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Art as Storytelling and Resistance: “I love cats”

By Shayna Plaut, Contributing Editor, Human Rights

“Seeking Protection is Not a Crime” is a 5.5’ X 12’ foot mural commissioned by the Queer Arts Festival, a three-week multi media art festival that began in 2010. Festival coordinators reached out to Rainbow Refugee – a grassroots organization that works to support people with refugee claims in Canada on the basis of gender and sexual orientation. The piece made its debut in July 2014 at The Roundhouse, a community space in one of the more affluent areas of Vancouver. In one of the few sunny days in January, I sat down with Melanie Schambach, a social artist who served as the artistic coordinator, and Katherine Fobear, a community activist scholar who served as one of the project coordinators, to reflect on the process and ethics of bringing together art, scholarship, activism, and community to a public that is largely unaware of the realities facing queer refugees and even more unaware of the power and process of making social art.

Note: Mira Ghattas who was the other coordinator and helped envision and spearhead the community portion of the project – bringing together the refugees with the Queer Arts Festival – was unable to join us.

Photo Credit: Rainbow Refugee

Shayna Plaut: What is your relationship with the LGBT community?

Melanie Schambach: I identify as a queer cis woman.

Kat Fobear: I identify as a queer cis woman and have been an LGBT activist for the past 13 years in a variety of capacities. Once I moved here to Canada my activism focused more on refugee LGBT persons rather than the larger LGBT movement.

And what is your relationship with the refugee community?

Melanie: I’ve been committed to making welcoming spaces, and that includes everybody. I am originally from Columbia but I came to Canada with a Canadian passport, with Canadian citizenship. I came here after experiencing terrible homophobia in Guatemala and I had to leave the country. I came here seeking refuge with citizenship and that connected me right away to unravel those injustices around the refugee system. The journey of my privileges has opened up my questioning around refugees. I was able to recognize the power of privilege and space and the restrictions of the state.

Kat:I am originally from a small working-class town in Michigan and through LGBT activism I was able to experience different communities and cultures than what I would have before. Continuing my education was the way for me to escape some of the violence I was experiencing as a young queer woman and migrate to different countries. For me the focus on refugees was to recognize how much the LGBT movement silences individuals who don’t have access to citizenship. I saw this in Hungary when Roma and other non-ethnic Hungarian communities weren’t really invited into the already marginalized LGBT movement there. Although there was a lot of violence against the LGBT community, there was also violence and marginalization within the LGBT community. I was living in the Netherlands when the new wave of xenophobia coming from right wing politicians really peaked. Politicians who would say things like “we can’t let more Muslims into the country because we have to protect our gay people.” They were basically using the gay agenda to stop certain groups of people from migrating to the country.

Those experiences carried with me. When I came here to Canada to go to school I knew I would be an activist and I knew I would do something regarding LGBT people but I wanted to really work at the critical intersections. And Rainbow Refugee gave me a home to do this.

What other communities do you identify with, or what other ways would you round out who you are?

Melanie: Well, I don’t relate with artists at all (laughs). I call myself a social artist – art as a social service rather than the gallery industry or a product that gets produced and sold. All the work that I do – the actual product is never for sale. Maybe two-thirds of what I do is out of my own pocket, so it is a mixture of paid and unpaid work. The collaborations that I do are with folks who don’t really have a lot of art access in their lives.

There is a place for fine arts in the world and there is a purpose for that, but not at the expense of participatory arts. I believe that everyone has the right to have art.

Why art? Why did you choose that medium? What do you mean by “everyone has the right to have art in their lives?”

Melanie: I guess it started because I found refuge in art as a kid. I spent a lot of time on my own in my childhood.

And where did you grow up?

Melanie: In Columbia, in Dapa, which is a forest near Cali. I spent a lot of times in the woods playing with sticks and building forts in nature, building tree houses. And then I got more into crafts and painting and my mom had a big wall where I could just paint so I wouldn’t paint all the other walls. But I spent a lot of time alone so I always found art as way to connect with myself in a way that was positive.

Do you have any brothers or sisters?

Melanie: Yeah

Photo Credit: Rainbow Refugee

Did they help you paint?

Melanie: Not so much. I was always the weird one who would go to church with two different colored shoes and my hair full of knots!

But going back to art. When I came here… well, there was a year in Guatemala when things got really complicated for my girlfriend and me, and we needed to get out. So we landed here. And I got into art school by accident because I needed to get in a program. The graphic design program wasn’t running that year so they just put me in fine arts. Just for six months and then it was assumed I could transfer. But when I started painting it became my number one medicine.

I was 19 and having a hard time with so many responsibilities and not really knowing how to manage them. And we didn’t know anyone here. We were living in Abbotsford in the closet because Abbotsford is the bible belt of British Columbia. So art became my medicine and my refuge.

I did two years of painting by myself but then I became bored. I began to explore how I can give voice to other people’s story through paint. And that is how I landed in participatory painting where I would open space for folks to share their critical analysis, or thoughts, or emotions or stories through visuals. And together create a common message and the product brings meaning into a common space.

