Joy C Martindale, a contemporary visual artist based in Kent, was awarded an Arts Council England grant in autumn last year to run participatory artmaking workshops with people supported by Migrant Help’s Victims of Slavery Support Services. Following a series of successful workshops, where participants were able to explore their cultural identities through art making, the Lilacs in Bloom exhibition showcased the artwork made in collaboration with survivors of modern-day slavery and human trafficking.

Joy, inspired by Louise Bourgeois who said that "To create is an act of liberation and every day this need for liberation comes back to me", shares her reflections on the project and exhibition below.

I carried out a series of workshops working with clients of Migrant Help. Identifying clients for the workshops was a complex process and was carried out by staff at Migrant Help.

Five participants attended the project: a friendly and charismatic man from Lithuania (‘X’) and a single mother (‘Y’) with her three young children from West Africa.

‘X’ was the first to attend, he was nervous and had just come out of the hospital. He spoke only a little English and we communicated mainly via Google translate. I could see that he was utterly exhausted, and I was surprised and delighted when after only a little hesitancy and deliberation he began to carefully mix colours and then paint a tree.

“It is a lilac in bloom,” he told me through the translator, adding that “In Lithuania, each yard grows lilac and in May it is very beautiful when they blossom.” He then pointed to Lithuania on a map on the wall and showed me pictures on his phone of his home city, and then pansies and other flowers that he loved. And so, a conversation began which continued from one workshop to the next and took in tales of ice fishing for perch in winter, 19th-century folk music, the duduk, and the music of Frank Duval.

The arrival of three young children and their hardworking mother from West Africa made for a lively session. The children had no qualms about diving straight in to play with paint with hands and brushes, whilst the grown-ups gravitated to experimenting with making collages with found fabrics.

Firstly, I focused on putting participants at ease and demonstrating that the workshops provided a safe space where they could relax, have fun, and explore the project at their own pace. After a couple of weeks, everyone seemed to enjoy themselves and began to interact and talk about their creative ideas, which was a really exciting development.

It was wonderful to see participants finding their own creative voice in the project. One of the fantastic things that happened was that each time I introduced an idea for a new way of working, the participants kept raising the bar and produced something that far exceeded the scope of my own ideas.

Following the workshops, I worked independently to produce and exhibit the final artwork. Dover Smart Project's My Gallery was a perfect venue for the exhibition: it has a designated exhibition space and also faces the harbour (many asylum seekers and migrants enter the UK through the port of Dover).

This project sought to raise awareness of the problem of modern-day slavery and human trafficking in the UK, challenge perceptions of migrants and refugees, and encourage reflection on our attitudes towards migration. The feedback I received was that visitors found the artwork thought-provoking and impactful, and that the exhibition had given them a greater insight into the work of Migrant Help and the complex nature of modern-day slavery and human trafficking.

“Migrant Help had been looking to re-introduce artistic activities for our clients and Joy’s sessions were nothing short of excellent. We noticed a big difference in terms of confidence and artistic expression from our clients during these workshops. Joy brought such enthusiasm and dedication to the workshops. Migrant Help attended the launch of the exhibition in Dover and it was fantastic to see the artwork displayed and to hear the conversations it brought about.” Sam Lakesmith, Victims of Slavery Support Services Team Manager England