Monday, 18 June 2012

Art Inspires Survivors of Torture

Tate Britain’s Migrations exhibition aims to tell the story of how immigration has shaped the course of British Art over the last 500 years.  But for a group of suvivors from Freedom From Torture’s Write to Life group, the gallery’s art is inspiring the poetry that helps them to heal, says Catriona Troth.

Write to Life is possibly the only writing group in the world dedicated specifically to helping survivors of torture, and performance has become a vital element of their work. This year, during Refugee Week, they will be leading tours of the Tate Britain galleries and performing their work live to the public, in front of the art that inspired it.

Writing, for some survivors, can be uniquely therapeutic – something they can do anywhere, at any time.  As the group’s coordinator, film maker and novelist Sheila Hayman says, “All it takes is a pen and paper and enough peace to be able to let the words come out.” 

The group’s connection with Tate Britain began more than a year ago, when their coordinator, Sheila Hayman, brought them to look at some artists’ books.  Then, in January of this year, they began holding regular workshops in the gallery, using art to influence the way their poetry developed.

Many of these writers are in what Hayman describes as ‘a state of petrifaction’, unable to work, endlessly waiting to hear if their asylum application has been accepted. Many suffer physical disabilities as a result of their torture. They can struggle practically and financially to get to the meetings each week. 

Nora Razian, one of the curators who worked closely with the group, has been impressed by their commitment. “Our sessions were ninety minutes long, but everyone would stay afterwards for a few hours.  They were really motivated and interested.  And all their work is very powerful.”

Their lives can be extremely precarious.  At the final workshop at the Tate before the public performance, one member of the group is absent, taken abruptly into detention.  His friend, Yamikani, has written a new poem inspired by her visit to him in the detention centre at Dover.  The centre is so close to the sea that in order to walk in, she must overcome a paralysing fear of water.  She imagines herself, like Millais’ Ophelia, letting go and giving up her body to the water.

What do the staff at the Tate feel they have gained from the collaboration?  Razian explains, “It is really important to have a wide range of people engaging with our art work and opening up discussions about them, about how people see them differently, how the art ralates to them, what value the gallery has to them.  Can they access it as a public space?  What barriers exist for people coming here?  Some of the group had been here before, but a lot of them hadn’t.  And now they come here on their own, which is great.” 

Journeys with Art:  a writer-led tour:

Performing their work in public is hugely important to these writers.  English may be their third, fourth, even fifth language, but having their voices heard is empowering. Among other things, it can help with the survivor guilt, giving a voice to those who can no longer speak.  

“Public performance was not a pre-determined outcome of the sessions, but all the writers were keen to read their work,” says Razian.

I was lucky enough to attend the final workshop at the gallery before the performance in Refugee Week.  The tour of the gallery begins with Chris Ofili’s portrait of an African woman, No Woman, No Cry.  The painting has inspired Write to Life veteran Jade to write two short poems.  “Because of what I have been through, I know how she feels,” Jade explains. “I lost my family and my children.”

Yamikani fled Zimbabwe for Mozambique in a tiny canoe, a terrifying experience that has left her with a phobia of the sea.  Millais’ The Lady of Shallott, which shows a woman alone in a small boat, has inspired her essay,  ‘I’d never seen the sea.’ 

“…I had never seen the sea before. I had never seen such a mass of water. 
I had never been in a boat, something which sits on the water and moves…”

Augustus Egg’s painting of a destitute woman sheltering with her baby under an arch inspired Aso to imagine a woman who no longer has a home to go back to.  “This evening, the butterflies are not coming back,” he writes.

Several of the writers were drawn to the collection of photographs, prints and drawings of the English landscape put together by Patrick Keiller.  Three photographs of an unusual sculptured milestone led Steven to write ‘The Migration Milestone.’  As he knows only too well, “A migrant never counts the miles covered…”

Turner’s print, Hedging and Ditching, inspired Hasani to write, ‘The Land,’ a poem that reflects on the politics to land ownership. 

“Land the food provider
Land the cause of wars
Land the maker of landlords, landowners, land barons.

We spit on you, we shit on you, we piss on you.”

Uvindu was inspired by a series of photographs of various vehicles to write ‘Planes, Trains and Buses’, a visual poem that recalls a time when the police questioned him ‘for his own safety,’ and demanded to know:  “How did you get here?  By train?  By bus?  Did you swim?”

The last stop in the progress through the galleries is by Henry Moore’s bronze sculpture of a Family Group, where Glory reads, ‘Do Not Disturb’.  “Let me dream about my family,” she concludes. “Let me dream, do not disturb.”

Journeys with Art, writer-led tours of the Tate Britain galleries, will be held on Wednesday 20th June, beginning at 12:30 and again at 16:00. Admission is free.  No need to book. 


  1. You can read about the Tate experience from the point of view of one of Write to Life's talented poets here:

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