Teaching Refugee Children To Paint

Dupont Art Group  (7th April 2017)

On January 5th, 2017 I was contacted by my friend and internationally known artist Lisa Cirenza. She asked if I would like to join a small group composed of two of the trustees for the London International Gallery of Children’s Art,(LIGCA), Susie Craven and Paola Langobardi, a volunteer, Emanuela Manfrini, and Lisa Cirenza herself to travel to Milan Italy and spend four days teaching art with a group of refugee children and adults from at least 6 countries who are housed at Casa Suraya in Milano. As there was no funding for this, we all took time out of busy schedules and paid for the expense ourselves. The purpose of the project is outlined below in their proposal and I quote:

 This project was viewed as an opportunity to produce artworks that will visually help the world understand the stories, hopes and dreams of your residents. Through this understanding we hope to encourage and increase the respect, and empathy for the large numbers of populations migrating in these troubled times. We also aim to encourage hope and personal strength in the residents and children with whom we work, by giving them an outlet for creative expression, and letting them know people truly care about their plight.

This would be a two pronged project. LIGCA*( London International Gallery of Children’s Art) volunteers would run an art workshop that would provide the children and potentially their carers to make work expressing their hopes and dreams. LIGCA has learned from previous projects with refugee children that expressing their feelings through art can help them combat feelings of powerlessness, and create a diversion from the chaos and struggle of their daily lives.

LIGCA will, at the same time, work with a primary school in London that is keen to connect and relate with the guests at Casa Suraya. The girls at the school will reflect on ideas of hope and kindness, displacement and migration, and all pupils and parents will be encouraged to do acts of kindness and be mindful of them.

The second prong of the project would be the portrait work and interviews done by Lisa Cirenza throughout the week. Lisa has found that through giving voice and recognition to the people she portrays – both through her interviews and her artwork – hope and a sense of a positive future can be increased.

Our ambition is to create a joint exhibition of the children’s and Lisa’s artworks that can be used to testimony the stories, hopes and dreams of migrants.”

I arrived in Milano and started to assist with the painting classes. We had a mixture of adult women and children of all ages including an infant. As expected, they were somewhat cautious at first but with time, they started to open up to us and enjoy the painting. The children were very excited to be involved and were a handful at times finding it difficult to control their enthusiasm. I must tell you that very few of them spoke English. Three of our group were fluent in Italian which helped to a degree as many of the refugees were starting to learn that language having lived at the centre for many months. There was a lot of communication through gestures and they got to learn ‘don’t touch’ quickly as they initially would start handling paint and glue before the demonstration had occurred.

Their teaching involved the use of acrylic and water soluble paints which were painted on or layered with magazine pictures, fabrics, numerous craft items, and stencils. Lisa was able to photograph many of them with their head silhouettes which they used as stencils onto prepainted surfaces which was especially effective. We were fortunate in having dozens of oversized mens shirts donated to us which were used as smocks for everyone. The little ones looked so cute in their huge smocks.

Our group had four days of painting with the refugees. During that time, we saw such a positive change in them. They were able to express themselves through their art, showing great pride in what they had achieved. They would excitedly hold up their art for others to see. They were so appreciative of the efforts made for them and knowing that we cared. On numerous occasions I would have one of the girls come to happily kiss me on the cheek smiling widely with pride in her art piece.

Our little group was so moved by these people who have nothing including no country to call their own. I was honoured to be included with the group and will look forward to working on some of the art pieces we brought back. I appreciate the assistance given by the Brighton Embroiderers Guild’s young embroiderers whose teacher Sue Lacey was able to generously provide me with a package of textiles and supplies which I took with me for use with the refugees. It would be lovely to have the young embroiderers stitch into some of their art for a collaboration of international children’s art.

The London International Gallery of Children’s Art will be the recipient of most of the children’s and young adults’ work which they will make available to anyone to use to promote education and international understanding. They hope to have exhibitions of the art in the future.

Lisa Cirenza and I will be working together and separately on projects involving this art in the future.

I left for Milan wondering what life would bring and returned with such appreciation and admiration for the strength and courage of this group of children and adults. What a blessing to be able to make a small difference in their lives.  (Judy Alexander)