the refugee experience through art, and features a whole host of performances, from music, to dance, film, theatre, workshops and more.
Majid took part last year as well – he helped with The Container Project, which saw refugees and asylum seekers cover an empty container with artwork, poetry, prose, doodles – whatever they wanted.
This time he has teamed up with Polish visual artist Natalia Michalska for something called Look Up.
Until June this year Natalia worked in the Historic Dockyard, but has decided to take the plunge and be a full-time artist.
She came to the UK, to Manchester, as a student. But Portsmouth was the first place she visited in England some years earlier, to see her brother who already lived here.
And she was drawn to something she saw lacking in her home country – our multiculturalism: ‘I liked the UK straightaway, I loved the diversity and I was drawn to that. I was always curious about other cultures, how they do things, how they think, and I wanted to know how other people saw life – their different perspectives.’
Majid and Natalia met on the local arts scene about three years ago and have collaborated before on performance projects – he reading his poetry, her playing a tongue drum.
When Natalia heard about Look Up, she immediately thought of working again with Majid.
It’s about getting to know these people and understanding them, and making them feel that it doesn’t matter about your past, don’t worry about your past – we’ve all got a pastPoet Majid Dhana
Look Up is JFI’s large-scale art exhibition, which has seen the pair photographing Portsmouth’s refugee and asylum seeker community, getting to know them and then telling their story through the resulting artworks.
The giant artworks will be displayed on buildings across the city, such as Portsmouth and Southsea Railway Station and on the University of Portsmouth’s Rees Hall. It aims to give a voice and visibility to the experiences of the Portsmouth refugee and asylum seeker community.
Having volunteered for The Red Cross at its refugee centre in Portsmouth for the past three years Majid was already connected to the people who would become part of Look Up. And as he’s come to know some of them, he understands the importance of hope. He says: ‘It’s about getting to know these people and understanding them, and making them feel that it doesn’t matter about your past, don’t worry about your past – we’ve all got a past. It’s about now, and understanding this is your situation – look forward to your future, it’s about giving people hope and understanding that they‘re not labelled.’
But their aim is not political. ‘We stay clear of politics,’ says Natalia. ‘I’ve never really been interested in politics. It’s not something I can control, so I focus on what I can control and the impact I can make through art and working together directly with the community.’
Natalia tells how they’ve come to think of themselves and those in the project as ‘the united tribe.’
And she believes that bringing people together can help overcome the mistrust that exists on both sides.
‘A lot of fear and mistrust comes from a lack of understanding not even having the opportunity or the exposure to such communities – what you don’t know you fear, and that’s why I find this project is so impactful, it brings people closer to these communities.
‘For us it’s such a good position to be in to provide a link between the communities – we’re also migrants so we know what it feels to come to a new country to build a life and integrate with the community. At the same time we already feel that we are part of the local community, so we know both sides of the story.
‘There’s just so much potential in this project.’
Encouraging people through positive action, art and creativity’
FOR Majid Dhana and Natalia Michalska, getting the community involved is a key part of Look Up.
For the project’s duration they are the artists in residence at Aspex Gallery in Gunwharf Quays, and they are inviting the public to come and talk to them about their work.
And they’ve already seen positive reactions from the refugees and asylum seekers taking part, and the public who come to watch and want to get more involved as a result.
Natalia says: ‘It’s encouraging people through positive action, through art and creativity. When people feel good about it - they think: “I could do this”. If you empower people, from both sides, there’s this energy about it and people get more excitement from being involved.
‘This project has grown to be so much more in terms of the community outreach side – we’ve been meeting people from May until now, and we’ve already seen so many changes in their lives. Some still had their asylum status and in the meantime, they’ve received refugee status, so they can begin building their lives.
It’s amazing to observe, and aside from that we’ve started building friendships with them. Even that shows it’s got an impact. It’s not something we necessarily expected or planned, it’s naturally evolved.’
Majid adds: ‘Portsmouth is a very multicultural place, from hundreds of years ago. Portsmouth has a history of accepting people, yes, it is a navy city, but generally you feel at home, you feel comfortable.
‘We want to stop people from being isolated. Come out to a book club, go to a jazz club, go have a coffee. Let people integrate. We’re saying: “Don’t isolate and stay in your own community – allow people to learn your culture and your values”, and by you doing that, they’ll be allowing you to learn and respect English values at the same time.
‘So then next time, someone says, “Oh these people from this country are all like this”, you can say, “Actually, I know someone from there, and they’re not like that at all.”
They are at the gallery from Wednesday to Sunday, 11am to 4pm until October 29.
There are also walks on October 23 and 29, giving the public a chance to be guided around the Look Up artworks and learn about the stories of the subjects.
*October 19-28: Virtual Reality and The Travelling Library at the Central Library. A replica refugee shelter from the Calais ‘Jungle’ will become a travelling library of books and experiences including a number of immersive digital projects.
*October 20-27: Coffee Shop Conversations. Informal discussions hosted by Portsmouth’s best independent coffee shops, Coffee Shop Conversations are an opportunity to discuss and exchange views with artists and activists over free tea, coffee and cake
*October 21: #JeSuis by the Aakash Odedra Company is performed by a group of Turkish dancers. The contemporary dance explores issues of displacement, movement and what ‘home’ means when millions are on the move.
*October 22-25: Artists Tony Spencer and Kye Wilson present Spearman, a new video installation sharing the work and experience of a Gambian musician who left his home to embark on a dangerous migration to Europe, in the hope of a better life. Also screened in the shipping container.
*October 26: Belarus Free Theatre – New Writing Project at New Theatre Royal. JFI continues to collaborate with the world’s leading refugee theatre company. The rehearsed reading presents extracts of new work developed over summer 2017.
*October 26-29: Created with Friends Without Borders and supported by British Red Cross, the Journeys to Portsmouth project has been taking place across the summer to introduce five new refugees and asylum seekers to five established migrants living in the city. Together the pairs have discussed topics of home, feelings of belonging and welcome in the city, whilst exploring the city and learning about Portsmouth’s extraordinary heritage.
The resulting audio-visual documentary will be exhibited in a shipping container outside Portsmouth Cathedral.
*October 27: With Dash Arts and The People’s Lounge, Asylum is a night of global sounds at Coastguard Studios. headlined by Syrian kanun player Maya Youssef.
The festival is run by ArtReach, and also takes place in Leicester and Manchester
In Portsmouth, they are partners with Artswork, University of Portsmouth, (CRaB) Citizen, Race and Belonging Research Group, Portsmouth Festivities, Aspex Gallery, Portsmouth Cultural Trust, Portsmouth Guildhall, New Theatre Royal, British Red Cross: Hampshire, Isle of Wight and Surrey, Portsmouth Cathedral, Friends without Borders and The People’s Lounge.
Many events are free, but some require tickets. For more details go to journeysfestival.com/portsmouth-2017