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  • Dr. Francesco Mazzarella

Reality, Reciprocity, Resilience

8 embroidery hoop textile photo stories created by participants
Textile photo-stories. Photos by JC Candanedo.

With the mass displacement of people on the rise, it is clear that we need to rethink and address the needs and aspirations of refugee communities, and find ways to honour their diverse cultures. Moreover, besides the three commonly recognised pillars of sustainability (i.e. environmental, economic, and social), there is also a need to consider a cultural dimension as an essential component of a sustainability agenda. Until now, the textile heritage of minorities has often been the object of abusive cultural appropriation practices undertaken by fashion brands, or has been systematically obscured or undervalued as ‘non-fashion’ produced by ‘the other’.

Within this context, I undertook the ‘Reality, Reciprocity, Resilience’ project in order to challenge the dominant practices of designers being ‘parachuted’ into marginalised communities with the assumption that they can bring their own knowledge and expertise to solve their problems. The aim of the project was to investigate and value the reality and lived experiences of London-based refugees and asylum seekers in relation to the themes of cultural sustainability and community resilience, and inform a reciprocal process of making and learning through textile heritage. Following ethnographic research, I facilitated storytelling and co-creation workshops, mediated by textiles, clothes and accessories owned or inherited by the refugees. These were used to collect the participants’ stories of displacement, cultural sustainability, and community resilience, map out the social fabric of the refugees, and collectively outline their visions for a sustainable future.

 Francesco Mazzarella and a participant in a storytelling session.
Francesco Mazzarella and a participant in a storytelling session. Photo by JC Candanedo.

As we come to an end of this pilot project, I am proud to be able to showcase the outputs of this participatory action research, at the ‘Reality, Reciprocity, Resilience’ exhibition.

The textile photo-stories on display as part of the showcase, were created by each of the project participants. The artworks represent the participants’ unique identities, values, skills, stories of displacement, cultural heritage, and diversity. Portraits captured by photographer JC Candanedo printed on organic cotton canvas were customised by project participants using various textile craft techniques as a way to express their inner world. The artworks act as textile autobiographies, which contribute to challenging how the outside world often see refugees. The participants were then photographed holding their artworks. Figuratively, proud to hold their own identity.

"The main premise of my artwork is to invite the viewer to question and unpack what it means to judge asylum seekers and refugees. Many of us are born into dangerous places, and living a fruitful and fulfilling life can be impossible due to the amount of violence, instability and danger we go through. Though many of us might be wearing a smile and are resilient, behind these smiles and resilience lies inexplicable amounts of trauma, pain, and thoughts of death. We deserve to be treated with tenderness and gentleness, just like everyone else, and that is often forgotten by people who do not have to go through life altering violence. Amidst rising inequality and insidious asylum policies, I hope to share an insight of what it means to be truly vulnerable and human, and to see the helpless child longing for love and safety, in everyone alike" Reality, Reciprocity, Resilience project participant

As a research team, Alisa Ruzavina, JC Candanedo and I actively participated in the co-creation workshop, producing our own textile photo-stories. This way, we engaged in an equal and reciprocal process of learning and making, overcoming the barrier between researchers and the participants. Especially important as refugees are often the most interviewed and monitored populations.

Francesco, Alisa and two participants in a workshop.
Francesco, Alisa and two participants in a workshop. Photo by JC Candanedo.

Another output of the research is a map representing the connections between people and places, as a way to build resilience within the community. During a co-creation workshop, the project participants used textile craft techniques to create bespoke circles (representing their skills and cultures) and positioned them within the map of London. The individual circles were then threaded to places that the project participants currently visit. For example organisations providing services and community places where they volunteer, training and education providers, textile and fashion related places, and personally meaningful places. While the first part of the activity contributed to mapping current connections, the workshop participants then identified some places to which they would like to connect to in the future, in order to meet their needs and aspirations, and build resilience within their community. The workshop contributed to the sharing of information between the project participants, building a support system, and discovering new places which could lead to future training or employment opportunities for refugees and asylum seekers.

[The project] “helped me realise that resilience can be built when people come together to share experiences and resources which empower one another” – Reality, Reciprocity, Resilience project participant

Map of connections between people and places.
Map of connections between people and places. Photo by Francesco Mazzarella.

The ‘Reality, Reciprocity, Resilience’ showcase includes a co-designed textile banner representing the vision for a sustainable future that the refugees and asylum seekers participating in the project created. The artwork is the result of a co-creation workshop in which the project participants reflected on their personal values, shared them within the group in order to identify communalities, and framed their individual and then collective vision for a sustainable future. The workshop aided the participants in becoming aware of resources and support available within their community in order to put their future vision into action.

Their collective future vision is grounded on the values of diversity, compassion, safety, and equality. It manifests the hope and collective agency gained by the refugees towards building their own sustainable future, one in which the refugees support one another, and together contribute to shaping a safe and peaceful world.

“We are a diverse, strong, and united family. We feel compassionate towards each other’s pain, and we support one another. We know that we have the power to create a safe and peaceful world. We believe in ourselves and in love. We have to work together towards equality and freedom. We do our best with what we have in our hands. We hope for a better future. Together, we will stand, and we will rule the world”. Participants’ Collective Future Vision

Project participants holding their collective vision for a sustainable future
Project participants holding their collective vision for a sustainable future. Photo by JC Candanedo.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank all the project participants for their enthusiasm in sharing their voice and collective agency, the UAL’s Social Design Institute and UAL's new AKO Storytelling Institute for kindly supporting the research, Poplar HARCA and Love Welcomes for partnering with me on this practice research, and my amazing collaborators Mig Radziunaite, JC Candanedo, and Alisa Ruzavina, as well as all the many other people who – in one way or another – have given an invaluable contribution to the project.

One of the project participants receiving their certificate.
One of the project participants receiving their certificate. Photo by JC Candanedo.

Finally, besides celebrating the achievements of the ‘Reality, Reciprocity, Resilience’ pilot, through this showcase I would like to take you on a journey with me on the new ‘Decolonising Fashion and Textiles’ project which I am embarking on. Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and building on the learnings from the pilot, the larger project will continue to elicit the stories of refugees but will also expand on co-designing fashion and textile artefacts grounded on the cultural heritage of the participants. It will also contribute to outlining a social enterprise model to enhance the resilience of the refugees, and will include advocacy work aimed at outlining recommendations for policy change, especially considering we are living in a refugee crisis and in the face of our collective uncertain future.

A project participant sharing her vision for a sustainable future
A project participant sharing her vision for a sustainable future. Photo by JC Candanedo.


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