By Laura Mosedale, ESL teacher at Women for Refugee Women
I teach English to refugee women, at the Women Asylum Seekers Together London group which is supported by Women for Refugee Women. Last month, over thirty of us – asylum seekers, English teachers, and other volunteers and staff from WRW – had a marvellous visit to the Victoria and Albert Museum, where we saw our students’ writings and our group handiwork exhibited alongside the museum’s treasures.
The trip was facilitated by Liza Fior of muf (modern urban fabric), an artist and architect collaborative. Liza had been invited, along with three other artists, to create an installation for the exhibition ‘All of This Belongs to You.’ Liza first brought us to the museum last November. As she explained it, the exhibit is about exploring the many uses of public space in Britain and she thought the V& A could be used for one of our English classes. We also thought it would also be a chance to get students out of the classroom to a museum none had seen before.
During the November visit, we met in a Medieval and Renaissance gallery near the main entrance. Liza arranged for a guide to tell us about the Virgin of the Misericordia, a 15th century Venetian bas relief featuring Mary, sheltering local guild members with her voluminous cloak. The WAST teachers then took small groups of students to various exhibits. My group was particularly taken with a temporary exhibit of wedding dresses. I had been uneasy about visiting this display, knowing that many of the women do not have positive associations with men or marriage. But once we got there, I couldn’t get them to leave. We talked about silk, lace, pearls and colours, compared and contrasted Asian, African and European styles. Apparently, when it comes to weddings, it’s about the dress and the dream, not about the dude.
Meanwhile, Liza was taking notes in preparation for her installation. She and her staff returned to my class again and again. She brought in lettered beads and string so students could make bracelets spelling out messages with words relating to protection and safety—words with resonance not just for museums but for asylum seekers. She brought in a teacher to lead a poetry-writing workshop, and even made an audiotape of one class period.
I did wonder at times where all this was going, what the installation was going to be, and what it would mean for the women.
We got some answers on April 20, when we returned to the Medieval and Renaissance gallery. Placed on the floor around the room were fabric-covered padded wedges to sit on, some already occupied. A long glass-covered cabinet in front of the Misericordia displayed photos from our previous visit and copies of poems my students had written during the workshop. Propped up next to the Misericordia was the Solidarity Quilt.
This quilt was created by the women of WAST, together with the Women’s Institute’s Shoreditch Sisters and other supporters of the Set Her Free campaign, in solidarity with the women who are detained in Yarls Wood. The quilt project began back in 2013, when the Women’s Institute began knitting with the refugee women. It is now stitched over with messages of support for women in detention. In the quilt’s life it has visited Yarl’s Wood detention centre, the Women of the World festival at the Southbank Centre, and the Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, where Angelina Jolie wrote a message which is now in the centre of the quilt. It was exciting for all of us to see the quilt in a world class museum of art and design.
Once again, Liza and her staff had arranged for activities and tours with help from Corinna Gardner, Rasheeda Nalumoso and other V&A staff. The women could stay in the gallery, sketching objects in the room from the comfort of the wedges or making bracelets with lettered beads, and/or take tours. It was a busy few hours, a bit chaotic as some students got lost on their way and came late, but culminated, as in November, in a substantial lunch for all, provided by muf.
Here was some of the feedback I got in our class the following week: ‘I learned more about British history and saw beautiful objects.’ ‘I enjoyed the Islamic gallery and learning about the legend of the seven sleepers.’ ‘I would like to see more because the time was too short.’ ‘Henry VIII was not a good husband.’ ‘The lunch was very good!’
Most of the WAST women hope to make the UK their new home. While some are closer to achieving that objective than others, I felt that these visits took all of them a few steps closer to feeling that they belong here.
All of This Belongs to You will run at the Victoria and Albert Museum until 19 July 2015.