'My name is not Refugee' opens at Firstsite

3 December 2020

A powerful new exhibition at Colchester’s Firstsite gallery, co-curated by people seeking to build new lives in Britain, will reveal the experiences of newcomers to our shores in ways that are very rarely seen. 

My name is not Refugee is an opportunity to see past the label of ‘refugee’ and, whilst acknowledging the conflict or trauma which may have been experienced, instead focus on the lives of the contributors before and after arriving in the UK. The exhibition will reveal commonalities between visitors to the exhibition and the first-time curators, creating a greater understanding about our community, finding out what we all share and how we are all connected. 

My name is not Refugee is the fourth in the Essex gallery’s series of National Partners Programme exhibitions with the Arts Council Collection, continuing Firstsite’s new collaborative curatorial process designed to make exhibitions that reflect the lives and most pressing issues faced by local people from all sections of society, through incorporating them directly in the exhibition making process.

For this exhibition Firstsite has collaborated with clients and volunteers from Refugee Action - Colchester to create a show which reflects their lives and experiences. During initial conversations about the exhibition, three questions arose - ‘What is the main purpose of humanity?’, ‘Do we live by force or choice?’ and ‘How do we decide what is right and what is wrong?’ As these questions were explored with more people from the group, certain common themes arose, which have been expressed and explored through artworks from the Arts Council Collection and other collections. Each piece in the exhibition has a direct relevance to a conversation had by the group.

In all, there are five different themes that run through the exhibition, namely Journey, Communication, Religion, Environment and Impermanence

Of the selected artworks for Journey, highlights include 1993 Turner Prize winner Rachel Whiteread’s Untitled (1993), which is a pair of bronze door handles joined together but without a door, and two pieces from Mariele Neudecker’s Memory Maps series (1996).


Communication is explored through artworks including Imogen Stidworthy’s 2009 video Barrabackslarrabang (2009) – featuring Liverpudlians speaking in a form of backslang – chosen as it gives the English-speaking visitor the frustrating experience of being able to half-understand what a person is saying, a very common experience for many coming to this country and trying to seek help.

Often the only constant in a turbulent life, Religion is examined through Mark Boulos’ film Gates of Damascus (2005). Syrian housewife, Myrna Nazzour, claims to bear the stigmata wounds of Christ’s crucifixion, as well as having ecstatic visions of Jesus and Mary. Boulos depicts the resultant media scrum surrounding Myrna, as they clamour for evidence of her revelations. This film was chosen as part of a conversation about taking religion ‘to the next level’ – something which is more commonplace in the culture of the Middle East, where many of the group have travelled from. 

Also relating to Religion is The Bell (2007) by David Shrigley, which is a hand bell accompanied by a note saying ‘Not to be rung until Jesus returns’. In the context of this exhibition, this piece is a reminder to question your beliefs and not take religion too seriously.

The Arts Council Collection : 'My name is not Refugee' opens at Firstsite
The Arts Council Collection : 'My name is not Refugee' opens at Firstsite

Another important strand that emerged from discussions was the care and stewardship of the Environment. Climate change is an often-overlooked reason why people are forced to flee their homelands, yet nature and the environment can provide comfort, a neutral space in a new country, away from the confusing experiences of new rules and expectations. 

The experience of arriving in a country you feel you already ‘know’ based on depictions on TV, in the press, or popular culture is also highlighted. Iain Macmillan’s album-cover photograph of The Beatles crossing Abbey Road is included in the exhibition as one example of this: before Münevver Gülsen Ülker, one the community curators, arrived in England she remembers seeing this album cover and thought it was amazing that cars would stop for people to cross the street, and so human life must be the most important thing in England.

To reflect this complex relationship with the environment, the panel have selected a hand tinted silver print from Ingrid Pollard’s 1988 series Pastoral Interlude, which confronts the notion of the Romantic countryside idyll, and three of David Nash’s charcoal on paper drawings of three trees; an oak, larch and ash.  Another highlight is Peter Doig’s Red Deer (1990).

A selection of artworks are also presented to reflect how priorities change when something unexpected happens, such as the outbreak of armed conflict or a health crisis. Most asylum seekers and refugees are familiar with living in a state of uncertainty and comprehend how life can completely change at any moment.

This theme of Impermanence is represented by Sonya Hanney and Adam Dade’s Stacked Hotel No.6 (2000) is a video artwork in which the artists rearrange every object within a hotel room. Conducted in complete privacy and only visible through the subsequent film footage and photographs, the pair expose the nature of such spaces, as impermanent, at times lonely, sometimes romantic, efficient and yet trying to convey a sense of homeliness.  This theme also includes Mona Hatoum’s sculpture + & - (1994) with its rotating electric arm drawing and erasing, and Richard Long’s Stone Circle (1972).

Now, as the exhibition opens with the reopening of the gallery, this theme will feel particularly pertinent to many visitors too, having experienced lockdowns and restrictions in response to the global pandemic, this lived experience connects all sections of the community.

Alongside these themes, My name is not Refugee also explores the common misrepresentation of the UK asylum system and the portrayal of refugees in some sections of the media as less than human or in some respect ‘other’. Jananne Al-Ani’s Untitled (1998) challenges perceptions by showing the same five women – including the artist herself, her mother and other family members - wearing both traditional Arabic and Western clothing. They are the same people underneath.

Community curators Mr and Mrs Al-Chahin describe what visitors can expect: “This is not an art exhibition, but a place where you will actually feel those emotions that each of us is going through. It will speak a thousand words which will make you think - think about humanity, think about the wellbeing of your fellow humans, think about what is bothering you - is it justified? ”

Sally Shaw MBE, Firstsite Director says: “As we welcome our visitors back to Firstsite we want to provide as many opportunities as possible for everyone to feel part of their community again, connecting with others through this shared experience of art, reflection and inspirationThe group has assembled an eclectic selection of paintings, video, photographs and objects which will take visitors on their very own journeys of discovery. Collaborating with two of our curators, Stuart Tulloch and Emma Howe, the group has demonstrated great sensitivity and judgement when selecting pieces from the Arts Council Collection. It’s definitely a must-see show, which will help us all reflect on our identity, where we call home and how we connect to other people.” 

My name is not Refugee has been curated by Elizabeth Curry, Münevver Gülsen Ülker, Samia, Diego Robirosa and Mr and Mrs Al-Chahin, working together with many more clients of and volunteers from Refugee Action-Colchester.


The Arts Council Collection is the UK's most widely seen collection of modern and contemporary art.

With more than 8,000 works by over 2,000 artists, it can be seen in exhibitions and public displays across the country and beyond. This website offers unprecedented access to the Collection, and information about each work can be found on this site.