Monday 01 May 2017 – Thursday 30 November 2017
Image credit: Majid Dhana and Natalia Michalska, Look Up artworks, photo: Alex Batten.
In October 2017, Journeys Festival International returned to Portsmouth, to celebrate the creative talent of refugee and asylum seeker artists and share the refugee experience through art and culture. Alex Batten and Shamila Dhana send us their reports...
The festival launched on Thursday 19 October at the Aspex Gallery. The launch was a very colourful reception with photographs and poetry of asylum seekers in the city. There was a clear message and theme from the start of the festival, and that was the celebration of asylum seekers in Portsmouth. Much of the festival highlighted how asylum seekers who have travelled from far and wide, speak many different languages, and made journeys and stories; and how these individuals have made Portsmouth their home. The highlight of the launch was not only the portraits of the asylum seekers, but the poetry, which was emotional yet dignified. The Look Up art exhibitions at the gallery were colourful, captivating and honest. It was lovely to see other Journeys Festival partners and people from the asylum support community.
Look Up pictures were placed in key locations in the city, and I felt like each location was thought through and were popular routes around the city. I was very impressed to find one at Portsmouth train station, one of the busiest locations in the city. It is great that Journeys Festival is always looking to raise awareness and thus advocate for refugees. I spoke to one of the asylum seekers who had their picture taken as part of Look Up and he described the opportunity to be photographed and a picture of him placed in the city as a honour.
The Theatre performance #JuSuis at New Theatre was powerful, energised and made a true connection with the audience. The performance touched on many forms of oppression faced by people, either through the media, gender, and sexuality. Journeys – The Art of Displacement was a very good and relevant discussion after the theatre performance.
Journeys to Portsmouth was a project which connected newly arrived refugees with established migrants in the city. This installation was in the Container Project at Portsmouth Cathedral. Journeys to Portsmouth was honest and again involved much involvement from refugees within the city. It was great to hear the audio and have a sneak peek at the visuals on the JFI website. The use of the senses was a good way to get people to talk about their journey. This was certainly one of my favourite exhibitions.
Journeys Fesival presented an electric mix of immersive exhibitions at the Central Library. The VR Installation Rekrei was impressive. I could not believe that all the images were crowd sourced to create such a stunning virtual reality clip. I heard about the destruction of Mosul Museum and felt sad that an entire culture has lost such precious heritage. Seeing the installation, and how real it all looked was absolutely amazing. I hope more people could see this.
The feature length documentary They’ll have to kill us first: Malian Music in Exile, was screened at The Loft on Albert Road. The documentary was very informative with great music and a very powerful message of resilience and patriotism. The only downside of this event was the venue. The Loft was very cold, with some noise and disturbance during the film.
The Container Project had amazing graffiti work. The opening day of the Container was very upbeat, with professional drummers, singers and a school group. Despite the weather not being too good, this did not stop the celebrations. Journeys Festival did very well with highlighting local musicians, such as DrumNation and Tony Spencer.
Coffee Shop conversations were very good, and the atmosphere and hosting team (JFI) were very relaxed. It was very easy to express, talk and ask questions amongst strangers about the refugee crisis and how it affects women and children. All the speakers at the coffee shop conversations were excellent.
My only criticism of the festival is that I would of loved to have seen more children involved, as the festival did take place over half term. I loved the input, participation of the local refugee community.
I headed over to Portsmouth for the first full day of Journeys Festival. There was a lull in the apocalyptic weather forecast, which I was thankful for as most of what I wanted see was outside. The blue skies and sun meant photographing the work was a bit easier.
The main thing I was looking forward to seeing was the Look Up artworks. These were at 6 outdoor sites spread throughout the centre of the city. Conveniently the first was at Portsmouth & Southsea Station so I walked to the front of the station and spotted that; it had just finished being installed and I managed to have a chat with Jenny Tipton who had co-ordinated the installs.
This first artwork is part of a set of colourful digital collages by artists Majid Dhana and Natalia Michalska with each one including a portrait of a local refugee or asylum seeker, a local landmark and a quote. The Manchester incarnation of Journeys Festival has Turner nominated artist Mark Tichner creating the series of work for the Look Up element of the festival, but in Portsmouth the artists involved are much closer to the issues they’re exploring, and the work feels honest and embedded in the community.
