The Power of Creativity — an art exhibition and performance by people in poverty

On 17 October 2023, ATD Fourth World UK, in collaboration with and supported by London Challenge Poverty Week, the APLE Collective, the People’s Company, and Amnesty International UK, held an immersive and dynamic event full of art and talent. From photography, to poetry, to paintings, to theatre, this exhibition encapsulated work done by people living in poverty, showcasing their glorious creativity.  

“When I had been part of ATD for about six years, some of us travelled together to the European Union for an event on culture. It was interesting. But then a Spanish lady said, ‘A person who can’t read and write has no culture’. I should have spoken up because that’s not true. I know someone who can’t read and write, but they can play music. And there’s many other ways into culture: there’s dancing, singing, or making artwork.”

Seamus Neville, lived experience activist

Although it shouldn’t be, creativity and art can be seen as a privilege. Poverty steals your creative space. Spare cash goes straight towards school shoes for the children, back rent, replacing the broken hoover or washing machine. Time is not free. You have to walk to get the shopping, walk to pick the kids up, and in between keep the house in order. Lack of mental space means that practical issues cannot be partitioned in safe little spaces in your head. There is a constant battle for control over the rising damp, the needs of the family, and demands from authorities.

Emotionally, you may have a history of disappointments, absent partners, illness, children in care, abuse, low self-esteem, illiteracy…. These challenges are ongoing. So when do you spend time growing as a person? To discover what lies in your imagination? To practise a skill or nurture a talent? It is always tomorrow. But what use is life without beauty, without access to a means of expressing yourself? 

Introduction to the event

This is why, to mark the UN International Day to End Poverty, we chose to highlight the unseen creativity of people with lived experience. During six months of preparation, ATD offered them time and space to experiment with their creativity, to leave their world and worries behind, and just be present in the moment doing something they enjoy. Through a series of workshops, activists created beautiful works of art that  were exhibited at Amnesty’s auditorium on 17 October. 

 

The artists who created this exhibition are talented people who have incredible stories, beauty, and creativity to share. They all experience poverty every day. People in poverty are so often misunderstood, misjudged. Their difficulties are put down simply to money, or laziness, or attitude. You will now be able to see an online version of this exhibition. Listen to what their art has to say. Then you will see straight away the celebration in it. 

This is not an exhibition to walk away from feeling depressed. Here, the right to culture has been realised and enjoyed. You may breathe more slowly at the insights in the photography or the truth in the poetry. The energy from the work we hope will inspire you to think more deeply both about each individual’s right to culture, and about the celebration in the creations. Even your own life and aspirations.

Photography exhibition

When we were preparing these workshops last spring, one of ATD’s activists said, “I wish I knew how to take photos”. So we enlisted the help of Celia Consolini, a trained photojournalist. Celia volunteered her time all summer long, developing a series of workshops to introduce activists to the world of photography. She says:

“The first workshop we did was to discover how to use a camera, get familiar with settings, and get tips for composition. That way, you feel comfortable with the camera and you can explore without worrying about anything else. That’s how we ended up with the inspiring pictures that are exhibited today! We had fun with shadows, perspectives…. The picture that spells ‘Fear’, for instance, is the result of some experimentation with a flash and movement.  But photography doesn’t stop there. Together, we came up with the themes, and the titles and captions for each photograph. We wanted the photos to tell a story, and I think this is exactly what the exhibition does.” 

Supported by ATD team member Eva Carrillo Roas, seven people with lived experience of poverty participated in these workshops and crafted the exhibition: Patricia Bailey, Charlotte Brown, Amanda Button, Ruth Knibbs, Jade Wilkinson, Lareine M. and Angela Babb.  Jade says: 

“We walk away from this workshop with not only new skills but also feeling powerful from the pictures we created. We realise that creativity is not just about having a camera; it’s about who is behind the camera. Creativity is in us. But we don’t unlock it until we partake in something like this.”

To see the inspiring photos in the online version of this exhibition, please click here

Theatre performance

To create this theatre performance, entitled “My Soul Is Tired”, we worked in partnership with Jonny Monk from the People’s Company, an inclusive theatre company based at Southwark Playhouse and working in the community with disadvantaged groups. 

Through seven weekly workshops, Jonny worked with three ATD activists: Angela Babb, Jade Wilkinson and Alison Barnfather. Together, they created an original piece of theatre that spoke to them. This piece was then performed twice: at the Southwark Playhouse on 6 October; and on 17 October in the Amnesty auditorium. 

“I loved working with the group from ATD. We had lots of fun and produced something really powerful. I learnt a lot from the group about the injustices they and many others have faced. The community was invaluable at reassuring and empathising when difficult topics came up, as they all had similar experiences. Despite being nervous they gave the performances lots of energy and I’m really proud of them!”

– Jonny Monk 

We were also delighted to have Meghan Morvan at our event to perform her monologue “My invisible thread”.  She was involved in the People’s Company project as well. We saw her perform her beautiful monologue on the 6th and our activists were so incredibly touched we decided to invite her to perform it again.

Bookmark exhibition

The idea behind these inventive bookmarks emerged from a discussion among activists with lived experience of poverty during one of the early meetings for the project. The quotes embedded in each bookmark are real-life phrases that individuals have heard and experienced. Resin is a material that catches light in a delicate way. The negative words provide a stark contrast to this, emphasising the harsh realities of living in poverty. The uplifting quotes provide hope through times of darkness. 

These bookmarks were created by Thomas Mayes, Emerald Mayes and Eric Knibbs. Thomas says:

“It was important for me to use art to show the things that are happening in the world, a way of putting my expression across in an art form that I am able to do.”

