Featured image: Artwork created during the Heart & Art creative program. Image credit: Amancaya Xristina
When words are not ready to be shared, painting through its symbols and colors can become a smoother bridge to connect the dots of the past to the future, from loneliness to community, from silence to a story. Heart & Art is a creative and therapeutic program of interaction and exploration where refugee and asylum seeker women from different paths of life meet, create and share. The focus is on community, self-expression and healing from trauma. By using creativity women reinvent what are those stable values within themselves, that no matter the circumstances they can return to and feel safe.
Gender based violence (GBV) is often disguised in subtle forms of living, such as the daily intimidation of survival, or on the uncertainty of where “home” was, is and will be and when can I reach it, how to raise my children through a xenophobic and racist culture? How do we combat GBV through safe and respectful networks of solidarity and how to reinvent oneself in a new culture as a woman and mother?
My most recent insight on GBV and displacement comes from my work in Amurtel Greece, an organization located in the center of Athens, that gives various forms of support to refugee and migrant women in pregnancy, in birth and postpartum. We gather in this safe women’s space once a week, where mothers are able to close their eyes, connect with their breath, choose their brushes and colors, and create. To be in the present for a whole hour without worrying or thinking ahead is a state that is often unthinkable for refugee women, so when they do manage to relax it is a welcome break to them.
In a few cases, some mothers needed and were ready to share their story in detail. This included their stories of abuse and how they conceived their baby, sometimes in a refugee camp or while crossing borders. However, the majority of them need time to build trust and open up. Through art and more specifically through painting, mothers are able to access sensible personal information which is not yet ready to be expressed in words. The “silence” of colors, forms, and symbols has an inner message that has valuable meaning to the mother that creates and gives her an understanding of her present psychological inner state of being.
Painting is a tool that is respectful to the emotional pace of each person; it reveals only what the mother is ready to share to herself and to the group. Expressing through painting is a respectful and essential way of working with possible victims of GBV. Of course, it does not have to be only painting or a specific technique. The idea behind it not just being eager to listen right away for a detailed story expressed orally but employing creativity to access the unconscious information of each person in its own symbolism, rhythm and time.
One of the workshops of Heart & Art is called “Masks & Mirrors”, where we challenge the notion of who we are, how we see ourselves and how others see us. Another expression of GBV for refugee women is self-identity crisis; asking “who am I?” while crossing border to border and when the cultural norms differ. The cultural shock is inevitable and there is a heavy weight on them when they walk in unknown and unfamiliar places.
At the same time in “Masks & Mirrors”, we go deeper and try to look into the different layers of societal perceptions since childhood to adulthood, womanhood, motherhood – the mask of innocence, of being a pure girl, a quiet woman, a caregiving mother. We acknowledge these invisible masks in our self of today and by painting our new mask we redefine who we are and who we want to become.
One mother shared with the group that the white part of the mask represents her early years when she was a girl and a daughter, and the black painted part of the mask represents when she got married. There is no need for further questioning to understand her full story. The image that she portrayed accompanied with her few words reveal her present perception of herself in her story, which she can redefine when she is ready. This first acknowledgement is a valuable step towards healing. Also, various mothers that wear the hijab put make up on their masks – rouge, eyelines and crayons – and they share that this is how they would like to look if they could.
In another Heart & Art workshop called “Mothers within Mothers”, the intention is to honor and heal the intergenerational linkage of mothers within their own mothers and with their children. One of the mothers in the group stayed silent the whole hour but she did paint. Once more the symbols and colors used revealed her story in a respectful, subtle way. From this image alone, we were able to address her need for further psychological support.
I used these few examples from my practical experience with the mothers that visit Amurtel Greece to share my insight on how to approach victims of GBV in transition, in this case refugee and asylum seeker mothers.
Art can reach ones’ truth in a humane, calmer and softer way when words are not ready.
I started painting at the age of 24 when I was living in the colorful country of my favorite painter Frida Kahlo, in Mexico. While living in Bolivia I wrote an art visual book of birth stories, painting and poetry called “Birth as you please”. In Latin America, Canada and now in Greece I am coordinating women’s circles using art as a powerful healing tool. I have a degree in Economics, an MBA and a Master’s in Social Development and I am currently studying Art Therapy.
I always say that I started painting to penetrate more into the truth of life where words cannot reach. Creating in groups and especially in a circle is therapeutic in itself since it is a safe space for sharing and connection. I am now conducting in collaboration with various non-profit organizations (IOM GREECE, Amurtel Greece, Caritas Hellas) an art program I call Heart & Art, with refugee women who have deep traumas, but also life teachings of strengths and resilience. I am always moved by how art can instantly alleviate the human spirit.
Art is more than an expression, it is a human need that connects us to our inner truth and wisdom.
For further information: