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Letters of Refuge

James Corke-Webster writes about a Public Engagement project which was supported by the ICS

For the last few years I have been exploring the links between my research on the persecution of early Christians and the pressing issues of the contemporary world. My recent publications have tried to understand persecution in the Roman world from the bottom up, aiming to rehabilitate the neglected experiences of this minority group. My focus has been on the community dimensions of this phenomenon, whether the community betrayals, fractures, and ostracisms that both triggered and emerged from it, or the emergence of new solidarities that provided solace to those involved. 

In 2019 I developed a relationship with the charity Art Refuge. Led by Bobby Lloyd and Miriam Usiskin, this charity works with refugees at their unique “Community Table”, a pop-up space that offers displaced people the opportunity for creative calm. Anyone can sit, and carefully chosen prompts – photographs, poetry, building materials – aim to inspire those who do to produce their own artistic responses, which in turn helps to validate their experiences. We developed a project whereby material from ancient history would be used as such prompts, mobilising an established methodology whereby the past becomes a “safe place” to explore issues of continuing urgency. 

A trial session in Napier barracks in March 2022 in Folkestone led to a further honing of the project. Art Refuge have previously had success using typewriters as a tactile and thoughtful means of translating experience into narrative. Building on this, and the fact that much of the surviving early Christian material giving voice to people’s experiences of persecution is in epistolary form, we invited those who sat at the table to respond to these ancient fragments by writing their own letters. Those we met with experience of displacement really responded to this exercise. 

Two further workshops, one back at Napier, and another at a day centre in Calais, produced an extraordinary series of such letters. Via the use of carbon paper, we were able, with the permission of those who wrote them, to build a corpus of copies of these refugees’ letters. These then became the centrepiece of a public exhibition, Letters of Refuge, in Bush House Arcade at King’s College London in March 2022., curated by me and Art Refuge with support from the Culture team and Faculty of Arts and Humanities at King’s. This aimed to shine a spotlight, at London’s heart, and in the historic home of the BBC, on the voices of those who have experienced persecution and displacement, but which are ignored, whether because of the passage of time, and/or because of political discourses uninterested in their point of view. The aim was to simultaneously make the ancient material less distant by its juxtaposition with the raw immediacy of its current equivalent, and to demonstrate the ubiquity of that contemporary experience, and thus the impossibility of putting in a box as somehow the experience of “others”.

We also wanted to create an ongoing dialogue between those included in the exhibition and those visiting. To that end, we included two artistic responses by members of the Folkestone artists collective, Origins Untold, Aida Silvestri and Josie Carter, who are long-term collaborators of Art Refuge. And we recreated the Community Table itself, complete with typewriters, so that visitors could write their own letters after seeing and reading those in the exhibition. This proved immensely popular, and the typewriters were occupied near permanently for the exhibition’s run, producing a dossier of moving responses we hope to digitise in the future.

The funding from the Institute of Classical Studies meant that we could also organise a series of events with school students in the exhibition space. Sixth-form students from multiple schools were given a guided tour of the exhibition, then experienced undergraduate-level “seminars”, run by two doctoral students from the Department of Classics at King’s, Ed Creedy and George Oliver, to tease out the exhibition’s themes and their own responses to it. Finally, students were guided in producing their own responses at the typewriters. I am very grateful to the ICS for enabling this important dimension to the exhibition.

Photos: courtesy of Jo Mieszkowski