Art Radar speaks with Charwei Tsai about her latest project on show across 7 areas at London’s Southbank Centre until 2 July 2017.
The Taiwanese artist’s newly commissioned Hayward Gallery project was created in collaboration with Tibetan filmmaker Tsering Tashi Gyalthang, and brings to the fore the plight of women refugees.
Hear Her Singing is Charwei Tsai’s latest project created as a commission for the Hayward Gallery in collaboration with her husband and fellow artist and filmmaker Tsering Tashi Gyalthang.
Charwei Tsai developed Hear Her Singing working closely with the charities Bedford Music in Detention and Women for Refugee Women, as well as vocal leader Phoene Cave. Tsai started the project with vocal workshops involving the women at Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre in Bedfordshire and the Women for Refugee Women drama group who meet every Saturday at Southbank Centre in London. After the workshops, Tsai invited participants from Women for Refugee Women to sing their chosen songs in front of the camera as dedications to women everywhere. The songs were performed and filmed in various locations around Royal Festival Hall.
Tsai shared with Frieze that it was her recent experience in Nepal, after the earthquake of 2015, that led her to create her current project. At the beginning of 2017 Tsai visited Nepal and was confronted with the terrible conditions in which many earthquake victims were still living. While spending some time at the camps to hear their stories, she also asked them to sing some songs that expressed their state of mind. It was this experience that eventually developed into the idea and concept for Hear Her Singing.
Art Radar spoke with the artist about her project.
How and when did you come up with the idea for Hear Her Singing?
Since the end of 2016, I was invited by curator Stephanie Rosenthal to create a project that would engage people who are not able to visit Southbank Centre. After doing some initial research with the team from Southbank Centre, I proposed to work with the refugee communities in the UK including those who are currently detained. The refugee crisis in the UK and Europe is something that most of us across the world could relate to. Most of us or our family or friends have experienced similar situations in one way or another. Southbank Centre has longstanding relationships with many local communities who work with social issues, therefore, the team connected me to two charity groups to collaborate with on this project.
The first group is Music in Detention who run workshops at detention centres across the UK to encourage the detainees to express their emotions and creativity through music. For some detainees, it is the only access for the outside world to hear their voices. Through Music in Detention, we were able to gain rare access to Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre in Bedford and make audio recordings of songs sung by the detainees. The second group is Women For Refugee Women, a group of women activists and asylum seekers who campaign for the rights of refugee women. Many of them have been detained previously and could understand the suffering that the detainees have to endure. Therefore, our project was an exchange of songs between the two groups.
What role did Tsering play in his collaboration to the project?
Tsering plays a key role in my projects that involve people and communities. Before our first collaboration in 2012, I was working mostly in solitude and in nature. In contrast, Tsering was born and raised in a tightly knit Tibetan refugee community in India, which shapes the ways he considers people in his work. For example, in many of his short films, he works on humanitarian issues such as human trafficking, child slavery and women’s rights. One could easily sense a deep compassion that he has for the people he is working with. In fact, one of my main inspirations for this project came from witnessing the strong support that the Tibetan refugee community has given to each other, which helped them to carry through their struggles. Therefore, one of our main focus in this project is to shine a light on the solidarity and resilience within the refugee communities in the UK.
What did your collaboration with the charities involve for the project?
This project was developed through the support of a large group of people and the collaborations added many layers to it. As Stephanie mentioned, this project began and was realised through trust. First, to get funding for this project, we received support from the Cultural Ministry of Taiwan and their office based in London. The representatives had to fully trust us with working sensitively with the political content in this project. After the initial discussion and looking at our previous projects, they gave us their full confidence and full liberty to move forward with this project. This kind of trust and freedom given to the artist from official representations are actually quite rare to come across, especially in Asia during the turbulent times today.
Then the development of the project was dependent on the will of the two groups of women asylum seekers to share their emotions through the songs with the public. We had to gain trust from the two charity groups that we would work with the materials with sensitivity and care. Southbank Centre connected us with an expert music therapist Phoene Cave to lead the workshops with the two groups. It was through these workshops that we slowly got to know each woman who eventually became the main subjects for this project. Phoene helped the women to handle the emotions that came with singing. In many cases, the process of singing was very difficult especially for those who have suffered abuse. There were many occasions where people broke down and started crying while they sang. It had to be cared with skillfully by people like Phoene or Jih-Wen Yeh from Music in Detention who is experienced with working with people in similarly difficult situations. In many ways, the breadth of support that we received helped us to expand the scope of this project. As artists, we hoped to highlight the interconnectedness of these social issues across humanity through the basic emotions that we share.
