Arts Visa – new pilot project for Refugee Artists

Some years ago when I was working in London, I discovered that the National Theatre of Somalia were all over here in the UK on refugee status. They had been scattered across London, were working in appalling menial jobs with no recognition of their talent and artistic status, and with absolutely no resources for making work. Some of us got together and tried to find even partial solutions to this but it was very, very hard. I subsequently came across the observation from the Refugee Council, now pretty well known I think, to the effect that most refugees tend to be from the intellectual (or, as we might say today, the ‘knowledge economy!)’ parts of societies and find themselves here in the UK with their education, talent and skills totally unappreciated and unrecognised. Perhaps idiotically, I kept thnking how awful that would be if it happened to any of our heroes in the West, and began to develop an interest in doing something about it, however small. Well, it’s now some twelve years later, during which I’ve been otherwise occupied but have never forgotten this interest; it’s probably true that, during that time, it has influenced CIDA’s approach to our work in many projects; but we are now finally really focusing on this.

I think the latest catalyst was a note from one of our longstanding mentors (and indeed one of CIDA’s founding Board Directors) Adam Strickson, poet, writer, director, musician, rigorous intellectual and generally all round quiet but effective good egg. He has been instrumental in the City of Sanctuary movement and was canvassing CIDA’s support, which of course we gave. But the idea also stimulated the CIDA team at one of our creative design days. We were in groups, and each was charged with identifying new projects that we wanted to do; we then as a whole decided which of them we would focus on, and Arts Visa won. So here we are!

It’s not complicated – we want to work with refugee artists in the region to help them professionalise their practice and to be able to earn a living from their creativity. So we are using the knowledge and skills that CIDA offers all artists and creative people, but, for this project, focused specifically on artists from other cultures who don’t know how the system works in the UK. The potential of this is clearly huge – the impact of the different cultures within our own, the possibilities for cross-cultural, cross disciplinary learning, fusing, influencing and creating is enormous. Of course, we know that there are amazing projects with similar goals all over the UK these days – we just want to add to that. We set up an advisory group to help design the project and together we identified the key drivers as:
– Accessing existing infrastructure,
– Creating new connections,
– Developing new avenues to earn a living from their creative practice,
– Expanding the audience for their work, and
– Crossing cultural barriers

Jo Wilkinson, (formerly our Head of Programmes Management and now, after 10 years with CIDA, freelancing but still working with us, thank heavens), has been project managing this. She has secured funding from Arts for All for a pilot programme, allowing us to trial the ideas with 12 Refugee Artists between now and August. We will then use the pilot to make a larger, more strategic bid to the Lottery fund. So the work has started. I’m doing the initial diagnostic and benchmarking interviews and it’s proving extraordinary – from a Russian fine artist to a 13-piece group of Burundi drummers – inspirational in the real sense! It’s early days so we still have six places left, so if you know anyone who knows – or might know someone else who knows – refugee artists who may be interested, please just get them to ring Dawn (01484 483143; – your help would be greatly appreciated!