After art school was there any more formal training specifically regarding the participatory art practice?

Melanie: Well school sucked for real. I shut down my creativity. It is a very privileged space, very intellectual, very much how we think about the world not how we feel about the world. And that was really hard for me to connect with. I became more and more insecure about everything I was creating because no one was getting it. I paralyzed for a while and couldn’t pick up a brush for a couple of years. Once I was out of school in 2006 I started to contemplate how I could bring more people into painting. I purposefully looked for specific people who could be mentors – and although I never found anyone doing exactly what I was doing I would meet one person here and there that would give me tools. And I still meet them. My other formal training was “heart of facilitation” based out of Seattle. It is a 5 month training on how to facilitate. It teaches a lot of things but especially about empathic listening and how to speak from the heart.

But honestly, unfortunately, because there is a lack of accessible training on this – I’ve been learning from each project. Which is terrible.

Why is it terrible?

Melanie: Because I am dealing with people. And experimenting on interpersonal activities with people is super dangerous. It is people’s emotions we are opening up with art spaces. And I am not a therapist. Clearly. As community based artists we are not therapists. But we do activities that open up people’s emotions. And sometimes we can be like “oh yeah, this is where the good story is!” And we can get distracted by the art – where the “good art” is – and we lose the person in the process.

These are red flags I’ve always seen. Sometimes I stop. I stopped doing this work for a couple of years because I was scared of the spaces I was opening without having the proper training for that responsibility. When I would ask my partner organizations to have the proper support, there were always restrictions. Funding or this and that would come into play because they don’t see the power, and danger, in what art can do. But participatory art can become very painful when the facilitator or the organization sees people as the medium rather than working with participants to use art as their own medium.

I learned that the person – your friend, the participant, that guest – is first. That’s it.

Sometimes the camera becomes first. Sometimes the budget comes first. Sometimes the analysis of what rigid language we should use comes first. Sometimes the radicalism comes first. But it’s like no – this is about the person and connecting with that person’s emotion right now. As a facilitator when we have all this other shit happening and pressure, sometimes we forget. Keeping in mind that that person comes first, then the paintbrush, that is always my point of focus: what is best for the participant?

Rather than what is best for the cause?

Melanie: For the cause. Or for the art. Or for the story. Or whatever.

Photo Credit: Rainbow Refugee

But I assume you have to deal with similar struggles in academia? How do you balance that the participant comes first when you have some articles to write and ethics approval.

Kat: For me it’s never been about “getting the juicy story.” My background is as an oral historian…and oral history is not a neutral practice. People come in and ask people their stories and life histories and sometimes they have their agenda and they don’t actually listen to what someone is saying.

What I have always loved about storytelling is that – it is not a grand narrative. I am not fitting them, or their story, into my hypothesis but rather people tell their story and make me listen to what they are saying. The power of oral history is it forces me to get out of my own assumptions.

So when this project came about, I wanted to get this project going so that the refugee community would have time with art. And whatever came out of it was going to be better than not having it.

Why art, what can art say? What can art do specifically regarding queer refugees?

Melanie: I like this question because this whole process keeps asking those questions.

Folks open their email – we receive so many emails we have become anesthetized, we have this distance. And when we do read them we connect intellectually and sometimes from the heart. But with art – with visual art, with music, with dance, with vibrations, with anything more sensory, we connect through the heart. So we are tapping into the emotional system.

Why is it important to connect to the heart?

Melanie: (pause) Empathy

Why is empathy so valuable, so powerful?

Melanie: When we have empathy and feel from the heart we can react with action.

And when it is intellectual only? Or maybe it is never only intellectual?

Melanie: In my experience I find that when it is more intellectual, when we are only connecting with the world with our head, then apathy comes to the surface. I see the possibility of reaction as a choice. Like… ok, well I don’t really have to do anything because it is not my lived experience, I may feel a little bit of guilt but I am disconnected.

Kat: To answer the question, why art, let me put my oral historian hat back on. I have done oral history in Hungary, in the Netherlands, in Canada. The reason why I do oral history is that it complicates narratives. It stops the single story. And I take that directly from Adiche’s “The Danger of a Single Story” – but she says it beautifully and it is true: it is very easy to flatten a narrative and make it into something digestible. And when it is digestible you can have apathy and have a reaction like, “Wow that is really terrible but it has nothing to do with me.” But life is all these intersecting things. It isn’t a single story. It cannot be easily digested.

Putting, my activist hat on: refugees have to tell their story all the time. It gets shoved into one particular narrative: they flee from a terrible “backwards” country and they come here to find freedom and love. That is the story that gets printed in the queer papers and that is the story that was expected by the Queer Arts Festival.

The only thing that LGBT refugees have in common is that they made a refugee claim. That is the only thing they have in common. Everything else is very different. How they came here is different. Many came as students, some as workers. There is the challenge of using the term refugee. People think of a particular narrative, a certain type of person. You need to add class and race and all of that, which is the challenges of identity politics, and something that Rainbow Refugee works all the time – to show the complexities of lives. People seem cool talking about how terrible it was and how great and wonderful it is now, but that narrative is so much more complicated. When you make it a single narrative you create a lot of areas of silence.