Flower pot display

‘Seeds for the future’ was the inspiration for this workshop. Throughout our exhibition, a recurrent theme is that nature heals. ATD Fourth World activists with lived experience of poverty feel a strong connection to mother earth. This workshop was an opportunity for these activists to express their artistic side through painting and manual art. 

The artists who created these flower pots are: Jade Wilkinson, Charlotte Brown, Amanda Button, Kar-man, TM, Celia Consolini and Eva Carrillo Roas. We hope that these plants grow and blossom into beautiful flowers, just as we hope the future does too.  

Poetry

Poetry has been a means of art that ATD activists are not unfamiliar with. In the past, we have held Poetry Jams to commemorate  17 October (click here). Following two poetry workshops during this summer, we were excited to exhibit these new poems alongside poems by people in poverty written in other contexts. Several poems performed on stage can be read in this article. These and other poems were displayed as part of the exhibition.

  • Poets in ATD’s 2023 workshops: Angela Babb, Patricia Bailey, Amanda Button, and Kevin Makwikila.
  • Poems by Jess, Taliah Drayak, and Lisa-Marie Graham were created in a project run jointly by the International Parent Advocacy Network and by Parent Advocacy and Rights
  • Poems by members of the APLE Collective: Tracy Knight, Loraine Masiya Mponela, and Carole Turner;
  • Other poets whose work was displayed were: Alison Barnfather, Charlotte Brown, Francesca Crozier-Roche, Gill Main, Seamus Neville, Moraene Roberts, and Lisa Slaughter.

The Roles We Play

Between 2009 and 2019, activists from ATD created The Roles We Play project, which included an interactive photo exhibition, a book, a film, and a report. This project provided a forum for people in poverty to challenge the widespread negative stereotypes of their lives through the use of positive imagery and self-representation. It encouraged participants to be aware of and value the ways in which they are active in their own families, neighbourhoods and communities. 

This year, some of this exhibition was displayed in the Amnesty auditorium. Looking back on the project, activist Tammy Mayes said:

“Working on this project together gave us all a voice. We gained confidence to challenge ourselves more, but to also support each other. We saw that we were not alone and we should not feel ashamed to live in poverty and we weren’t to blame, like the media and people think. We learnt that people in poverty are just as valuable to society as those with jobs and money, and our exhibition shows that.” 

Alongside the original photos, on 17 October, we also displayed eight paintings inspired by this exhibition. These portraits were made by Guendouz Bensidhoum, who grew up in poverty in France. He first joined ATD Fourth World as a lived-experience activist, and later joined our International Volunteer Corps.

To read more about The Roles We Play, click here. 

“Memories I Can No Longer Silence”

Guendouz grew up on a transit estate in France, designed as temporary housing. “Memories I Can No Longer Silence” is his series of murals portraying different aspects of childhood, adolescence, and adulthood on that estate. He says: 

“I no longer had the words or the will to talk about the unfairness of my friends’ mangled lives, which I found utterly unbearable. Yet faces that I just couldn’t forget kept coming back to me. Through painting, I can bear witness to the experience of people like us.”

As part of our 17 October performance, Guendouz engaged in dialogue with activists from ATD UK, speaking about both The Roles We Play, and his series of murals. 

To discover their dialogue, please click here.

Filled to the Brim

This was a collaborative research project between members of Poverty Truth groups in Glasgow and Greater Manchester with Wren Radford from the University of Manchester about the everyday experiences of people living in poverty. Due to Covid, this research developed into a creative journal that had drawings, colleagues and poems, all produced by people living in poverty. We had the honour to have Carole and Wren explain this project in more depth on stage. To read more about this project, and to watch several videos, please click here.

From Filled to the Brim: “There is an expansiveness when making art”

Collages

Our exhibition also included collages that were created by activists with lived-experience of poverty:

See picture below. 

Special guests

In addition to all the artwork created by people in poverty, our event on 17 October also featured some special guests.

Human rights: Not a game!

‘Human Rights: Not a Game!’ was developed by Just Fair with the Social Rights Alliance, which is rooted in people’s lived experiences and aims to empower rights-holders to claim their rights. We got a chance to play the game ourselves on 17 October, with Laura Grace introducing it on stage. Click here to read more about the game. 

Political Pop (2023)

Holli Armstrong, creator of ‘Political Pop (2023)’, is a political artist and activist. She says:

“I consider it essential to centre my art around a purpose. The concept, for me, is what matters most; to create art that has a purpose and to use my artistic ability to speak up and be a voice for the disenfranchised.”

She has kindly donated her art to ATD. To order postcards of these three images, please send an email to atd@atd-uk.org. The cost is £1 per card, or six cards for £5, plus £1.50 for postage and handling.  

Do check out Holli’s art on her Instagram account!

Camerados

Camerados is an organisation that believes that “the answer to our problems is each other”. They set up public living rooms, which is exactly what you are imagining, yes! They created an incredible safe space in the middle of Amnesty’s auditorium with sofas, blankets, rugs, games etc.

Camerados was founded by Maff Potts, who says: 

“A camerado can be anyone. It’s about chatting to someone new or helping out a stranger (or better yet, asking them to help you). It’s sitting with your neighbour and having a cuppa. It’s asking that stranger at the bus-stop if they’ve got the time. Everyone has tough times and we think it’d be great if people just looked out for one another more. Not fixing each other. Not trying to solve anyone’s problems. Just being a bit more human.”

The Camerados welcome invitations to deliver their living room to new places. To learn more, head to their page

Caitlin Sibthorpe

Our event closed with a magnificent musical performance by one of our team members, Caitlin Sibthrope, who gave an angelical ending to the evening.

And lastly, a special thank you to Lareine M. and Eva Carrillo Roas, for being the most engaging emcees we could have had!