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An Arts Council project final Evaluation report.

Evaluation Report | Recovered Histories

Artist: George Sfougaras; Evaluation Report by ArtReach     

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Above:  Large combination print/banner of ROOTS volunteer Minaz Samnai’s parents with layers of Guajarati textiles and symbols. 

Introduction

Recovered Histories, by internationally acclaimed artist, George Sfougaras, was a participatory project and exhibition of works that explored shared contemporary and historical human history, inspired by members of the refugee and asylum-seeking community.

To devise the works, Sfougaras led a series of creative workshops and conversations with a group of volunteers from the refugee or asylum seeker community, called the ROOTs Group, in Leicester to explore the topics and themes of Recovered Histories. The results of the conversations were 10 printed banners that layered and collaged the personal accounts and memories of hope, loss and change put forward by the participants. In addition, Sfougaras generated approximately 20 works in a variety of media based on his family’s experience of displacement and resettlement.

The banners were presented across Leicester in a series of exhibitions in August 2019 taking place at:

· Leicester Cathedral: Large Banner work and commissioned film.

· Leicester Print Workshop: Large window decal and activities.

· LCB Depot Lightbox Gallery: An exhibition of 30 new pieces of work, film and light animations (part of Journeys Festival International).

The banners created under the title of Recovered Histories are being given further touring opportunities for the Journeys Festival International programme in Portsmouth.

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Above: Leicester Cathedral: Large Banner work (3 x 2 m).

The Recovered Histories project also connected to National Portrait Gallery’s Coming Home initiative, which saw six other works under the title of Coming Home made with the ROOTS group exhibited in Leicester’s New Walk Museum and later in the Cathedral. This exhibition took place alongside the loaned portrait of King Richard III and also formed a key part of Journeys Festival International Leicester and later in the Cathedral where King Richard’s remains were interred.

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Above: Two of the Coming Home Banners made with ROOTS volunteers. 130x160 cm approx..

ArtReach’s consultant was commissioned to deliver the evaluation. The findings in this evaluation have been drawn from in-depth interviews with Sfougaras, key delivery partners and the volunteers in the project alongside feedback from audience members gathered at public exhibitions.

What the project hoped to achieve

This project was primarily funded by Arts Council England. Sfougaras’s Recovered Histories sought to achieve several outcomes for the participants and partners. Key project partners were Leicester Print Workshop, ArtReach (Journeys Festival International), Leicester Cathedral and New Walk Museum.

The intended outcomes for this project included:

For participants

· Increased creative skills and knowledge – in particular, with designing and developing printworks alongside a professional artist, and helping to shape the artistic content for an exhibition exploring their own personal stories.

· Increased confidence, knowledge of, and access to, cultural spaces – in particular, gaining access to a well – equipped facilities (Leicester Print Workshop) and Museums.

· Increased sense of belonging in their resident city – in particular, seeing first-hand the feedback and reception of local residents and cultural sites on their work and the discussion and exploration of their personal stories and the wider discourse on the impact of population displacement.

For the community

· New collaborations between community groups and cultural sites to devise public exhibitions and engagement – in particular, the ideas to add a local community perspective and response to the National Portrait Gallery’s Coming Home national initiative.

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Above: The Narrative Portrait of Bishop Guli. 3 x 2 m

Mixed Media print Leicester New Walk Museum.

For the artist

· Increased skills, knowledge and experience – in particular, in delivering multi-dimensional community-led creative projects underpinned by ACE quality principles,

The key activities of the project included:

· 10 ROOTs Group workshops encompassing creative work and visits to Leicester Print Workshop, Leicester Cathedral and New Walk Museum

· Open workshops linked to the exhibitions at Leicester Print Workshop

· Easy Saturday family day workshops at LCB Depot

· Outdoor workshop

· Artist access to Leicester Print Workshop to develop exhibition items

· Showcase unveiling of ‘Coming Home’ at New Walk Museum and the Cathedral

· Launch event (in discussion with the Dean) Recovered Histories at Leicester Cathedral

· Main exhibition at LCB Depot, Lightbox Gallery

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Above: Ruins. Lightbox animated with Arduino controller, exposing different layers. LCB Lightbox

Gallery.

