Reflections on Tomorrow

By Dr Lee Karen Stow, Visual Artist & Researcher

In 2023, five women artists who survived war, conflict and persecution, came together as visual artists to present Tomorrow, a multi-media, studio exhibition. Developed as an IWM 14-18 NOW Legacy Fund commission in partnership with the Freedom Festival, the exhibition is an individual and collective response to the concept of ‘tomorrow’ as an enduring reference to hope, belief and self-determination and a way of looking to the future, together.

Collaborating long-term over many years with photographer and visual researcher Dr Lee Karen Stow, Tomorrow was collectively curated by Prof. Sarah Perks (Teesside University). The exhibition opened as part of Freedom Festival at Ferens Art Gallery in the centre of Hull, and on show for a month in September 2023. The public programme of events included meet-the-artists Saturdays and an open panel discussion ‘Talking About Tomorrow’ with special guests from Afghanistan and Ukraine and chaired by Palestinian human rights activist, Basma El Doukhi.

In Tomorrow, Arafa Gouda (Sudan/Libya), Gaida Dirar (Sudan/Libya), Nisreen Barazi (Syria), Shuke Halake Aeroro (Ethiopia) and Faisa Omar (Somalia) as the Freedom Women Collective, use visual and textile art, sculpture, performance, poetry and photography to show that in every language, tomorrow can be a promise, a practical arrangement or a philosophical proposition.

The artists all contributed individual works to the exhibition. Arafa’s huge abstract paintings represent the emotions of her journey from Sudan and across the Sahara desert to Libya. Faisa’s traditional Somali dress, known as the dirac, is a celebration of her culture and a reflection of stoicism in adversity. Shuke’s siinque is a stick carried by Oromo women in Ethiopia as a symbol of peace. Gaida’s blue and white Sudanese thoubs represent the both the suppression and independence of women in Sudan. Nisreen’s treasured photos decorate the branches of a life-size, life-like olive tree to symbolise the strength of a mother and her family. Compelling narratives and poems by the artists are presented in the artists’ languages of Sudanese, Arabic, Somali, Oromo and English.

At the heart of the exhibition is the artists’ 30-minute photofilm Tomorrow as an exploration of ownership of representation and memory of displacement. Edited by Hull-based filmmaker Jessica Eleanor Zschorn, the photofilm shows largely unseen, personal photos rescued from war and carried across borders. During years in transit countries or in limbo in refugee camps, the women preserved these photos and continued their photography as documentarians and witnesses, not bystanders. They photographed lived experiences, ordinary and extraordinary, in new and unfamiliar environments as they attempted to adapt to life as refugees.

Arafa actively documented the chaos and desolation of the UNHCR Salloum Refugee Camp in Egypt where she and her six children waited four years for a decision to be made on their futures. One of Gaida photos is of herself working as a nurse in the only clinic in the same refugee camp, a job that saved her from deep depression and taught her new skills to help others in distress. Shuke commissioned new family portraits in a makeshift refugee camp photo studio during her 13 years in the UNHCR Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya. Nisreen, who has documented every moment of her family’s flight from war-torn Syria, rescued her photo albums because “they were more important than my clothes.” Faisa fled Ethiopia carrying no possessions or family photos and yet began creating new digital memories with a cameraphone in the refugee camps of Syria, before fleeing war a second time.

These photos remained relatively private and unseen by outsiders, even close family members. The more the women talked and shared, the more images were found in bags, photo albums, on camera-phones and sent by loved ones scattered across the globe. When old, bruised laptops which had also survived war and forced displacement were fixed, they miraculously flickered to life and yielded forgotten photos and video clips.

As visual biographies, these precious, personal collections reveal lives lived before and during war. They show how a woman draws strength and resilience from within to resist, cope and survive the trauma, loss, and indignity of leaving all behind in search of safety. They show that becoming a refugee is a moment in a woman’s life, not her whole life. These perspectives go largely unseen, hidden behind dominant war photography, stereotypes and visual misrepresentations. As Gaida says, “I didn’t appear from nothing …. we carried our heritage with us”, and Arafa says “I existed”.

As the Freedom Women Collective we continue to meet, talk, eat, laugh, dance, cry and of course, document our lives and experiences and share visually through the power of photography. We think about creative ways to share Tomorrow with more audiences or, as Shuke says “with the world!”. We think about how we can visibly and actively advocate for peace, and a greater understanding and self-representation for women survivors of war and forced displacement through our dynamic mix of knowledge, creatively, skills, imagination, energy, enthusiasm and support.

About Tomorrow, a documentary.

Documenting the creation of the Tomorrow exhibition by the Freedom Women Collective, this film captures the labour of love that went into putting this project together and giving this group of women a space and voice to tell their vital stories of upheaval and displacement.