Between February 4th and March 8th 2020, the walls of Kunsthal Charlottenborg invite you to take a closer look. Colourful motives are painted directly on walls of the Copenhagen-based art space: pictures of a parrot, a girl’s head, a fish and a boat at sea all connected through a prison fence. They are all part of the exhibition ‘Sjælsmarks Børn Rykker Ud’, which had its origins in the winter of 2019, when the artist Camilla Blanchmann began an artistic workshop for the children living in Sjælsmark deportation center. Located in Denmark, Sjælsmark has been widely criticised for its poor living conditions, especially for the 125 children and adolescents under the age of 18 who are estimated to live there.
Once a week, Camilla Blachmann visits Sjælsmark, with the initial aim to simply cover a single wall of the deportation center with the children and teenagers’ paintings. Quickly, art became more than just paint. The exhibition pamphlet states: ‘art gave participants a language to talk about their chaotic stories, hopes and dreams.’ The main benefit of the arts is that it provides people, who might not be able to express themselves otherwise, a voice. Indeed, children paint and draw from their experiences. ‘For example, a [traditional] house is the most common drawing motive by children. However, you will not see a single house in the exhibition, because the children paint from their experiences’, the visual artist explains.
The idea was simple: to use art as a language to help recover from what the refugee children have been through. ‘A break from daily life’ in the form of a weekly two-hour workshop. When asked for her perspective on the health benefits of the art workshop in Sjælsmark, Camilla Blachmann highlights that one of the girls said: ‘I want to be a psychologist, so that I can tell people to go home and paint.” According to the artist, painting sessions were very loud in the beginning. As time went by, ‘it became ok [for the participants] to be in their own minds, painting, drawing…. and in my perspective that is very healthy: to be able to be together, in silence’ she continues.
As shown by the Sjælsmarks børn rykker ud project, art can bring mental health benefits for people in difficult circumstances. However, the role of art is not limited to suboptimal conditions.The 2019 WHO report, ‘What is the evidence on the role of the arts in improving health and well-being?’, concludes that the arts play a major role in the prevention of ill health, promotion of health and the management and treatment of illness across the lifespan. Importantly, the WHO highlights the ability of the arts to provide a holistic lens to view conditions beyond their physical form, allowing health practitioners to consider not only mental health but to also situate health problems within their social and community context.
Sjælsmarks børn rykker ud is not the first project in Denmark to explore the benefits of the arts in young refugees. Another example where the arts are used to give refugee and migrant adolescents a way to express themselves is the Classroom Drama Workshop, which is an intervention that has been rolled out as part of the RefugeeWellSchool project by the University of Copenhagen. The Classroom Drama Workshop was developed by a research team at McGill Transcultural Psychiatry and Concordia University Creative Arts and uses improvisational drama exercises to create personal and social transformation in the individuals and the class as a whole. When designing the programme, Rosseau and her colleagues found inspiration in Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed, which addresses social and political issues through drama and aims to empower the marginalised groups in society. They were also influenced by Fox’s playback theatre, in which participants’ personal stories are re-enacted as they remember them.
Finja Dähne, one of the authors of this article, carried out an evaluation of the Classroom Drama Workshop intervention in Denmark as her Master thesis project. In her evaluation, drama showed to be a catalyst for the participants to have fun together, share emotions verbally and non-verbally, listen to each other and give everyone the room they need. Through drama, the project has the potential to create a safe space in which students can develop stronger connections, trust, self-reflection and better emotional understanding. However, several factors determine the success of these projects, and the changes observed depend very much on the context. In certain circumstances, these types of interventions might even be harmful. This shows not only the importance of context but also the need for more research on programmes using the arts to improve well-being.
As for Camilla Blanchmann’s impressions about Sjælsmarks børn rykker ud, she claims that Denmark ‘has been talking a lot about the children in Sjælsmark, but nobody has been talking to them or with them, or giving them a voice. And we should always give people a voice.’ At least for 2 hours a week, art has allowed the children in Sjælsmark to speak in their own terms.
In April 2020, those currently living in Sjælsmark are expected to move to Asylcenter Avnstrup, near Roskilde. The conditions of the new place should be much better, for children and adults alike. For example, the prison guards will be replaced by Red Cross workers, and there will be no wire fence around the facilities. The move should not disturb Camilla Blachmann’s creative workshops, but ‘the only thing we need now is to keep raising money.’
If you would like to contribute to this project, you can visit the exhibition in Charlottenburg until March 8th, and buy any of the artworks displayed. Follow the project’s instagram to learn more and stay up to date.