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‘His House to Our Home’ exhibition aims to shed light on the meaning of ‘home’

As part of this year's Being Human Festival, Dr Maisha Wester is curating an exhibition that showcases how creative work explores racialised experiences of home in the UK.

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His House to Our Home.

A new exhibition will be showcased in Sheffield later next month that aims to delve into the meaning of ‘home’ amongst racialised people, sharing their stories and experiences through a wide variety of artwork.

Ahead of the exhibition in November, Now Then spoke to Dr Maisha Wester about the background of the exhibition and why it’s so important to allow people to imagine a home that transcends racial, and other forms of, oppression.

What drove you to curate this exhibition this year?

Honestly, I was invited to do it and the timing just seemed right. We've all been stuck in our homes and it occurred to me that there are quite a few people that don't have homes, or people for whom home is a precarious thing. There's just so many people that are stuck in immigration systems wanting to settle into a home but can’t.

In addition to that, I was also influenced by the treatment of immigrants in the US in general. Coming from Miami, I grew up amongst quite a diverse population, so when I heard people saying things like ‘do you know that this immigrant horde is coming to threaten to destroy our way of life?’, it really threw me. They just want a place to feel safe. They’re leaving behind their homes and their families because they simply see no other choice.

There's a real sense of Western privilege that's blinding folks to the reality of immigration. People are leaving behind entire families. They may bring their immediate family with them but their extended family, which is a major network in a lot of populations, they have to leave behind to move to an alien space. Out of safety. Not knowing if they'll ever get to see them again.

With people being locked in their homes during the pandemic, it just made that sense of privilege and alienation that much clearer. Because now, not only have you left your home for an alien space, you can’t leave your building. The film, His House, which formed part of the inspiration for this exhibition, is a great metaphor for the treatment of immigrants here over the past year or so.

I played a five minute clip as part of a lecture a couple of weeks ago and people thought it was very depressing. It hadn’t even got to the horror part, it was just the beginning of the film, but people were already horrified. His House takes you through the experiences of two asylum-seekers trying to navigate the system and shows you the bleak reality of it all. The film shows the audience the types of spaces that migrants are living in, which tend to be dirty and messy. There’s also a scene where the caseworker is outlining to the two asylum seekers what they can and can’t do in the space, which is mostly that they aren’t allowed to leave.

And then when we were all told we couldn’t leave our homes over the course of the pandemic, we were complaining that it was all too much. Meanwhile, for migrants awaiting their status, this has always been their reality.

Is the focus of the exhibition just on the migrant experience?

I want people of colour and migrants to talk about what it's like to try to claim a home here. The reason I say it's not just about the migrant experience is because there're so many ways in which people of colour that have been born and raised here for generations are still made to feel like they don't belong here. That they’re foreign.

Back in 2017, I had a conversation with a young Black British woman who was telling me she can be British, but never English. ‘I can never fully belong here’, she said. She told me that no matter who she encounters, they always ask when they first meet her where she’s really from, as if she couldn’t possibly be British. And so, it's as much about the experience of people of colour being made to feel alien in their own home. I'm inviting everyone to produce artwork around this conversation of home, with the artwork speaking to what it's like trying to make this place a home.

What do you want audiences to take away from the exhibition?

I want them to imagine a better future. So I'm asking for two things. I'm hoping people will start talking about what's considered intersectional oppression, the ways in which their oppressions are intersecting across different lines of categories of identity. And I want them to get angry, I want them to say this is nonsense! I'm tired of this! And I want them to start looking at the future. We’re all imagining together, right? And then, ultimately, I want them to then start insisting on that future. I want to create solutions. This is what we should be aiming for. Let's draw up that vision. And then let's start working on a plan to get there.

How vital is creative work in both highlighting racial oppression and overcoming these forces?

I think it’s really important. Because what I've discovered is that when you’re direct in talking about the problems, people are very quick to throw up a wall and just stop listening. But people seem far more willing and open to these difficult conversations when they're presented through art. For instance, if His House came out not as a film, but as a series of debates, I guarantee that it wouldn’t have been as far reaching as it is. People will tell me they’re not interested in immigration or racism, but when presented as a horror film, they’re all of a sudden engaging in these conversations. It’s exactly what happened with the film Get Out.

I will hazard a guess at why art works better than direct discussion and it's because art always has holes. It leaves room for the audience to enter into it, to read it through their own self. We interpret using our own experience. We fill in the gaps with our own sense of self. Good art leaves room for the viewer to enter into it and allows them to develop against the theme. The audience starts to understand in a way that they maybe don't when they're being directly spoken to. Art requires you to think and feel. And in doing so, I'm hoping to push the discussion further to help people develop that empathy.

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His House to Our Home.

Members of the public are invited to submit their own artwork sharing stories about making Britain home: the challenges, victories and future visions. This work will become part of the exhibition, which will go live on the 19th November and be available online via the University of Sheffield's digital platform.

A celebration event will take place at Theatre Deli on the 18th November where some of the work produced by artists and the community will be displayed. The evening will also feature poetry readings, live music, and the premiere of a film produced by the artist K.O.G.

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