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Claiming space and a more ordinary curiosity


This week the weather was milder than the previous few weeks and the evenings are already staying lighter for longer. On both days there was a certain stillness and quietness in the spaces without the heightened anxiety that is so often present. This gave way to a more ordinary curiosity – about us, about each other, and about the imagery that evolved.


In the Butterfly House where we work in the camp each week with Medecins du Monde, the atmosphere felt gentler and there was a claiming of the space in a context where claiming anything is so difficult. This was mirrored by a greater receptiveness on the part of the adults to the materials we offered, including the more traditional materials we introduced into the mix, such as old fashioned pastel paper, soft chalks and art history books.

With more primary-aged children now at school, the space was largely occupied by the camp’s men, alongside a handful of women, small children and young teenagers. The guardedness amongst the adults that we often experience and understand as integral to the dynamics of the camp, gave way to a greater sense of ease within the room, alongside some genuine conversations – about home, about a professional identity, about why it had been necessary to leave and from where.

One newly arrived man from Kurdistan moved from reading poetry to himself, to looking with us at art books and finally playing with chalks on paper. With support he seemed able to feel more grounded, moving beyond the framing of himself as a refugee into the naming of his own professional identity as a psychologist, thus bridging a dichotomous position he had come into the space carrying.


In our afternoon session in the Safe House, the traditional soft chalks and kneading of plasticine helped to bring the group of Eritrean young women and men together around the dining room table and there was gentle image-making and fluid translations across languages from within the group. For a long period its members spoke only in their mother tongue Tigrinya and reaffirmed our place as guests in their present home. There were also periods of silence as individuals drew or modelled or simply sat reflecting.

We also talked together about the village, the hills, the water-pump, the pouring of coffee, family roles, the army and desert winds. An interest in each-other’s images and a deep connection with home were expressed throughout the afternoon. The group explored whether it would be possible to make traditional Eritrean food in Calais as the softening of the plasticine reminded one young woman of a barley-based delicacy that other’s agreed could only be authentically made from locally grown crops and vegetables.

Earlier in the day we ourselves had visited the magnificent Calais Lace Museum nearby, housed in a former lace factory. The original lace machines built in Nottingham and brought over with workers from the UK speak both of the historic trade routes between the UK and Calais and the town’s own traditions – the quietening within the work this week allowing us space to be curious about Calais’ history, usually obscured by the contemporary context.

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