CAN (Community Arts North West) is featured in the A Great British Welcome a powerful outdoor photography exhibition, produced by UNHCR UK (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) and Panos Pictures.
Portraits by the award-winning photographer Andrew Testa are displayed in the location of the Mezzanine of London Bridge City, overlooking the Thames, between Thursday 12 October to Wednesday 8 November.
Andrew photographed individuals, organisations and communities across the UK who have welcomed people who have been forced to flee their countries of origin and settle in the UK.
CAN extended a warm British welcome to artist Mahboobeh Rajabi who, aged 21, was forced to flee Iran in 2009.
Andrew visited Manchester in June 2023 to photograph Mahboobeh together with some of CAN’s seven-strong team at Manchester’s HOME arts venue during the annual Horizons Festival, which CAN co-produces, which takes place during the UK-wide annual Refugee Week. He photographed the group during a busy day preparing for the launch of the festival.
Mahboobeh outlines her story:
“Before I left Iran, I was studying for a degree in Theatre Studies at Shiraz Azad University. Artists are often the first to be forced to leave countries as our work is seen as a challenge to oppressive regimes.”
“When I arrived in the UK, I was in the precarious position of being an asylum-seeker, and not a refugee with a British passport and citizenship. I didn’t have the right to remain in the UK. I thought my creative career was over.”
“I discovered CAN in 2010 and they welcomed me with open arms. CAN runs the arts programme Exodus with artists like me, who’ve experienced forced migration. And, despite the difficulties I was facing, I felt immediately at home.”
“At first, I was a volunteer, I took part in CAN’s training programmes, including mentoring by the team, and I’ve worked with CAN as a Creative Producer and freelancer. CAN supported me to be part of projects with leading organisations, including the World Health Organisation. I talked about my experiences and the benefits of creative projects for people forced to flee their homes and settle in Greater Manchester.”
Mahboobeh has gone on to develop a successful career as a freelance multi-disciplinary artist and creative entrepreneur. Her work has been exhibited and performed at The Whitworth, Manchester Art Gallery and at HOME as a poet and video artist. Mahboobeh has worked with many institutions, including MIF (Manchester International Festival) where she was a Jerwood Creative Fellow; the University of Manchester; and Rochdale’s Cartwheel Arts. She established the social enterprise DIPACT CIC to support artists like herself.
Andrew’s series of photographs features Mahboobeh with some of CAN’s team members past and present, including Cilla Baynes, CAN’s co-founder, and its former Creative Director: Katherine Rogers, Senior Creative Producer; Michelle Udogu, Creative Producer; Sue Fletcher, Marketing Associate; Sara Domville, formerly CAN’s Digital Producer; and Stella Barnes, the organisation’s most recent Creative Director.
Mahboobeh Rajabi at the A Great British Welcome exhibition at its launch on Friday 13 October 2023.
A Great British Welcome is featured in The Guardian newspaper.
Vicky Tennant, UNHCR Representative to the UK, says:
“The stories in this exhibition are truly inspiring. People across the UK have generously welcomed refugees and asylum-seekers and are helping them to rebuild their lives in a new home, through integration and friendship. The mutual benefit of supporting and empowering refugees who are in turn contributing their talent, creativity and skills, is evident.”
In all, UNHCR travelled to ten locations across the country to meet individuals and groups that exemplify ‘A Great British Welcome’. These include a tight-knit community on the Isle of Bute in Scotland, where resettled Syrian refugee Wafa and her two sons learnt English and have become an integral part of local life, a bouldering wall in Liverpool where people forced to flee climb with regular members through monthly ‘Refugees Rock’ sessions, and the London based Citizens of the World Choir.
The organisations profiled in A Great British Welcome exemplify the values of welcome and inclusion that underpin a strong tradition of sanctuary in the UK.
The full suite of photographs, interviews and stories accompanying the photos are available on UNHCR’s website. The exhibition is part of an ongoing series by UNHCR documenting people and groups across the UK welcoming people forced to flee.
Photographs: Andrew Testa UNHCR
Main image (L to R) Michelle Udogu, Mahboobeh Rajabi, Katherine Rogers, Stella Barnes, Cilla Baynes, Sara Domville and Sue Fletcher.