Methodology

This summative evaluation predominantly took a qualitative approach to assess how well this project met its intended outcomes, and represented the principles of artistic quality. Findings are based on conversations had in:

1. In-depth interviews with the artist and representatives from partners such as Leicester Print Workshop, New Walk Museum, City of Sanctuary, LCB Depot and Journeys Festival International.

2. Focus groups with members of the ROOTs Group and other users of City of Sanctuary Leicester services

Interviews and focus groups covered topics such as what people or organisations valued the most about their experience of participating in the project; the quality of the exhibitions and artworks; key learning in terms of what went well and what could be done differently; and how to develop this type of project in future. Audience feedback was gathered through social media, online surveys and comments left in a visitor book left in the exhibition room.

Given the scope of the project, this qualitative evaluation sought to involve the partners to make a qualitative assessment of Recovered Histories’ artistic quality using the Arts Council England’s quality principles and metrics. The feedback from the interviews and audience feedback were coded against the metrics to present an overall assessment.

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Above: Food (Greek refugees 1922) Screen print 110 x 80 cm accompanied by a poem from Michele Benn. LCB Lightbox Gallery.

Findings

A high-quality participatory project that championed individual creativity

This project was able to achieve several creative, social and personal outcomes for the participants involved in the series of creative workshops and explorations to develop the final public exhibitions of this work.

Recovered Histories increased the confidence of people from a Refugee and Asylum-Seeking background.

Through discussions in focus groups, participants reported that they felt more confident in themselves as a result of taking part in the project alongside other people who had experienced similar personal stories.

“Doing this project with other people I know [from City of Sanctuary] means my confidence has grown” (Participant)

Representatives from Leicester Print Workshop and New Walk Museum also shared that they witnessed a change in the participants’ level of confidence each week. Initially, participants were supported to attend the workshop sessions through being escorted as a group to the venue or helped with travel arrangements. By the end of the project participants were arriving on their own and visiting the venues on their own accord.

“The project has helped us to open our doors to people who wouldn’t normally visit us” (New Walk Museum)

Recovered Histories successfully worked with participants with different artistic skills and experience. All participants were introduced to new artistic techniques.

Sfougaras devised the workshops to include several creative techniques that would appeal to the range of participants’ skillsets, from developing basic skills around cutting and collaging to more advanced techniques using screen printing using professional facilities.

Recovered Histories provided a unique opportunity for participants to shape a high-quality public exhibition of their own personal stories.

“We can do anything...with the right help” (Participant)

Partners described Sfougaras’ successful approach in involving participants in ideas generation and facilitating the development of works by building up or layering different stories and personal accounts in each of the artworks produced, but remaining authentic to the work that participants designed and developed.

Sfougaras’ participatory approach helped to produce exceptional pieces of work that were able to be exhibited as part of a New Walk Museum’s main collection. As New Walk Museum described, the workshops produced these ‘wonderful’ and ‘meaningful’ works, which they were keen to exhibit but were in need of enhancing to meet public exhibiting standards. Sfougaras undertook a thorough process to ‘transform’ the works by enhancing the original work developed by the volunteers through re-scanning and heightening the quality of the images to meet the partners’ quality standards for exhibiting, to which partners state was done in a way that participants still viewed the exhibited work as their own despite the changes made; participants had ‘immediate connection and ownership’ to the work and their creative input.

Leicester Print Workshop also described the way in which participants were able to draw inspiration from Sfougaras’ work in their own creativity.

“What struck me was the way that people took his images and made them their own. Incorporating George’s ideas with their ideas. People found it very easy to work with elements of George’s work and make them their own.” (Leicester Print Workshop)

At the start of the project, many of the participants had no experience of printing. By the end of the project, partners described participants’ as having in-depth artistic conversations about use of colours, which were taken on board by Sfougaras in his artistic decisions.

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Above: Compass. Screen printed from the original drawing on hand died and distressed paper. Prints made with the ROOTS volunteers at Leicester Print workshop.

