The dire situation in Afghanistan did, for a limited period, refocus the world’s attention on the subject of refugees and asylum seekers. (This of course came during the same period as the announced cuts to the UK’s foreign aid budget.) Yet the scale and extent of the world’s numerous refugee crises has grown consistently worse throughout the course of the last decade, with the number of refugees and internally displaced people in 2019 being double what it was in 2010. The same decade saw a significant rise in xenophobia, nationalism and the tightening of border controls across the Western world, with Brexit being a prime example (and the UK’s recent plans to turn back migrant boats crossing the English Channel marking a stark continuation of this trend). Meanwhile, the arrival of COVID-19 and the impact of global heating have only added to the extremity of the problem.
Against this bleak backdrop, Journeys Festival International (the UK’s first Festival of Sanctuary) exists with the aim of dismantling the stigma attached to sanctuary seekers arriving in the UK, and inspiring hope, acceptance and understanding between communities. The annual programme is organised by ArtReach and features events, exhibitions, film screenings and performances created by and with community members and artists with experience of forced migration. This year’s festival takes place over ten days across Manchester, Leicester and Portsmouth, and will see artists from as far as Syria, Iran and Zimbabwe team up with a range of UK and European artists.
A highlight of the festival will be Where There Is Light – an immersive sound and light installation by Squidsoup that shares the voices and stories of sanctuary-seeking communities from across the UK. The piece features interviews that took place online during lockdown in 2020 and reflects on how we can rebuild, reconnect and transform relations between people following the isolation and loneliness experienced by so many during the pandemic. It also taps into wider questions about where we find light in our lives, in ourselves, in others and in the world around us. The Manchester staging will be presented in the dramatic setting of the Holy Name Church on Oxford Road.
Another must-see is Bloodland Embrace – a new outdoor projection work featuring original artwork by Majid Adin (whose animated video of Elton John’s Rocket Man garnered over 100,000,000 views on YouTube) and international collective Kalico Jack. The visually stunning animation tells a story about home and belonging and explores how we connect to different people and cultures across cultural or physical borders – particularly in relation to the experiences of refugees and displaced people seeking safety in Europe. The piece will be presented outdoors at Hallé St Peter’s.
Other events taking place in Manchester as part of the festival include Reckoning, a multi-media performance based on real-life stories; Look Up, a series of outdoor visual artworks exploring themes such as mental health, national identity and privilege; and Journeys into Film, a series of short films by filmmakers with sanctuary-seeking backgrounds showing at HOME. The majority of the events are charged on a ‘pay what you decide’ basis.
Presented days after the Tory conference in Manchester, and against the current backdrop of global affairs, Journeys International Festival is a much-welcome arrival in the city.