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21 February 2023

New exhibition explores displacement in the past and present

Letters of Refuge sees letters written by those seeking safety on either side of the English Channel exhibited alongside fragments of ancient letters, exploring the topics of persecution and displacement throughout history.

letters of refuge

In this small paper, I am going to express my feeling

Letter by a young man from north Africa to his sister, Folkestone 2022

Letters of Refuge, the new exhibition presented at King’s, gives voice to those at two points in history who have experienced persecution and displacement. On display in The Arcade, Bush House from 13 March, fragments of ancient letters preserving the voices of people who lived under the Roman empire are exhibited alongside contemporary letters written at Art Refuge’s ‘The Community Table’ in Folkestone, Kent, and Calais, northern France by people who are displaced and seeking safety on either side of the English Channel.

Illustrating how much the ancient and modern worlds have to say to each other and juxtaposing letters from multiple voices past and present, Letters of Refuge is a collaboration between the Department of Classics and the Centre for Late Antique and Medieval Studies at King’s, King’s Culture, the charity Art Refuge and people with lived experience of displacement.

I am sending to you this letter to act as a substitute in my stead…

From a letter by Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, in mid-third century

The exhibition finds its origins in the research of Dr James Corke-Webster, from King’s Departments of Classics and Liberal Arts. Dr Corke-Webster’s work explores the experience of persecution and displacement in the ancient world, revealing its neglected social dimensions, including family ruptures, local betrayals and community ostracism on the one hand, and group support and resilience on the other.

Dr Corke-Webster approached the charity Art Refuge in 2019 with the idea of exploring the potential resonance of these ancient historical texts in the modern context of persecution and displacement. This resulted in two workshops in Folkestone and Calais alongside the four core team members working in this setting: art therapists and artists Bobby Lloyd, Miriam Usiskin, Aida Silvestri and Josie Carter.

The workshops built on the charity’s ongoing use of manual typewriters as a creative tool for communication and play with language, with extracts from the ancient letters used as prompts for participants to write their own letters. The ancient historical material became a space for exploring issues of contemporary relevance for those taking part.

The exhibition also includes an iteration of The Community Table in situ, set up with typewriters for visitors to use, alongside 50 photographs documenting work taking place at the table over the last year, and a film documenting activity at The Community Table in Folkestone. In addition, artist Aida Silvestri and poet Josie Carter will produce their own artistic responses to the work, which will be shown in the exhibition space.

It’s been a real privilege to be part of the wonderful work Art Refuge are doing, and I’m delighted that material from ancient history has been able to contribute positively to their efforts. It’s been extraordinary to see the often-unexpected parallels between the experience of modern refugees and those living in the distant past. Our hope is that the exhibition shines a light on aspects of our common humanity via voices usually forgotten or ignored.

Dr James Corke-Webster, King’s Departments of Classics and Liberal Arts

With the permission of the participants, the resulting immensely personal and moving letters form one half of the exhibited materials in Letters of Refuge. Originating from countries such as Eritrea, Libya, Sudan and Afghanistan, some are addressed to family members, others are written to a future self, some are directed to political leaders, and some even envisage a wider audience.

One of the core features of The Community Table is the bringing together of people who might otherwise not normally meet, into a shared space of making and enquiry. The presence of Dr James Corke-Webster at the tables in Folkestone and Calais both elevated and validated the experience of taking part in the project for people from many different backgrounds and experiences which are so often marginalised in the process of displacement - including for students, historians, accountants, builders... During the workshops, there was a real sense of exploring together on common ground.

Bobby Lloyd, Art Refuge

Letters of Refuge is supported by the Department of Classics, the Faculty of Arts and Humanities, and King’s Culture, as well as the Institute of Classical Studies at the School of Advanced Study of the University of London.

Visitor Information

Letters of Refuge

13-24 March 2023

Free Entry

Opening times: 10.00 – 18.00 Mon – Fri, Sat 18 March 10.00 – 18.00

Address: The Arcade, Bush House South Entrance, King’s College London, The Strand, London, WC2B 4PJ

In this story

James  Corke-Webster

Reader in Classics, History and Liberal Arts

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