The public exhibition of participants’ work has helped them to have a greater sense of belonging in their resident city.

Partners and audiences described the ‘moving’ nature of the exhibition and how the topics covered helped to challenge perceptions and increase awareness of the city’s diverse community and individual stories.

In particular, the exhibition taught lessons to staff members based in the partner organisations. The text and interpretations presented alongside the works were done with ‘such sensitivity and were beautifully written... ‘it would change the hearts and minds of people”.

“I think it’s good for other people to see” (Participant)

Participating cultural partners’ programme and approaches were enhanced through meaningful engagement with volunteers from the Refugee and Asylum Seeker community.

Recovered Histories added a valuable community perspective to New Walk Museum’s participation in the National Portrait Gallery’s ‘Coming Home’ project. Creative outputs from this project were exhibited alongside the temporary loan of the portrait of King Richard III at New Walk Museum. The exhibited items from the project, which featured silhouettes of participants populated with layers of multiple excerpts of images, texts and photos, added a contemporary interpretation and perspective for the theme of ‘Coming Home’, exploring people’s stories of traveling to a new home and settling into a new community.

“This project took the Museum’s outreach programme to a higher level, whereby we were able to contribute the work to a professional exhibition with national profile” (New Walk Museum)

For other partners, the project enabled them to move beyond just an exhibiting partner and to consider a more in-depth and direct involvement with the community through workshops and talks.

Artistic quality

As part of the evaluation, partners were asked to consider the ways in which Recovered Histories represented the Arts Council England’s artistic quality principles. The data analysed for this evaluation was coded against these principles and has been presented below:

An interesting concept

Recovered Histories was an exploration of shared histories, stories and journeys seldom shared in public spaces.

“The physical journeys and their emotional impact are at the core of this body of work... faces from the several families are layered, manipulated or juxtaposed alongside these and other elements.” (Sfougaras)

“A truly stunning collection of pieces, which have value on their own, and in conjunction with the stories and journeys that inspired them.” (Audience member)

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Above: Border.

Banner and wall decal for Curve theatre from pen and acrylic painting with screen printed layers.

Various sizes.

Production and presentation

Recovered Histories produced a huge array of art work as a result of the participatory workshops and the individual work produced by Sfougaras. As the project used a participatory approach, there was a significant proportion of time used to ensure exhibited items were well produced and presented in line with artistic quality standards across each of the exhibition sites and venues.

“These works were enhanced to be more compelling to audiences – we needed the work to stand out alongside the King Richard III portrait.” (Sfougaras).

The exhibition in the Cathedral was seen as a particular strength by partners.

“It is a busy space with so much happening, and yet the [Recovered Histories] banners sat well within that space and spoke well to the audiences.” (Leicester Print Workshop)

For the exhibition in the LCB Depot, partners described how Sfougaras was rigorous in his approach and ‘really thought about the layering of the individual art works, patterning and representation of different cultures within the space’. Academic and visual research also informed how Sfougaras would present the images and how they would work alongside one another.

Distinctiveness and originality

Each banner was unique to the people’s stories and heritage that influenced the work. The works included personal images, cuttings from newspapers from different countries and traditional textile patterns. The banners were transformed in situ through changing light levels affecting colours and patterns, which enhanced different aspects of the banners.

“Really beautiful – each piece is a journey and a discovery of histories” (Audience member)

Challenging and captivating

The Bishop of Loughborough, Bishop Guli (an Iranian-born Refugee), shared her story with Sfougaras to inform a key art piece as part of Recovered Histories. Bishop Guli was clear that although she felt it was important to represent some of her personal items (such as photos of her family) directly within the artwork, she preferred her contribution to be part of a much broader artistic representation of the challenges her family and others faced, and still experience today. Sfougaras layered different images alongside Bishop Guli’s, and sectioned the banner to present a much broader and captivating thematic response to her contribution.

