The Artists of Penally Refugee Camp
Report from artist ANNA WATERS
There was a lot of media attention on the Penally Camp when the guys were first put there in September 2020 . Swansea-based, right-wing group VOW was said to be stirring things up, along with similar groups from elsewhere… This poisoned attitudes locally for a while. Neighbours attended protest marches through Tenby, and daily protests were held at the camp.
An amazing group of volunteers organised themselves quickly… Stand up to Racism West Wales Group and County of Sanctuary Pembrokeshire were busy doing all they could to welcome the guys and ensuring that basic provisions and clothing were collected… their work has escalated considerably since then.
Knowing how much I would value access to some art supplies, if I was in that situation, even just a pencil and paper, I started to feel the need to get some to the camp. My friend Carolyn Cox from the Tenby Observer had had a similar idea and got in touch asking if I’d like to meet up with one of the asylum seekers she’d befriended from the camp.
Accompanied by one of the wonderful volunteers to the camp, Jane Preece, Kinan, a Syrian refugee, arrived to meet me and Carolyn one Wednesday evening in mid-October. On meeting Kinan I was instantly struck by how like my brother he was: well-groomed, polite, articulate and clearly very intelligent. He shared his story with us – which rendered me speechless for a while – and I found common ground with his sister being an artist .
Kinan had a clear awareness of how enhancing creativity could be for the guys at the camp. We were able to show him Tenby Observer pages of the Tenby Shares project and agreed we would share the creativity into our community project: a small integration but an integration nonetheless .
Kinan was later able to negotiate allocation of an art room at the camp, but at that stage we assumed guys interested in receiving the art supplies would need to keep them in their shared rooms, so decided on creating packs.
Jane and Carolyn wished to contribute financially and, following the meeting, I set about ordering supplies from The Works. Each pack I put together contained a decent A3 sketchbook, a good set of pencils, acrylic paints, pack of brushes, a palette, some canvas boards, coloured pencils, air-dry clay and even a Pritt Stick for creating collage.
In the time I was amassing these, I was also given quite a lot of donated supplies… the sets of equipment that people buy and hardly use or don’t use at all!
In the few days that it took to get everything together, Kinan had been back in touch to say they had been allocated a room and he had a group of guys keen to get creative.
Lockdown 2 arrived and provided protester-free access to the camp gates. Via WhatsApp I’d arranged to meet Kinan and half a dozen other guys at the camp gates to ferry the supplies into the camp. They had to be checked by the gate security guards but all was quickly approved… my trip was brief but certainly memorable.
Kinan had managed the whole delivery to be swift and socially distanced… five minutes later, back at home, I was in receipt of numerous messages of thanks and photos of the supplies safely arrived in the newly allocated room.
My own health threw up some challenges that I needed to overcome, at this point (not Covid) so Jane arranged with her daughter Niamh, an art student, to run some Zoom art sessions with the guys.
Initially approximately 15-20 took part and WhatsApp provided me with some creativity to share to the Artisan Avenue page. The guys had really enjoyed their session with Niamh, and a couple of subsequent sessions were arranged, but the guys who had been instrumental in rounding up our fledgling artists were transferred from the camp. It is often the case that people are moved with only 10 minutes’ notice!
Numbers for the Zoom sessions dwindled, but via WhatsApp we kept a core of half a dozen, keen to continue to share their own work.
Our Tenby Shares project had to this point shared people’s creativity from our page to a number of Tenby Facebook groups. I was unsure of the response the art from the Penally Camp would receive on one or two of these, following the stoking of opposition to the camp by VOW etc. I knew that sharing via our Artisan Avenue page would be fine – our local creative community would be supportive – but I wanted to avoid the guys witnessing a load of virtual opposition… so I was cautious initially.
I started to share the work from the Penally Camp artists in the Stand up to Racism West Wales group where support and kindness are ensured.
The artwork followed daily along with offers of purchase and calls for an exhibition. Feeling emboldened by the support the guys were getting I started to share into some of the Tenby Facebook groups and, apart from one pathetic little comment (quickly removed by the page admin), their work has had nothing but positive interest.
The first drawings Xabat Ka shared with us are immensely powerful. Much of the artwork has been very edifying… such as an early drawing from Raman Mostafanejad. The fact that the work is so communicative has to be a factor in its popularity.
When I asked Xabat Ka (one of our most frequent contributors) what he has enjoyed about being involved, he said: ‘I’m glad to be able to say words with a painting that language is incapable of saying.’
Raman has also been a frequent contributor. He has shared many hope-filled images, earning his nickname as The Master of Hope. When asked what he’d gained from taking part in our project, he said: ‘First the opportunity of expressing myself, then the pleasure of creating… mind peace and tranquillity that helps pass time easier in camp.’
We are planning an exhibition of Penally Camp Creativity for the 17 July 2021 in Studio 1, The Queens Hall, Narberth. This will last for one week.
As well as the art we’ve been sharing via Artisan Avenue, there will be all manner of creativity encouraged by all of the volunteers who have worked with the camp (County of Sanctuary Pembrokeshire COSP and Oasis, a refugee charity). Also we’re encouraging a bit of ‘artivism’ (art activism) of our own in response to negativity towards those claiming asylum.
We’re asking anyone who would like to create something to show unity with those escaping persecution, to share it to email@example.com. We are sensitive about protecting the anonymity of contributors if they are concerned about negativity directed at them.
For more information and to see more images please go to Facebook, Artist Avenue.
A full-time, professional artist, Anna works and lives in Pembrokeshire. When not at home, Anna can generally be found in the company of fellow artists, sketching and painting: “As Pembrokeshire brims with beauty, I don’t have to travel far to be inspired: sunsets, stormy skies and even snow bring magical transformations to our vast sandy beaches, rock formations, cliffs and coves: serving up a lifetime of wonderment for any artist.”