In recognition of World Refugee Day 2019, Henna reflects upon her practice, cultural democracy and the latest iteration of her ongoing participatory project with newly arrived communities at the National Trust site, Wallington (Northumberland, UK).
Andrea, D6: To start, it may be interesting to re-introduce your practice and motivations around engagement and participation as a collective cultural inquiry, specifically with newly arrived communities and ethnically diverse groups in the region…
Henna: My principal interests as an artist are in questions surrounding landscape justice, migration and the human relationship with nature, and the complex social and ecological issues emerging from this relationship. These interests were, to some degree, already a part of my practice when I lived in Finland but have been brought into sharp focus by my own experiences as a migrant. Understanding what it means to be displaced from one cultural, social and ecological environment and then to establish a home in another, which is fundamentally different, has been the basis for the emergence of my recent projects. These have combined aspects from my earlier practice - the site-specific elements for example - with an explicit exploration of the communal and social experiences of migrants and with the participation of those specifically with a refugee and asylum seeker background.
It is often the case that refugees and asylum seekers are housed in the most deprived parts of a city and often in inadequate housing and with limited financial support. Effectively they are confined to the urban spaces in which they are housed by a lack of both economic and cultural resources. Means to access the rich natural and cultural environment of their new living environment is too often a rarity, closing down the opportunities of a common ground for a dialogue with the host community. My recent participatory projects have sought to address this aspect of the migratory experience - a sense of being ‘out of place’ and alienated; searching for belonging and beginning to lay down roots through the discovery of environment, culture and natural landscape.
In my experience, this ability to access and experience landscape and nature provides an important psychological and emotive link between countries of origin and destination, even when they present very different characteristics. Finding my way into the countryside, experiencing the landscape and nature that surrounds this city (Newcastle) helped me to put down roots – to begin to feel at home. My projects have been built around this experience and sharing what I have discovered about building a sense of belonging.
Andrea, D6: Thinking about natural and cultural heritage more widely, it begs the question ‘Who is it for’? What are the possibilities of artistic methods seeking to democratise shared environments such as cultural sites and natural spaces? How is this methodology applied within your projects?
Henna: Democracy is only democratic when people are able to access its processes and structures on equal terms. Education, experience and a mutually inclusive dialogue are a critical part of this preparation.
Basically, these participatory art projects have been grounded in beginning this dialogue - they make opportunities to talk and share, to take meals together, to become friends in the context of the beautiful rural environments of the North East. This has provided the participants with the means to step outside of their immediate location and to collectively explore what constitutes a sense of belonging in a different context.
In these difficult times, the idea and experience of migration is of particular concern to creative and cultural practitioners whose home and work has always had an international dimension. Our cultures have never been more extended and accessible to people as technologies begin to break down the barriers to engagement and participation. Brexit and the deeply disturbing resurgence of xenophobic, populist and fascist ideologies, the policy of building barriers and closing borders makes it especially important to bring forth and highlight the positive impact of migration and for us to begin again to develop positive values based upon hospitality, friendship and neighbourliness. And although it is not a fashionable concept - too vague and unprofitable - we need to once again find that which is beautiful between us. To take beauty seriously. To make it political.
Reflecting on the nature of beauty, the Finnish philosopher and environmental aesthetician Yrjö Sepänmaa wrote,
Beauty is not only a surface property, a matter of appearances, but the beauty of processes.
I think this is very much applicable to my previous participatory commissions produced by D6, Forage and Delicate Shuttle. It is political in the sense that it is made together by people. It is process driven in the sense that an approach that engages with and foregrounds the effects of shared environmental experiences and the possibilities of those as a means to build dialogue and friendships has been applied and evaluated and reassessed and reapplied. That a commonality is emerging that is not culturally exclusive but makes a space for new voices and that recognises the positive contribution of these experiences and their saying.
