I first heard of Standing Voice after creating a painting of a boy with albinism, inspired by Eric Nehr’s striking photography series featuring people with the condition in Burundi. I began researching the superstitious killing of people with albinism in East Africa and found the film In the Shadow of the Sun, which was directed by Harry Freeland, the founder of Standing Voice. I felt incredibly moved by the lives of those portrayed in the film, and astonished about the painful experiences many had been forced to endure. I went on to document these feelings in paintings based on stills from the film.
About three years later, a friend of mine studying an MA course took part in a workshop organised by Standing Voice, where she worked with the charity’s focus group for women and mothers on Ukerewe Island in Tanzania. Telling me of her unforgettable experience, she mentioned that Standing Voice was looking for volunteers to help deliver their upcoming ‘Summer Skills Workshop’: an opportunity to empower the local community through skills development and training. After applying for a place and speaking with the Standing Voice team, I began planning an arts and crafts workshop to be delivered over the course of one week in June.
What transpired was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. I felt like I was accomplishing something extremely significant in my life, and opening up a new path within my own artistic practice. Teaming up with London-based artist and designer Alice Smith, I quickly discovered how diverse our participants were, both in the materials they used and the objects they sought to convey. We used paint, pencils, and found objects. The latter was especially exciting for me, watching the participants collect objects from the natural environment and use them to create something beautiful and unique. They worked separately and together, collecting natural objects like pebbles, flowers, and seashells, as well as synthetic fabrics and clippings from newspapers and magazines. The group’s final piece was a spectacular joint collage.
Looking at the work produced, it was clear that many participants were guided in their creative process by profound emotional and psychological experiences. It was art in its purest form, the kind not rigidly defined by ‘perfection’, but governed by the force of raw feeling. The sessions seemed to be therapeutic: for many individuals, their first chance to release the ancient, painful memories that ran deep on this island.
What I enjoyed the most about our workshop was the great sense of community and happiness among the families and friends who took part. They really opened up to me, and quickly a shared sense of empathy had grown between us. By spending valuable time with the participants, I got a better understanding of albinism as a condition, and the health implications it entails. Most of all, though, I came to know these individuals as people, finding healing and expression through their art in the same way I do. Sharing such precious moments with the residents of Ukerewe -- and working alongside other volunteers and the rest of the Standing Voice team -- was an incredible experience and a privilege.
"I have developed relationships that will last a lifetime. As an artist and person, everything I learnt on Ukerewe will stay with me forever. A return journey is essential."
All images credited to Harry Freeland, Brian Benson and Annie-Marie Akussah. Go here for a full list of credits.