Impact in Qualitative Research: Angie Sweeney and Lois Parri on a collaborative art exhibition
Dr Angie Sweeney is a Senior Lecturer in User Led Research and Director of the Service User Research Enterprise at King’s College London. She is passionate about conducting research that is generated with and controlled by people with lived experience. Lois Parri is a Lived Experience Research Assistant at King’s College London who works closely with service users and takes interest in non-traditional academic dissemination, including via the arts. In this blog post, Lois and Angie reflect on using an art exhibition to share the work of survivor artists and encourage sensitive conversations about abuse.
During the pandemic, I was part of a collective of survivors who explored and reported ways of supporting children and young people at risk of abuse within their homes during lockdowns (with support from the Violence, Abuse and Mental Health Research Network and the McPin Foundation; see Chevous et al., 2021). One of our key findings was that there is an urgent need to develop better ways of recognising and talking about abuse. This is because all of us – whether we have experienced abuse or not – can struggle to recognise the signs of abuse in ourselves and others.
In a follow-up project, we decided to use art to explore and support abuse recognition. I co-led the project alongside Jane Chevous (Survivors Voices) and Laura Fischer (Traumascapes). We wanted to use art to represent abuse recognition because as survivors, we knew that it can be hard, if not impossible, to find the words to communicate what we have been through. Art has the potential to generate a language that communicates experiences through – but also beyond - words.
To carry out the project, we formed an Arts Collective with four survivors who specialise in different art forms, including film, spoken word, drawing, textiles and clay. We then held a series of workshops to get to know one another and to begin exploring how to recognise the signs of abuse. We explored difficult ideas carefully and sensitively through our chosen mediums (paint, collage, spoken word, film etc.), continuing together and then alone until we had our final artworks. We then selected artworks to feature in a card deck which can be used by pairs or groups to facilitate conversations that support abuse recognition (but are not used to ‘diagnose’ someone as a survivor of abuse).
We curated an exhibition of selected artworks at the Social, Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry Centre at King’s College London. The exhibition was launched with a reception attended by around 120 people. There were lively spoken word and poetry performances and several interactive installations, including a Loudfence where people attending the exhibition could write messages of hope for survivors and attach them to a white tree using colourful ribbon and string.
The hidden-in-plain-sight aspect of [the art]work made me think of how easily signs of abuse can go unnoticed in daily life and how difficult it can be to get noticed from the perspective of the survivor.
Having previously been involved with collaborations between SURE, Traumscapes, and Survivors Voices for an art workshop, I was very excited to attend a more formal event showcasing work produced by survivors from creative and academic backgrounds with such powerful meaning. Additionally, being a lived experience researcher and a creative person, I was eager to see how these worlds would collide.
My main takeaway from the exhibition was how comprehensive it was. There was such a wide range of everything. Comprehensive due to the wide range of topics and issues throughout the art pieces presenting different components and types of trauma. On a knowledge level, the information card for each piece allowed attendees to learn about the issues driving the work. I believe the work being driven from lived experience made the space feel familiar to those who relate to the topics discussed and emotionally evocative to attendees who are not survivors. Also, comprehensive in that there was such a wide range of creative mediums used, including but not limited to physical art, digital art, film, and written and spoken poetry. I was very impressed with all the art, not only in terms of artistic skill but in that the artists were able to meld the purpose and message of their work so seamlessly with their creation. Consuming these concepts and messages through art was an effective way of really feeling what was being shared in a way that was beyond words. I thoroughly enjoyed all of the art pieces, and though the experience of engaging with each piece was unique, a few have remained with me since then.
Artist Abi Lake created a series of sculptural pieces with mediums including clay and string, accompanied by a narrative of some of the issues or experiences of survivors of abuse. My favourite of these pieces was quite abstract and initially looked like just a blob of clay, but soon I realised that it was clay that had been squeezed tightly in the artist's hand as they made a fist. It was clear to see the grooves of their grasping fingers and the veins on the skin of their palm. I found this piece incredibly impactful - I felt the pressure and tension from the artist and how tightly they held on to everything represented by this clay.
Artist Julian Triandafyllou created a series of digital artworks using collages of images and magazine clippings. Each piece had a positive or inspirational message upon first impression, statements such as “I can say no”. But upon closer inspection, hidden phrases changed the original statement into something less positive from the perspective of a survivor experiencing abuse, such as “I can not say no”. The hidden-in-plain-sight aspect of this work made me think of how easily signs of abuse can go unnoticed in daily life and how difficult it can be to get noticed from the perspective of the survivor.
The exhibition was a wonderful experience of witnessing how art can be an effective vessel to share experiences and ideas in an accurate and successful way, evoking a connection with the consumer beyond the ability of written words alone.
Our project shows one way that art can be used to generate conversations about abuse.
Creating artwork was a real challenge for me as a non-artist, but the support I received from the survivor artists was extraordinary and enabled me to communicate my ideas through design-based works. I also had the opportunity to create collaborative works with a survivor artist. This highlights one of the key aspects of our project, which is that we aimed to prioritise building safe relationships with one another from which our work could flow. But, as we reflect in this short film, relationship-building takes time and resources, which we didn’t always have, partly because of a delayed start. We recommend that projects like this prioritise time for relationship building, justifying this in any funding applications.
A key goal was to make sure that artworks communicated the signs of abuse sensitively so that people could engage safely. A peer support worker was available throughout the exhibition to talk to anyone who needed it, and the card deck includes a booklet describing safety guidelines and more general information on how to use the cards. We also state in the booklet that there might never be a right time for someone to engage with the card deck, and that is ok. We hope that these steps support safer engagement.
Our project shows one way that art can be used to generate conversations about abuse. The exhibition enabled us to facilitate conversations between a range of people, and the support we received from staff at the Social, Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry Centre was fantastic. However, the exhibition was held at King’s College London, and whilst we did attract people from different places, this is likely to have limited who we were able to reach. We recommend that artworks are displayed and disseminated in a variety of locations and ways to engage broader audiences.
Overall, we can say that the exhibition and card deck have been a success. The exhibition was well-attended, and we are already on our second print run of the card deck (print runs are funded by card deck sales). Our advice to anyone considering using art to communicate difficult ideas is to ensure that funding applications include adequate time for relationship building wherever possible and that a broad approach is taken to dissemination.
Please see below for links to SURE, Traumascapes, and Survivors Voices.
To purchase the card deck and/or see a selection of cards, please visit: traumascapes.org/trauma-cards. For further information on the project, visit: www.vamhn.co.uk/towards-recognition-of-abuse-understanding-and-mutuality-through-arts-trauma.html.
Chevous J, Fischer L, Perot C, Sweeney A (2021) How to Reach and Help Children and Young People Experiencing Abuse in their Households. Survivors Voices; Traumascapes; the Violence, Abuse and Mental Health Research Network; the Service User Research Enterprise at King’s College London; and the McPin Foundation.