Self-image in an alien culture

5th December 2003 at 00:00
Young refugees offer their own take on western art, says Carolyn O'Grady

Western art history seems an unlikely starting point for an exploration of identity and self-representation with young refugees. But the approach yielded surprising results, shown recently at an exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery in London. where artists Farina Graham and Jonathan Griffin ran a four-day workshop with Albanian Youth Action, a charity which helps young refugees adapt to life in the UK while retaining links with their own culture.

Each participant was given a disposable camera and took around 100 photographs on themes such as: "Who am I?" and "How would I like to show myself?" Each was "director" and subject of their own photographs. They were shown a selection of portraits and chose one to appropriate to represent themselves.

Taking as his starting point Sir William Beechey's "The Portrait of Sir Francis Ford's Children Giving a Coin to a Beggar Boy" (1793), Fatos Uka cast himself as the boy, dressed not in western clothes as in the painting, but in an eastern-style orange robe. He stands with an ambivalent expression, hand outstretched.

Nikolin Kera portrayed himself as the doctor who comforts a dying man in "The Death of Gericault" (1824) by Ary Scheffer. Here the pose resembled the painting except that Nikolin dressed in Albanian costume. It was his ambition, he said, to be a doctor and the painting illustrated his desire to help people.

Students also took passport-style photographs which rendered the subject almost devoid of personality, and whole-body images incorporating objects of significance to the photographer - for example mobile phones as a means of making contact, and travel cards as a symbol of freedom of movement.

Each young person also directed and participated in a group portrait in which they explored and expressed their relationship with and status within the group; for example, one boy placed himself securely in the group by wearing football team colours. They expanded the idea of portraiture without a face, exploring how to describe themselves only through clothes or personal items.

Albanian Youth Action: Tel: 020 8673 0800 Email: caroline@albaction.org.uk For more information on the Serpentine Gallery's educational programme: Tel: 020 7402 6075 www.serpentinegallery.org.uk

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