Although I’ve been to Portsmouth a few times I don’t really know the city that well: my deteriorating navigation skills meant fitting everything into the day was going to be difficult. After the station I headed over the road to Guildhall Square and looked at the big screen, hoping to see the next artwork on there, but didn’t spot it. After watching an advert looping several times I headed towards the one place in Portsmouth that I can successfully navigate to - the Hole in the Wall pub, where I had my lunch of sausages and mash.
On the way to Aspex Gallery I found another of the Look Up artworks on the side of the Portsmouth Festivities building. This was my favourite of the ones I saw, both in terms of composition and the more scenic location. Next up was Portsmouth Cathedral where graffiti artist N4T4 was busy painting a container that had been positioned in front of the building. The bright pink graduations of the spray-painted container contrasted nicely with the traditional stone building as a backdrop.
At Aspex I saw the Platform exhibition of new graduate work, which I enjoyed; especially a mixed media audio-visual installation by Svetlana Ochovskaya.
Next up was the third Look Up artwork of the day. I’d delayed this visit as I knew it wasn’t quite ready. Strong winds overnight had meant it was still being adjusted, but it could be appreciated none the less.
My next destination was the Eldon Building at the University of Portsmouth where there was a fully booked symposium. It was titled ‘Culture, Mobility: Displacement, Adaption and Creativity’, making it difficult to fit into a tweet. The event was very well chaired by Dr Marius Kwint and some points that particularly resonated were raised by Dr Amanda Rogers. She made the point that displaced artists can be left wondering if their inclusion in programming is because of their work or because they are a token of an oppressed regime; and that they are often expected by the West to reference the social politics of their countries of origin. Aakash Odedra was the other speaker to resonate with me. I’d seen him perform (as a dancer) before as well as speak and once again I found the way he spoke and articulated himself engaging.
After some networking over free wine I headed for the Red Cross office where there was another Look Up artwork. This one was installed in the upstairs window and as it preserved the transparency of the glass it lost a little of the boldness and bright colours of the others. That’s OK though as it means the Red Cross are keeping it there beyond the duration of the festival.
One of the things I was interested in most about the Look Up work was the more practical logistical side of installing the work. Jenny had told me that the recommended method of installing the artworks onto heritage buildings was to screw a frame onto the wall that the banner can then be clipped onto, while building managers who didn’t want to use this method had heat pressed vinyl installed directly onto the brickwork.
I finished my day with a Jumbo Hotdog from a Polish street food vendor near the High Street on my way back to the station. While I ate I reflected on the day and on how successful the Look Up artworks will be. Do passers-by actually look up enough or are they too busy looking at their phones? Do they look too much like the billboards and adverts that are engrained within our cities and that we have taught ourselves to ignore, do we even ignore them or do we just like to think that we don’t see them because we don’t want to feel their subconscious consumerist pull?
The only attention the works seemed to get from passers-by when I was there, was when they spotted me photographing something; they only looked in the hope that I’d seen something interesting, something Instagramable.
Journeys Festival is ultimately about journeys, and although my journey from Southampton to Portsmouth wasn’t particularly long or arduous, the festival had taken me on a journey and I’d experienced getting lost, and taking detours around the city as I looked for venues and artworks. I’d discovered new places, met people, and experienced both disappointment and satisfaction at my various destinations.
I find it hard to visit any city without making direct comparisons to my own hometown of Southampton; in the case of Portsmouth that’s slightly taboo as it’s likely to beat Southampton in many of the things it does. And certainly Portsmouth has hosted another successful Journeys Festival that will hopefully continue to grow over the next few years. I really enjoyed my day and the festival was genuinely engaging and interesting day of thought provoking art, social issues and sausages.
Monday 01 May 2017 – Thursday 30 November 2017
Bristol Museum & Art Gallery, Queens Rd, Bristol BS8 1RL
Saturday 22 July 2017 – Sunday 10 June 2018
Bath Artists' Studios, The Old Malthouse, Comfortable Place, Upper Bristol Road, Bath, BA1 3AJ
Thursday 07 September 2017 – Thursday 14 December 2017
Working towards a South West where talented artists thrive, and a resilient and connected visual arts ecology that inspires more engaged and diverse audiences to value and advocate for its work.
Part of the Contemporary Visual Arts Network