“I sat with the exhibition for a long time” (Audience member)

“It gave hope to me that we can save the world” (volunteer participant)

“I have sat in the gallery for an hour and I am completely blown away and overwhelmed by the incredible work by George Sfougaras at the LCB Depot, Leicester. An absolute privilege to view this work”. (Audience)

“Amazing exhibition by George Sfougaras. Very original and interesting view of the experience of migrants involving layers and changing perceptions. Highly recommended!” (Audience)

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Above: View of the exhibition

Local impact and relevance to the world in which we live

“The urgency and relevance of the Recovered Histories project cannot be overstated at this particular juncture in our history. As we are daily assaulted by appeals to an ever-narrowing sense of what constitutes ‘us’, Sfougaras’s work sets for us the binding humanity of our shared histories.” (Rita Hindocha, Academic)

“...a moving and important exhibition to see in Leicester [and] in Europe during these trying times” (Audience member)

“The exhibition has encouraged me to explore my journey and travels of my parents from Guyana to England, Leicester.” (Audience member)

Risk-taking and artistically challenging

This was a multi-dimensional volunteer-led creative project that resulted in exceptional art work based on personal stories and journeys. Sfougaras described how, as result of this project, his ‘practice has begun to feel different’ because ‘the work is exploring stories of purpose’:

“It is issue-driven, heartfelt and genuine” (Sfougaras)

Throughout the project, Sfougaras sought advice from other artists and creatives connected to the project through partners such as Leicester Print Workshop, ArtReach, LCB Depot and filmmakers. Partners involved in this evaluation described Sfougaras’ practice as ‘responsive’ and ‘adaptive’ to their feedback and how he achieved his artistic vision.

Tangible technical skills developed through the project included a deeper exploration of using different fabrics for banners and investigating how light behaved with each of them.

This enabled different images to surface on the fabrics dependent on the audience members’ viewpoint. This particular aspect of the exhibited works was remarked upon by visitors to the exhibition:

“Both sides of the pictures have different views” (Audience member)

Excellence

Partners mentioned that they were ‘hugely proud’ to be a part of this project. New Walk Museum has published and purchased the work to be a part of its main collection.

Feedback gathered from visiting museum students remarked:

“You can respond to [the exhibited items] on a purely visual level without seeing the concepts or stories behind it”

“A quick cursory look and you can be taken to all these other places.”

“The intricacies and level of skill comes across immediately.”

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Above: Geo-metrics

Original pen and ink drawing and finished print on velvet with additional embroidery details.

Learning

Time constraints limited the depth of story exploration

Recovered Histories was a short-term group project featuring 10 workshops. The stories shared in this project were those that people felt safe and comfortable to put forward to be part of this work. It was not about self-disclosure or confronting trauma. A therapeutic exploration of people’s stories over a longer time or on a one-to-one basis could result in a more in-depth and deeper account of personal stories to present in the art works. However, for this project, is was not the right model to explore this aspect.

Engaging community centres e.g. Libraries was a challenge

The initial project outline included a tour of the works in Libraries based outside of the city centre. Owing to limited time, it was difficult to maintain dialogue with the libraries to explore how the project could link in with their existing arts and cultural offer in a meaningful way and engage local residents with the Recovered Histories’ topics and themes. Exhibition space suitable for the artwork was also a prohibiting issue. In future, more time to consider the different priorities of partners and how the project could be tailored to suit different audiences would be beneficial.

Balancing different organisational priorities

Recovered Histories offered ample opportunity for Sfougaras to profile his work and exhibit in some of Leicester’s iconic sites. These exhibitions were spread across the project, meaning that there was pressure to develop the works in conjunction with volunteers, whilst investing time to heighten the quality of the works for exhibiting standard for public viewings scheduled early on in the project. With more time, this project could have balanced different organisational and programme priorities ensuring that participatory workshops were scheduled in advance of public exhibitions and had a more tailored focus to meet the needs of the partners’ programmes.

There were unavoidable barriers to participation for this target group

Given the personal circumstances and situations of the volunteers, it was a challenge for them to make a regular, weekly commitment. Partners reported that it was sad to lose people owing to many complex reasons from relocating in the UK to negative outcomes of visa applications. When working with refugee and asylum-seeking communities, it is important to plan this work so that it can be reflective of these community stories and the depth that they deserve. Again, owing to time-constraints, it was not possible for this project to do this and it should be noted that a core group of volunteers maintained strong engagement with the workshop programme and visits to partners. The layering of images and stories on each of the banners also helped to mitigate against people that, unavoidably, had to drop out of the project. Long term and flexible approaches could be used in future to capture stories in depth in future.