Can you tell us a bit more about the different participating women in the project? Their origins, walks of life…? And what songs did some of them choose to sing?
I was taken by surprise with the range of women who were detained at Yarl’s Wood. We met women from Russia, Poland, Kyrgyzstan, India, Sri Lanka, China, Vietnam, Indonesia, Philippines, Algeria, Namibia, Botswana, Uganda, Eritrea, Jamaica, Trinidad, etc… There were many more who we did not have a chance to chat with. They were mostly young women in their twenties or thirties. Many of them chose to sing songs about separation from loved ones or religious songs. Some who did not sing, sent messages to the outside world about their situations.
One of the most heartbreaking experiences was meeting a young college student. She was raised and educated in the UK, but somehow her family was not able to get her papers. So there was a chance for her to be deported to Botswana where her parents were born, but a country that is completely foreign to her. We do not have access to film or photograph inside Yarl’s Wood, so we only made voice recordings. The group from Women For Refugee Women who we were able to film were also from a mix of origins. Most of the ones from the drama workshop group that we worked with were of African origins.
Where were the songs performed and filmed, and what was the relevance of the location to the project?
We filmed most of the women from Women For Refuge Women group in the areas around Southbank Centre where the final work will be displayed. This was a way to let the audience sense their presence in the immediate environment, not somewhere distant and unfamiliar. We chose to film at Southbank Centre also because it was a place where the group met for drama workshops and where they have a break from their domestic situations to gather and socialise.
What did you hope to achieve through the project? For example, create awareness about refugees and their situations, etc. What do you hope the audience take away from experiencing it?
Our intention is to raise public awareness on the mistreatment of asylum seekers and those who are not in the position to defend their basic rights. It is not only an issue in the UK or in Europe, but it is something that happens all across the world. The project gives personal portrayals of individuals who have suffered from the mistreatment. We chose the method of singing as a universal way to share emotions and to connect with the audience. The intention is for these individuals and those who are in similar situations to not be dismissed as merely statistics.
And finally, your practice has recently been including much more social/community driven projects or projects that work with social aspects of contemporary life today, especially with communities that are in difficulty, if I am not mistaken. So can you tell me a bit about why you have changed towards this direction in some of your work and do you think art can impact change and help people in difficult situations get more exposure, help, support?
I think this change of wanting to engage more with social issues happened gradually through gaining more life experience. When I first started exhibiting my work in my early twenties, I was curious in exploring various spiritual practices with my projects and more specifically on the Buddhist concept of impermanence. The focus was on my own perspective on the role of impermanence in my life.
Entering mid-thirties is a natural time for me to transition into heavier subjects. I became more aware of the struggles of people around me with old age, sickness, and death regardless of their economic situations. After marriage, I moved to Vietnam and started to spend more time in developing countries around Southeast Asia and in India. The exposure to the social issues in these regions led me to include various communities in my work. For people from all professions including homemakers, I think a genuine concern for the suffering for others will eventually lead to some positive impacts on other people’s lives even if the exact outcome is difficult to predict.
C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia
- “91 Square Meters of Time”: Taiwanese video artist Wu Chi-Yu at TKG+ Projects, Taipei – May 2017 – through moving image, Wu Chi-Yu reimagines narratives of history and time in his latest solo exhibition at TKG+ Projects in Taipei
- Vilcek Prize 2017 for Fine Arts awards immigrant artists – February 2017 – the 2017 edition of the Vilcek Prize for Fine Arts goes to Jamaican-born artist Nari Ward
- “Insecurities: Tracing Displacement and Shelter” at Museum of Modern Art, New York – November 2016 – an exhibition at MoMA addresses the global refugee crisis and notions of displacement and shelter
- Photo Gallery: “Coriolis Effect: Migration and Memory” at Khoj Studios, New Delhi – September 2016 – the exhibition brings together the work of seven Indian and African artists as the culmination of their month-long residency at Khoj Studios
- Re-collecting memories: Fiona Tan – artist profile – October 2015 – personal narratives and collective memories interweave in Fiona Tan’s mesmerising visual journeys