I was sent to Coventry… and like many I went first to the Cathedral Ruins – a profoundly emotional space of dark beauty, evoking loss, violence – and the fragility of life itself.
Many people I met in the city as I did my research seemed to be deeply conscious of the history of where they live, of what it is to be ruined, to have the heart of your home obliterated. People there, like those in other cities at war across the world, sent their children away to safer places, lost their livelihoods, felt insecure and faced uncertainty. It is also a city that remembers how to pull together in times of crisis, shelter strangers, offer food to the hungry and aid to the destitute.
In parallel, I have researched and been hugely inspired by the work of the Coventry Refugee and Migrant Centre. What began in the backroom of a launderette 15 years ago, is now the most developed centre of its kind in the UK and a vital part of the social fabric of the city. It is run with generosity, compassion and humanity and many of those who staff the centre are from refugee and migrant backgrounds themselves. They have told me stories of warm welcomes and support, of being given back their dignity in this city. They are now giving this experience to others who arrive here from war torn cities and devastated homes. This shouldn’t be an unusual tale in our times, it should be a norm, but these are confronting times where fear has taken a deep grip on many people and the way they see the ‘other’.
I have thought a lot about the cycle of destruction and renewal and also of giving and receiving that being in the city evokes – and how to give it symbolic form. Finding the Rumi poem that has inspired the title of this project, I began to look beyond devastation or loss as being the absolute end of something. It has called me to seek the treasure, the gifts that can emerge from the experience of ruin. Rumi is speaking of treasure that is often invisible and resides in the human heart. This is where art-making comes in.
Over the years, since experiencing sudden loss myself, I have ritually wrapped in cloth hundreds of small objects, turning them into artworks. Many of them were given to me as gifts. A way to simultaneously separate from and yet remember the past. It has become part of my language as an artist. Wrapped by myself and often with people from all over the world, during projects about grief, loss, separation – and what lies beyond –these interactions with strangers often created unexpected spaces of solidarity, connection – and love. It was as if the act of wrapping transformed them into artefacts of hope. I used to dismiss hope as unproductive and irrelevant, as wishful thinking, as ..not enough.
Looking at the life experiences, achievements and aspirations of many of those I have met in Coventry and the line-up of speakers at RISING who I will also be listening to, I have started to reframe hope as a radical act, like forgiveness. Hope is a strategy for making peace, a vital tool for directly engaging with a world steeped in uncertainty, violence and inequality. Hope is neither falsely optimistic nor sentimental. It does not promise it will work nor ask you to look away from suffering. Neither is it dogmatic or fixed in its agenda, telling you to judge or oppose whatever or whoever you disagree with. Hope offers the possibility of moving beyond the unbearable now into a better future. All truly effective activism seems to be based not on fear, but on hope.
This renewed sense of hope is the unexpected treasure that I found in this city, the gift. In return for this gift, I am making an offering to the Ruins and anyone who comes to them, from 10am on Wednesday 16th November around 100 small, wrapped art objects will have been planted around the site of the Cathedral Ruins.
Visitors are invited to find one that resonates with them and take it away. To give it a home. This will continue until all of them have been taken and all that remains is the space in which they once were.
My short performance, 6pm on Wednesday 16th, on the steps between the Ruins and the main Cathedral, is an invocation of hope and draws upon the stories of the city and everything it evokes that is happening elsewhere – whether acts of conflict or of peace. There is space for a few lines more, lines that you can contribute. So do add your voice to this work by visiting the Contribute page and add another tale of ruin and hope which may have inspired you to my recital on the steps of the Cathedral.
Both works are created for RISING but are accessible to those who are not able to attend.
In the evening at RISING Free, I will also be sharing a short, more personal tale of ruin, gift and hope as part of the line-up.
Alinah Azadeh, November 8th, 2016