I give the Queer Arts Festival a lot of credit. The Festival is run by professional artists. They get commissioned by commercial art galleries. They have art degrees. And they wanted to do this project, and that is great. They went out of their comfort zone to do something like this. But they were not prepared for what it means to work with community. There is a difference with working with paid professional queer artists and working with community queers. They didn’t know how much more important it was to pay the participants and the facilitators and to have good food than it was to have a final product.

There was a lot of negotiation. It took almost two years for this project to start. Mira Ghattas, our project coordinator was at the forefront of this. This project would not have happened without Mira.

Photo Credit: Rainbow Refugee

It sounds like you are making a distinction between what the Queer Arts Festival assumed it was going to be getting– a product– and what you all saw as the process.

Melanie: What was expected by the Queer Arts Festival as well as others, was a painting that had the stories of trauma and oppression, the assumed narrative of the label “LGBT Refugees.”

Whose label?

Kat: Popular consciousness. When you hear the story of LGBT refugees you want the story of trauma and redemption.

Melanie: Making images of destruction is very easy. It is much harder to make stories that inspire people to come together.

If we approach this project with the ethics that the participant comes first – then we need to recognize that the participant has a lot of other needs and interests rather than opening up their trauma. When I first drew up the proposal, it was a $40,000 proposal. It was six months of community building, making social spaces, hanging out…and after those six months we would open it up and ask “Ok! Who wants to make a painting?” And if so, “Here are the workshops and here is the emotional support you will receive at each workshop.”

But there was no $40,000 – we were able to get a fourth of that.

So we had to rethink. We had already agreed, a year before that we were not going to reopen the wounds of trauma so that I can benefit or the Queer Arts Festival can benefit. We needed to create a platform that really benefits the participants.

We really had to walk slowly with the Queer Arts Festival to explain why the participants needed honorariums. Why we needed to have Mira as a project coordinator really working with the community and why she needed to be paid fairly. Why her work and the participants and not just the final product, was valuable

Melanie: With the time frame we had the workshops focused on anti oppression and group facilitation to just get us to connect with each other and digest so we could articulate and see our stories from a different place. At the end of each workshop we would do a little bit of painting. And the painting was about who we wanted to be and how we wanted to be seen, the virtues, the messages and recommendations that we want other people to see.

But if you compare it to other work I have done you are not going to see the narratives of trauma.

Kat: You could not skim this mural and be like “oh these are all terrible stories, I feel so bad.”

There are images, kisses, pictures… and that is thing: when you put the participants first you cannot get a quick snapshot of “so sad and depressing, Aaawww…next.”

What this mural does say is, “No, look at everything. Look at every single story.” Alex, a refugee from Asia, has pictures that say, “I love cats.”  And that is important to his story. He came here as a refugee and he brought his cat with him.

Melanie and Kat together: And he loves cats!

Does it compromise the art?

Melanie: Well it depends on what is your intention with the art piece. Here the intention was the participants first and the art product becoming a representation of the journey with the participants. And in that way, no, it did not compromise the art. But if the intention is to raise awareness on particular issues then yeah, of course there was compromising, but purposefully. We knew there was going to be a compromise. But the issue is that we did not have the proper support to do a proper dismantling of the roots of the stories and oppression in a good way.

I wonder if there is an assumption as to what is “political.” That ‘political’ assumes that it needs to be a fist in the air and in your face. The truth of the matter is that sometimes we like to drink tea and pet our kitties.

Kat: It was like what Audrey Lorde said, “Survival is resistance.”  Survival is political. This has been repeated a lot, but it has not really been repeated or heard by the activist community. The fact that you can have joy in times of sadness and isolation, that is political. To be safe and loved is political. To laugh even though you are facing so much oppression is political. I love cats is political.

Melanie: But still, when the painting was finished – there was a part of me that says, “Aahhh? Where’s the punch?” There is still an activist voice in my head that wants to hear the “Fuck you!” That wants the fist in the air.

Too often it is injustice. And yes, it is refreshing to see that which is usually erased but what are we creating to live more harmoniously?

Is that a bad thing?

Kat: No it is not a bad thing. But a lot of queer scholars, myself included, say that for so long in doing research on queer communities it has been a story of oppression because there has been so much violence targeting these communities – it becomes a story of death and destruction. But then you lose the focus of all this beautiful creativity. Tenacity. And bad-assness. That too is part of the narrative.

It’s a challenge. Because of course we have to raise people’s consciousness and knowledge by explaining that there are still 70 countries that have homosexuality listed as a crime and the government crackdowns etc. but then that becomes the only story, an easy narrative to rabble rouse and shake your fist — but that is not the only story. There are many stories of beauty.

Melanie: What happens after we put the injustice on canvas? What world are we leaving behind? What world are we creating?

“Seeking Protection is Not a Crime”

Read “Do you understand? The mishearing of LGBT refugees’ stories” for more background on engaging in academic and community work with queer refugees in Canada.