Project start date: Autumn 2019
Tell us about your project?
Creating Connections is funded by the Art Fund. We’re working in partnership with NTU’s Institute of Education. The project involves six schools, two pairs of primaries and one pair of secondaries. One school in each pair is in the inner city, the other is in one of the towns beyond Nottingham. Our aims are to build understanding and empathy between young people from different cultural backgrounds. We also want to celebrate the cultural lives of young people and to use art and philosophical discussion to explore challenging issues, such as racism and homophobia.
We started by pairing up the students from the different schools. To introduce themselves, the students exchanged postcards they had made. Then, in January and February, the students from the paired schools met at New Art Exchange. First, Alex Kosogorin led a Philosophy for Children session and we discussed a book we read together. (The older students read The Island by Armin Greder and the younger ones read Something Else by Kathryn Cave and Chris Riddell). The focus of the books and the discussions was difference and otherness. Then each pair of students worked on an art activity – they had long pieces of paper and they started off with one person at each end. They had to use words and visual images to describe their own cultural experiences. When they got to the middle section of the paper, they had to think about what they had in common and find ways to represent that.
Some students were a bit shy and found it hard, but others immediately got on well, and some got on brilliantly. They produced some amazing pieces of art. We finished off the day by having a look around the exhibition by Shezad Dawood together and doing some sketching.
The next phase of the project took place in the schools. Two of New Art Exchange’s associate artists, Shamila Chady and Elaine Winter, led printmaking workshops. The pairs of students were making scrolls which the artists carried backwards and forwards between them, so the students were having a sort of conversation across schools, in written and visual form. We planned to show the finished scrolls in the gallery in June but the activity was stopped in the middle, in March, when the lockdown started. So at the moment [July 2020] we’ve got 90 half-made scrolls and many unfinished paintings and prints.
What excites you most about this project?
I’m excited by the fact that it’s about broadening the horizons of young people at a critical point in their lives when prejudices can become embedded. The project is designed to make young people aware of other people’s lives, to highlight the connectedness between them rather than the differences. The teachers involved were very positive too; they commented on the way it opened students’ minds to the world around them, helping them make connections and use art to express their own ideas.
How has the project been affected by Covid-19 and the lockdown?
[July, 2020] We’re hoping to be able to re-start the project in the autumn and to be able to have a final celebration event at New Art Exchange in January or February 2021. We really want the conversations between young people to continue. Because they span the lockdown period, we think the scrolls will be an amazing archive, a record of this extraordinary time in all of our lives. Suddenly, as they return to school, there will be so much for the students to talk about, that’s what we’re imagining. And, of course, the lockdown will have been very different for different people. Some, we know, will have had awful experiences and we’ll need to be very sensitive to that. But if we can use empathy to make connections, that’s what the project is all about.
What have you learnt so far?
That, at first, a degree of reticence between students is inevitable. That you need to plan in enough time to allow things to develop. That how you use the spaces available to you is very important. That teachers really support this work - we had 15 good applications from schools to be part of the project. The project has strengthened our relationships with teachers. We very much want to continue working in this way. We’re hoping this will be a pilot for other projects and we’re bidding for funding to allow us to do that.
Has this project made a difference to your thinking about partnerships?
Yes. We think this project is important for our work. We want to make it a core element of what we do: this is work we feel allows us to address things that New Art Exchange is especially able to address. It’s important in the current pandemic, but Creating Connections originally grew out of our frustration about Brexit. It has so many layers of relevance.
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