Nottingham-based artist Rhiannon Slade has collaborated with The Cutting Room to hold a series of events inspired by The Nottingham Playhouse’s current production of The Kite Runner (running until May 18th). Slade strongly believes that art should reach out to the people that encounter it; last Tuesday she facilitated a panel conversation about themes of modern war that effect the people of Nottingham, asking the panel and the audience members to consider the role of art as an alternative commentary on the prevailing ideas promoted by official media channels. The Freedom in Air events have been ideally based at The Playhouse and the New Art Exchange, two institutions that undoubtedly share Rhiannon’s view that art can educate as well as delight and should generate conversations and connections between people who might not interact otherwise.
Firstly, a kite-making workshop was held, and children from different communities in Nottingham were invited to participate and compare their impressions of Nottingham and Afghanistan. Ages ranged from 3 upwards, with parents and other carers getting involved as well. Valerie Pope, who has worked as a missionary in Afghanistan and now calls it another home, talked about her experience living and working with the Afghani people, and presented some of her own photographs. Both she and Slade commented on the change in perspective among the workshop participants, many of whom were only aware of the rather one-dimensional picture of war-torn Afghani life painted by the press. One audience member observed that this has led children especially to regard Afghanistan as ‘an event’, and not as a country just like ours, with multiple communities and its own distinctive culture. According to Slade, the kites became ‘more colourful and more poetic’ as a result of this realisation.
A selection of these hand-made, thought-provoking kites is now exhibited in the foyer of the Playhouse, suspended from kite-shaped mesh and arranged like a vibrant hanging basket. They are decorated with poetry, prose and drawings inspired by Afghanistan, Nottingham and the hopes and fears of their creators. Also showing are some short films and extracts illustrating the positive impact of kite flying in Afghanistan, as well as among Palestinian youth living in the Gaza Strip.
Panellists at the recent discussion represented some of the societies and institutions affected by the topics covered; they were Jane Henson, Bashir Herawi, Saira Lloyd, Giles Croft, Nick Hayes and Skinder Hundal. Among the questions submitted were several by the young workshop participants. The first, ‘What is the war in Afghanistan about, and why is England fighting there?’ received answers from both a historian and artist perspective, who agreed that a critical interrogation of decisions made in the past and present is absolutely necessary. Hundal added that art has also ‘a pre-war role’, and that its practice of exploring the microbeats between binary oppositions (yes/no, good/evil, for example) makes it a valuable approach to life.
The focus was then brought back to Nottingham and the communities within the city largely populated by immigrants and their families. Audience members living and working amongst them observed that in general new faces are not welcomed, and that there is not enough time taken to understand immigrant culture. Importantly, the people with the most power do not use their influence to change the way things are. This is where alternative media forms can be most useful. It was agreed that an honest and open discussion of war, its effect on people’s lives, and the reasons behind specific conflicts is severely lacking – not just for adults, but also for the benefit of children, who are shaped by their society and often grow up having learned to avoid asking direct and difficult questions. If art can encourage these conversations, then it is indeed a powerful tool for change.
Rhiannon concluded the evening by confirming that for her, as for most other people present, this conversation is not over. She invites contributions from anyone who would like to share their story with her, and she will continue to encourage people to make their voices heard through her work.
Rosy has recently moved to Nottingham after three years away, and is really very happy to be back. She’s particularly enjoying the charity shops, the new record stores and exploring the area by bike. Follow her on Twitter @HowManyRoses.