“Pull up a chair”

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I’ve been spending time working on a slightly different project lately, one which has involved only the creative work of others – LGBT asylum seekers. It’s an art project about belonging – where do you feel that you ‘fit in’ and it’s a project about chairs – a symbol of support, belonging and rest. I asked LGBT asylum seekers and refugees about where they felt they belonged and asked them to express themselves through words/pictures painted or montaged onto wooden chairs.

The situation in their home countries is grim to say the least. 4 of the 12 participants come from Uganda. The situation there is appalling at the moment. All the participants have fled their countries in fear of further torture, rape or death threats.

The chairs however are fascinating and beautiful and can be seen on the project website here. They reflect issues of imposed housing (and the fear incited by living with people from countries where homosexuality is a crime), church inclusion and transformative journeys. To accompany the chairs I also created some illustrations to express togetherness and to reflect on the mixture of positive and negative words used. Slices of chairs were used in the first image to represent their diverse personalities coming together to form one supportive system.

It’s been a privilege meeting the participants and working with their work, to present it well and to learn from it though it’s an emotionally laden project. On the day of the Leeds workshop Reza found out he’d been granted asylum (with a big beaming grin on his face). Though Orasha, last week was put into detention and faces the prospect of returning to being at risk in Jamaica. Nadine’s under threat of being returned to Cameroon and Jacqueline’s case is on-going (hence her request to prop her chair up on one side to make it feel unstable).

Whilst the UK Home Office have to be discerning, the current situation is one of default disbelief. How do you prove you are gay? I met a woman the other day from Nigeria who had been granted asylum in just 6 days  – her story must have been strong and well evidenced. For others, they flee their countries without medical evidence and dare not approach the police for support – there are dreadful stories of ‘correctional rape’ even by police officers in Uganda. There must be better ways to support vulnerable people in danger though and I’m sure we could do more to help – sign petitions, write letters, offer money or volunteer time. I worked with two wonderful charities on this project (reachOUT and LISG). There are other places too you can offer support such as http://nogoingback.org.uk/.

Sadly, it’s not always easy. On Sunday the chair pictures were shown during an evening about LGBT asylum seekers – films were shown and Orasha’s mother spoke emotionally about her worries about her son. The organiser received threats from a ‘far right group’ if she went ahead with the evening which she still thankfully did. Whilst the extreme laws of Uganda might be difficult to change we can at least do our best to never give in to ignorant threats and to use our votes wisely.

The chair pictures are currently on show in Leeds Central Library for the rest of this week  –  Refugee Week 2014.

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