C ountless studies have been conducted on the struggles and triumphs of refugee communities. Although most remain academic, they provide valuable insight into the hosting nations by presenting statistics and other scientific data, detailing the reasons for displacement and, in general, offering a better understanding of the country fled.
But what about the specific, more intimate struggles of refugees; where are these projected, and how can we really tap into them?
With these questions in mind, The Youth LEAD Project of St. Andrew’s Refugee Services and The Townhouse Gallery of Contemporary Art culminated four months of hard work by refugees from Sudan, Somalia, Eritrea and Ethiopia in the gallery’s recent exhibition, titled “Reason & Rhymes.”
Along with their troubled histories, which is what often propels them to come to Egypt, refugees wrestle with hefty bureaucratic procedures to earn residency and, on a social level, face countless difficulties integrating into a rigid, homogenous society. This project sought to introduce art and digital media to participants in an attempt to offer a platform for discussing their problems and encourage them to find their voice.
Participants aged 15-25 shared their experiences of displacement through a collection of photos, printed T-shirts and videos.
One room was dotted with thoughts of participants written in both Arabic and English horizontally alongside parts of the wall, all rejoicing the experience and expressing the huge impact it has had on their lives.
Although the work on display is not rich in technique, every piece is an expression of a heartfelt experience, and for the purpose of this exhibition, it stood as a rich creation.
Over the course of the workshops, participants were introduced to new skills in photography. The end result was a suite of pictures on display in Townhouse’s first floor show room. Part of the work focuses on fellow refugees while others depict poverty-stricken areas in Cairo.
One picture, which was used on the official invite for the show, is of a young man, presumably a refugee, in a bright red sweater, the hoodie covering most of his face so that only his eyes are visible. The photo is shot against an aged cement-like background. In terms of composition, this is a fascinating photo. The photographer captures the feeling of alienation in an old city with a multitude of layers, requiring watchful eyes to slowly get through.
A more joyous photo shows an African young man looking like a rapper, posing with his hands clapping. While the stark blue sweater first grabs your attention, the work is an eye-opening portrayal of a pop culture that, while not dominant in Cairo, remains characteristic of many African cultures.
On a more serious note, one photo depicts a rooftop shed of a rundown Cairo building. Whether this is the photographer’s home or a similar representation he found between Cairo and his hometown, poverty is pointed out as another social ill which refugees are bound to suffer from.
Upon entering the adjacent room, a long white strip of paper glued horizontally to the wall immediately grabs your attention. The strip acts as groundwork for a collective collage.
Participants pinned photos, pieces of writings pulled out from books, letters and newspaper cut-outs in a colorful medley. The collage also includes drawings of flags, geometric figures and skulls with crossed bones, a nod to Yale University’s secret society.
The same room houses a collection of printed T-shirts.
The final part of the exhibition is the product of the last workshop: how to use video to tell a story.
Participants put together real life stories using editing software Movie Maker. They used pictures assembled from the internet and their own work, and wrote a script for each of their videos.
One video chronicles a day in the life of a refugee in Cairo with no money and barely any Arabic to get him by; another sheds light on the difference in school systems between Egypt and Sudan. A participant tells of how he hated school as a young boy because his teacher used to physically abuse him, which led him to drop out. After coming to Cairo, he was once again enthused about getting an education.
In another video, a Sudanese female participant grieves over her inability to go home to see her family “because at home we have conflict.”
Reason & Rhymes is currently showing at The Townhouse Gallery of Contemporary Art, 10 Nabrawy St., Off Campollion St., Downtown. The show concludes on July 24.