“It is important to have Refugee and Asylum Seekers as ambassadors to help shape these projects and for them to have a group identity.” (City of Sanctuary)

Curating an exhibition with an inclusive approach

As a project with a strong participatory and inclusive approach, partners described how the curation of the exhibition was influenced by ensuring full representation of all the participants who were involved in the project. The partners noted that this is where there can be challenges around curating visual arts exhibitions. Artistically – sometimes more is not always better and the decision to leave out work can be just as important as what you include. The limited space at the main exhibition in LCB Depot meant that full range of works were clustered together and that in this particular space, the exhibition might have felt busy and difficult to navigate for audiences. There are difficult choices to select what is left out when the outcomes have been reached using a participatory approach used by Recovered Histories. Managing expectations of the participants and seeking feedback from a visual arts peer, not associated with the project, might help to ensure decisions balance out the artistic and participatory nature of the work.

It should be noted that there is anecdotal feedback from visitors that did remark on the exceptional use of the available space and particularly the layering of semi-translucent material used in the banners.

“This is the best use of this space I have seen over the years.” (Audience)

Summary

This qualitative evaluation of Recovered Histories aimed to put a spotlight on the positive connections that were formed between the volunteer participants from the Refugee and Asylum Seeker community, the artists and the cultural partners involved in the project.

For the participants, artists, organisations that took part and the audiences who experienced this work, this project achieved a range of outcomes from more skills, greater confidence, and an exhibition that contributed towards a more serious discourse and recognition of the shared histories between all people and communities.

With more time to develop the project’s participatory approach, this project has huge potential to address some of the learning identified as part of this evaluation process and to expand into more focused and in-depth exploration into the complex human stories of migration, resettlement and adaptation and wider dissemination into of these narratives, raising their profile further.

Next steps

Recovered Histories will be exhibited in Portsmouth as part of Journeys Festival International.

Sfougaras will continue to work with the partners involved in this project, including an activity project with City of Sanctuary, which will make use of a mobile printing facility made possible through this project.

Appendix: Topic Guides

Artist:

Questions:

How did your approach to deliver the project enable…?

· Individual creativity of the participants

· Collaboration between people and organisations

· Your artistic practice to develop

· Consider engaging hard to reach new audiences

Any key changes to deliver the project? E.g. libraries. What changed and why? Did it work?

What were your views on the activities/final exhibition and other presentation opportunities?

· Prompts: Did it represent the work that you did? (authenticity/belonging/ownership)

· Prompts: Reaching a new audience

· What worked well

· What didn’t?

Overall, what were the key successes of delivering Recovered Histories?

· Prompts: artistic practice, supporting communities, audience development

What would you change?

How might you use this concept, the skills you developed or experience gained in future?

Participants:

Questions:

What aspects of being part of the project did you value the most?

· What did it mean to you personally?

· Prompts: creativity, expression

What did it mean to you to undertake this work as a group?

· Prompts: sharing stories, working together

What were your views on the final exhibition?

· Prompts: Did it represent your story? (authenticity/belonging/ownership)

· Prompts: What do you hope was the experience of audiences?

General views -- what worked well and what didn’t

How might you use the skills or experience gained through this project in future?

Partners:

Questions:

How would you view your role in the project?

What aspects of your organisation’s involvement with Recovered Histories did you value the most?

· Prompts: align with your vision, values and programme?

· Prompts: Quality metrics - excellence, innovation, inspiring, inclusive?

What were your views on the activity/final exhibition and other presentation opportunities you supported/hosted?

· Prompts: Did it represent the work/discussion that participants in the project explored? (authenticity/belonging/ownership)

What worked well

What didn’t?

How might you use this experience in future in your organisation?

· Prompt: programming, participation projects, topics covered

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