Flock exhibition at Maudsley Hospital sheds light on migration stories for Refugee Week

Flock is a series of workshops and installations of migrating birds which represent the journeys of asylum seekers and refugees, led by artist Julie Nelson with The Grounding Project, a South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust service, funded by the Maudsley Charity and in collaboration with University College London.

The Grounding Project supports those with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, particularly asylum seekers, refugees and displaced people, through therapeutic activities including gardening and crafts. Artist Julie Nelson has been teaching the process of clay bird-making to its members, to foster wellbeing and tackle social isolation. The final collaborative installation of birds reflects this shared community and the challenging individual migration journeys their makers have experienced.

This exhibition presents photographs taken throughout the series of workshops, as well as some of the ceramic birds from the wider collection. Started in early 2019, the project will continue during the summer, with members of the public being invited to create and contribute their own birds at workshops at the Victoria and Albert Museum. The final installation will comprise over 200 birds, and will tour museums and galleries, starting at The Lewisham Project in September (details below).

Rita* is one of the group members who regularly attends The Grounding Project, and has been taking part in Flock. She suffers from arthritis, and enjoys working with the clay as it helped her to move her fingers. She spent a lot of time moulding out her bird and later she shared:  “Playing with this clay takes me back to my childhood in Africa when we used to pull clay from the rocks and make pots and plates. It was a fun time.”

Daris has a great interest in birds, having kept homing pigeons back in his country: “I used to have many of these as pets and I know how intelligent they are. I am really enjoying learning more about birds and working with the clay”.

The idea for Flock originated with artist Julie Nelson. She originally conceived the Flock of clay birds and exhibited over 100 of them, in Hove, UK, a city with a strong and sometimes uneasy relationship with birds, from the pier’s starlings, to the constant sound of seagulls. University College London has funded the current research project in which Julie is working with The Grounding Project, to explore the role arts can have in fostering wellbeing within migrant and refugee communities.

Julie comments: “The workshop has been a focus for people to think about the metaphor of birds and to engage with nature and the environment. We also encourage shared production so that a clay pinched head may attach to a press moulded body created by someone else in the group. Everyone has been very happy to collaborate and join in. The focus and concentration has been amazing. One interesting result of the project has been the diverse styles and forms of birds that have been made. When I’ve researched birds from Ethiopia, Syria and Iraq, for example, I can see where the inspiration comes from. I think that having a common goal of the exhibition has really helped.”

Dr Humera Iqbal is a Lecturer in Psychology at University College London, and has been coordinating the research side of the project. She says: “Working on Flock with group members has been an incredibly fulfilling experience. We know from research that participating in cultural activities can help improve wellbeing and combat loneliness in individuals. It has been great to witness first-hand the healing power of clay. Our ceramic birds stand for a shared community and a sense of resilience; they have been able to battle the odds just like their makers.”

See a larger exhibition of Flock at The Project Space, Lewisham Arthouse, Lewisham Way, SE14 6PD, 4th – 16th September 2019

To find out more about Flock, please contact Gemma Eke (gemma.eke@slam.nhs.uk) or Myriam Sarens (myriam.sarens@slam.nhs.uk). Flockproject.co.uk | www.facebook.com/pg/slamgrounding

*Names have been changed to protect the anonymity of the participants.