Freedom from Torture - The art of recovery

The art of recovery

Can participating in creating art help torture survivors recover from trauma? And if so, how can we take the process forward? These were the questions posed by Professor Emma Rose and Dr Amanda Bingley from the Art of Recovery team at Lancaster University when they joined with Kirsten Lamb, a therapist at Freedom from Torture’s North West centre in Manchester.

Professor Rose has long researched the processes by which art can interact with the recovery process. “Recovery” in mental health terms is the process by which a person finds ways to live a “meaningful life”, even though they may be troubled by harmful memories from an abusive past.

A survivor of torture may suffer from symptoms such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, loss and enduring personality changes, which can prevent them from moving on with their lives, even though they may now be in a safe and caring environment. A therapist can work with the survivor to help them manage their symptoms, enabling them to recover from trauma and find a level of acceptance and possible happiness.

Freedom from Torture has used art therapy for many years to support clients traumatised by torture and abuse. A specialist psychotherapist will facilitate clients to use art materials to develop self-reflection, self-awareness and self-expression. In contrast, a participatory art project aims to provide a creative space for people to engage in shared arts activities and to promote social engagement.

Freedom from Torture invited selected clients to join Art of Recovery sessions. They looked specifically for clients who were not involved in other group activities, such as music, football, yoga or cooking, and who seemed socially isolated. In the end, the project had 14 participants, ten men and four women, from five countries: Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo, Iran, Iraq and Sri Lanka. Most had spent their lives in their home country before their flight into exile.

Workshop sessions

The Art of Recovery Team ran four participatory workshops in the summer of 2017. Once a week participants came together for sessions of around one and a half hours. During the first “warm-up session”, the participants were introduced to the project and experimented with the materials available.

In the second session they were invited to create an artwork of a real or imaginary safe place, either in their homeland, or on their journey, or somewhere they would like to go. This process continued in the third and fourth sessions, with participants displaying and discussing their artworks, the scenes they depicted, and how they reflected their memories.

The artworks ranged widely in scope and subject matter, reflecting the diversity of countries and experiences. Yet there were also constant themes, repeated across the sessions. Nearly everyone chose to depict existing places and objects, not imaginary ones, and most were scenes from their homeland and places where they had positive associations.

Landscapes featured natural elements, such as the sea, lakes, rivers, fields, mountains, gardens and croplands, and built environments such as towns, villages, houses, places of worship and restaurants. Some contained people and animals.

Work was an important subject for many people, especially as many could no longer work, or work at the same jobs as they had at home. Losing an occupation was seen by some as losing their identity as a person. Others depicted areas, such as houses and fields that had been destroyed by their enemies.

the feeling of loss and sadness that would accompany creating their artworks, the participants felt overwhelmingly positive about participating in the project, with the only complaints that it had been far too brief. The process of creating and artwork, and sharing and discussing it with others, had helped participants to reconnect with their past in a positive way with their present identity, and to find a safe, and potentially healing space, within themselves.

Why the project worked

Why did it work? Professor Rose says that having Freedom from Torture as a partner was a vital stabilising element. Freedom from Torture had provided a safe and familiar space and consistent and experienced therapeutic support. The organisation’s team of skilled and empathetic interpreters, who clients knew from individual therapy sessions, were vital to the success of the workshops. Participants had embraced and enjoyed the opportunity to create and express themselves through the arts activity using high quality acrylic paints and canvas, paper and collage.

The project had been shaped by the successful co-operation between the researchers and Freedom from Torture. Both are now looking forward to finding further ways both to work together and to disseminate the methodology and messages of the project to a wider audience.

Read the report: The Art of Recovery: Supporting Refugees Traumatised by Torture 




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