The beauty of this ongoing project reaches far beyond the notion of exhibition as a destination for art projects. Each and every person who was part of the work has brought to it their politics, their history, their culture and customs, their friendship and hospitality, to the places we visited, the walks and conversations we had, everything we encountered and shared together. This process draws an outline of human relationships and connects us all in the great task of protecting and appreciating that shared outline. It delineates what is possible.
Andrea, D6: Wallington was one of the earliest sites gifted to the National Trust by the Trevelyan family. In April, you facilitated a site visit there with over 30 participants who were mainly newly arrived individuals and families, currently residing in and around Newcastle. Co-hosted by National Trust staff, the group experienced the grounds and river walk in addition to the former home and art collections of the Trevelyans.
As part of these series of walks and visits to heritage sites, you gently interplay questions and observations around the consumption of a constructed British heritage versus the ‘undocumented’ heritage, instrinsic to the evolution of the site or place itself but so often hidden or downplayed as part of the narrative. You guide participants around these complexities through an open and personal response to each site.
Why Wallington this time around?
Henna: Wallington Hall is particularly interesting in its diverse collection of art and curiosities from around the world - a collection that represents colonialist sentiments - that presents the world as an object to be interrogated and owned. A fascinating series of paintings commissioned for Wallington by the Victorian artist, William Bell Scott reminds us of the diverse groups that have made the history of Britain and its engagement with the world. The paintings show us that Britain’s history has been made at home and abroad. The people who made Britain have always been migrants - from those who first occupied the land after the last ice age to the North African and Dacian regiments of the Roman army who lived and walked on Hadrian’s Wall - to the idea of Britain as the workshop of the world in the industrial revolution and the expansion of military and cultural resources to enforce and build markets for the products of this workshop. Wallington is a sort of cabinet of curiosities that exemplifies both that history and the development of an idea of the world as something to collect, encounter and categorise - to make elsewhere different and ‘exotic’ - foreign.
The National Trust is a national collection of ‘heritage environments’ that have come to exemplify this ‘Britishness’. This makes them interesting places to visit in themselves. They are also extraordinary and unique places, and stand in stark contrast to the often deprived and run-down environments that displaced people are sometimes housed in. The gardens are pristine and immaculately cared for. They are points of departure into escapism, in some cases into the fantasies of those who established them as temples to themselves and their ability to shape and contain nature. These landscapes are steeped in history that often contains traces of the colonial past in botanical and architectural contexts. These traces are images of a selective and acceptable mode of migration and appropriation and can be found in the gardens and interiors – the careful construction of a quarantined past that excludes the inconvenient details.
It is a very powerful experience to visit these places with our diverse group and to think about what is being presented to us; how these spaces seem to be defined through who they are designed and kept for. The making of a space through an opposition to ‘the Other’, through the exclusion of minorities from these idealised landscapes presented as playgrounds for the ‘white’ and wealthy. We can and must ask questions: How do these spaces position us? Which history is being told? Who owns this history? What does that tell us about our present and its own obsessive nostalgia for that which never was?
Andrea, D6: One of the things that struck me was a simply stated but profound reflection by an older participant from Syria as he showed me images on his mobile phone which he had taken at Wallington, “I never expected to be living in Britain. To be British”. His family are currently separated across three European countries, negotiating new identities. I was moved by this experience and exchange.
Henna: Yes. He reminds us that any of us can become a refugee at any time. You can never be sure what direction life takes. We are all immigrants of one kind or another separated only by historical time. We need to remember this and locate it at the centre of our idea of belonging and, in remembering and thinking through our own journeys, we need to be hospitable to those who are, right now, engaged in a journey to make a home in a new place.
For further information, please visit:
Henna Asikainen - http://www.hennaasikainen.com
World Refugee Day - commemorating ‘the strength, courage and perseverance of millions of refugees’https://www.un.org/en/events/refugeeday/
Wallington - https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/wallington
Images: Wallington, April 2019 (Janina Sabaliauskaite)