Making Space Safe offers refugees and asylum seekers in Oxfordshire a supportive community of fellow clients and artists and an opportunity to learn new art skills and give space for creative expression. The group meets weekly in a private space at Modern Art Oxford. Since the project started as an open group meeting at Asylum Welcome in October 2016, various countries have been represented, including Afghanistan, Syria, China and Africa. Making Space Safe is lead by artist Mary Chamberlain running from September to December 2017. Here Mary discusses the content and outcomes of the project so far.
I have been thinking about the name of the group a lot recently. About each word separately and then joined, and how it feels to be holding a group in a space at Modern Art Oxford. We meet in a room called the Project Space, which is of a good size with enough room to shift where we choose to place the two trestle tables each week if wanted. I have recently been asking group members where in the space they would like to be to make their work, encouraging them to walk around the area and check out different parts of it. So far, the choice, given on separate occasions, is to place the table in the far corner, giving the members a little privacy as well as physical space in the room.
Thinking again about where we meet, what the space is we are making ‘safe’, I have a personal long-held belief that beauty contains a quality that can be healing for people who have experienced a harsher face of life. Meeting within an art gallery where spaces and environments contain an aesthetic appreciation enables a greater sense of this quality of beauty and well-being.
In the art group I love seeing people begin to take hold of their creative process and grow within it. Trauma and traumatic experiences can involve an element of ‘frozenness’ on the behalf of the participant. Art, on the other hand, has the quality of ‘movement’, and of making, inherent within it. Bringing together those who have directly experienced or been around a level of trauma and allowing them space to explore their creative process is something I am passionate about. It’s like teaching a language; first the vocabulary of different materials, then devising sentences and paragraphs, before going on to hopefully enable group members to communicate and discover their own voice within it.
In terms of my own practice as an artist, my work as a creative practitioner rarely overtly and directly feeds in to my own art work. However, the importance I place in my groups upon seeking to ensure there is enough physical and psychological space for each member ties in with the way I make marks in my own art work, ensuring there is space to be seen around each mark.
My vision in the longer term for Making Space Safe relates to an artistic collective, a flat-tier of working where group members arrive and learn artistic skills and develop their own artistic voice and, if they are interested, maybe have a go at teaching or leading the class, showing and exploring their own work and practice. Maybe the group might have an artist in residence (from within the group) whose work would respond to their experiences both in class and life outside of Making Space Safe; perhaps we might go on a trip to a larger art gallery outside of Oxford; have an exhibition; create a large group canvas; or perhaps become more involved with Refugee Week or Platforma and Counterpoints Arts. There are many, many possibilities for the future. And yet, the stage we are at now is, in some ways, the most exciting, where people are referred to the group and arriving and using and experiencing art materials often for the first time. Trying out new things and learning what they like and don’t like, exploring and checking it all out and making the space a safe one to be in.