Arts and Cultural Development Officer, Soizig Carey, lifts the lid on Cross Borders, an exciting programme of arts and cultural activism run for, by and with artists from refugee and migrant backgrounds.

Can you tell us a bit about Cross Borders?

It’s a programme of arts and cultural projects led by Scottish Refugee Council. This includes events, workshops, mentoring, commissions and collaborations for, by and with artists, activists and cultural practitioners from refugee and other migrant backgrounds.

By cultural practitioner, we mean anyone who has an interest in creative or cultural pursuits. We want to appeal to people with a broad range of creative and community interests – from visual arts, curation, artistic production, music and performance to cooking, dance, literature, design, journalism, and community engagement.

Many of the people we work with are starting from the ground up. They might not be familiar with the creative sector in Scotland and how it works. They may not be aware of funding opportunities and how to apply for them. Many have been building a practice for years, but may need support with language, confidence building and making connections. We want to help them navigate some of these challenges.

Who is Cross Borders for?

People from refugee and migrant backgrounds who are seeking opportunities for creative expression and participation, or are looking for ways to improve cultural and community life. This could be people who earn a living – or seek to earn a living – from skilled creative practice. But we’re also really keen to reach people who don’t necessarily consider themselves to be professional artists or activists. For example, you could be a cook, or someone with an interest in gardening who would like to do something creative in your community.

How do you support artists and activists?

We commission work by artists who come from refugee and migrant backgrounds. For example, in June 2021, Paria Goodarzi and Francisco Llinas from Distanced Assemblage created AMBER to mark the 70th anniversary of the UN Refugee Convention.

We’re creating a peer solidarity network to connect artists, activists and practitioners from across Scotland. This network will help people to make new connections and provide platforms to share knowledge and ideas, build capacity and create opportunities.

We work with organisations within the arts and culture sector to increase opportunities for artists from refugee and migrant backgrounds. For instance, this year we’re collaborating with Edinburgh International Festival on Refuge, a two-week programme of contemporary art, film, theatre and dance. We also provide funding to help facilitate artist and activist projects and we run a mentoring programme.

What is the mentoring programme and how does it work?

The mentoring programme matches people with a professionally established mentor who will provide advice and support. For example, a documentary maker could be matched with a mentor who can introduce them to people working in the Scottish film sector.

This year, we have places for 10 people to come onto the mentoring programme. As well as matching you with a mentor, we provide you with a small grant to support your professional and creative development.

Tell us about the funding for artists and activists

Getting a creative project off the ground is often expensive and labour intensive. Many of the people we work with don’t have the capacity or access to the type of funding or connections required to develop their art and ideas in this way. There are so many great grassroots initiatives and projects happening across Scotland. Cross Borders is here to help support and resource people to make and share this great work.

Each year, we award funding to a small number of exciting projects which are refugee and migrant led. It’s a really collaborative approach. We work closely with each project to provide practical support and advice on everything from planning to production. And we link people with spaces where they can make and present their work. We also help them with documentation, connect them with local communities and share news about exhibitions, performances and events with our networks.

Why might artist and activists have to flee their homes?

Artists, activists and creative thinkers are often at the forefront of community life, development and social justice. When their work gives voice to ideas and freedom of expression, it can put them at especially high risk of censorship, harassment, imprisonment and persecution.

We support people who were already working as writers, activists or artists before coming to Scotland. We’re also working with people who weren’t able to pursue their artistic interests in their home country. Lots of the people we work with have fled places where cultural censorship made it impossible for them to express themselves creatively in open society. Instead, they have to go underground.

What challenges might artists and activists from refugee and migrant backgrounds face after arriving in Scotland?

The people we work with face so many barriers – language, cultural, financial, bureaucratic. People who are in the asylum process have limited rights. This can make it harder for them to reach their potential or make a living. It can also make it more difficult to build community connections and feel a sense of belonging.

Another challenge that artists and activists face is the misuse or misrepresentation of their work. Since 2015, we’ve seen Interest in refugees increase significantly in the arts and culture sector. A lot of emphasis is placed on refugees using their work as a platform to tell their story, or talk about their experiences. It’s almost like they’re having to justify themselves.

Although it’s great to see people from refugee and migrant backgrounds represented, it’s important that they are not tokenised or used for the benefit of organisational agendas. You might be an artist, musician, choreographer or journalist who has experienced refugeehood, but that’s not all that you are. And that might not be all that you want to portray through your work. Through Cross Borders, we want to work with both artists and activists and organisations within the cultural sector to help improve understanding and challenge misuse and misrepresentation.

Find out more about Cross Borders and how you can get involved

Image credit: Alberta Whittle

Rachel Lamb
Author: Rachel Lamb