The project that came to be called ‘Am I my Brother’s Keeper?’, came about in 2015. I was alarmed by the rise of intolerance in the UK and elsewhere, and felt that, with the failure of our political classes, it was time for artists and ordinary people to stand up very loudly for what they believed in. Since I am an artist, I can express this through my work.
I decided that I should do an immersive artwork about home and identity, and that I should make it out of a tent. I wanted to convey a message of hope and shared humanity, which is at the core of all my work. Through my tent, I wanted to look at racism and also at the line between tolerance and acceptance in a community context.
I first thought of a piece exploring the Greek myth of Philomen and Baucis, who were generous hosts to the god Zeus, and rewarded with eternal life. It is. I suppose. a sort of proto-Flood Story, in which Philomen and Baucis redeem humanity from the viciousness and stupidity into which they have sunk, by welcoming the apparently impoverished stranger, Zeus.
Of course: Zeus in today’s society would come as a refugee.
So! I asked the UNHCR for a tent, and thanks to the generous intervention of the Spanish art organisation ONUART in my favour, was given one. I went to meet refugees so I could write their words on the tent, and have it as authentic as possible, without my own interpretation on their experiences, which I felt would be inappropriate.
Of course, people finding themselves in a tent such as my used UNHCR tent are relieved to be safe from physical harm, after where they have come from. However, their future is still undecided. The average stay in a refugee camp is 17 years, but there are also families from Palestine who have now been living in camps for 70 years or so.
The goal of my tent was to be show the positivity of humanity despite negative circumstances. It had to walk the fine line between the distressing violence of what it says, and being nice enough to look at that people would come up close and actually read it.
It also had to be informative. So around the black base of the tent we stapled the different conditions required by the UN convention of 1951 for being a refugee – as opposed to an asylum seeker, displaced person, migrant, immigrant, or other person moving across national borders. One elderly person I’ve met observed ‘Refugees just want to come over here and get on our benefits system.” This is not something anyone can have a good reason to believe.
For the crochet, two friends artist Susannah Baker Smith and documentary-maker Itab Azzam showed me crochet work made by Syrian ladies ‘internally displaced’ (technical term) by the war there. I was moved by the joyful spirit of these intricately made objects, and commissioned hundreds of them for my tent, so that I could make a big tree of hope on one side, expressing the indomitability of the human capacity for overcoming difficulty with dignity and grace.
The tree puts the refugees’ craft directly at the heart of my message, and also had the advantage of providing the ladies and their families with a small revenue for the duration of the project.
Working out how to transport these tiny crochet objects out of one of the worlds worst war zones for my tent led to some surreal circumstances and conversations, but they all made it out.
While I was involved in these barely credible endeavours, I also asked the ladies to make circles and leaves I could compose into hollyhock bushes. At Zaatari camp, where this tent comes from, I was entranced by the refugees taking the trouble (and water!) to plant beautiful flowers and bushes around their new homes. It struck me as an act full of grace, to go through so much trauma and loss, and straightaway go about planting flowers.
What a wonderful thing it has been for me to learn how some people choose to react to life.
Although this is a tent that has come from the specific circumstance of being a refugee, which is wildly extreme, the core human values it expresses are common to us all.
I chose the title “Am I my Brother’s Keeper?” for its Old Testament and Koranic roots. This tent has changed my life in every way. It has ripped me out of my comfort zone and turned my life upside down. I am so grateful to everyone who has taken the time to talk to me with such honesty and truth.
I want the tent to remind us of the responsibility we have to those in need. It is not inconceivable, if circumstances turn against us, that we too end up as refugees.
Refugees are not a separate class of people. By one stroke of bad luck they ended up in this tent. The man who lived in my tent was called Abu Teim. He lived in the tent for three or four months with his children and then disappeared. We do not know what happened to him when he left the camp, we do not know his current whereabouts.
It is merely our good fortune that this is an ordeal we have been spared. Talking to these people I have realised that our life is what our thoughts make it, and the importance of appreciating what we have.