Exploring the Stories of Refugees Through Art and Drama

French author/ illustrator duo Barroux and Bessora’s graphic novel Alpha: Abidjan to Gare du Nord (translated from French into English by Sarah Ardizzone) was the inspiration for an exciting cross-curricular project involving four sections of S3 pupils in Art & Design and Drama at Greenfaulds High School. Art & Design teacher Kirstin Armstrong explains what this project involved.

Initially, Art & Design pupils used Q & A worksheets to help them investigate Alpha. They looked at the text - individually or working in pairs, and considered the different themes, characters and interwoven stories. The pupils quickly identified with the key character, an African man called Alpha who leaves his homeland behind to travel to Paris in search of his wife and son (they have already journeyed ahead of Alpha in pursuit of a better life). The various characters Alpha meets along the way were also very easy for them to relate to. Pupils were keen to participate in a class discussion about the text, characters and the themes of the novel.

Alpha was easy for the pupils to engage with as the language is simple and Alpha is a likeable person, but they were disturbed by the sadness of the migrant’s journey; with the diary-like format making the story more real and perhaps more evocative than any newspaper article or TV clip that they have seen previously. The graphic novel was informative and thought-provoking.

Once the pupils were familiar with the text and had some understanding of the difficulties faced by Alpha during the eighteen months it had taken for him to reach Europe, they turned their attention to the illustrations by Barroux. They copied the French artist’s simple technique of coloured pen and wash (devised to mimic the basic materials available to a migrant) and recreated different scenes from the graphic novel (some S2 classes also enjoyed this activity as using the water with the felt-tip pens was lots of fun and effective at creating atmosphere).

The pupils enjoyed experimenting with media and trying to copy the illustrator’s use of line, shape and colour. They commented on Barroux’s choice of dark, moody, limited colours (predominant in the novel to reflect the hardships of migration) and his simple style of illustration, which is modern and cartoon-like and complements the simple text. Pupils were interested in Alpha’s journey from North Africa to France. Dipping in and out of the novel, they quickly identified with the dangers of migration (drug-crazed and armed border guards, prostitution, disease, liars and thieves etc.) and spoke of the overwhelming feeling of sadness that the story evokes when various characters have their dreams broken and are set adrift once more, like the over-loaded boats sent out onto the storm-tossed sea by the people smugglers.

Having explored Alpha’s tale of migration from North Africa to France, the pupils were set the challenge of creating two large-scale banners – one to illustrate migration from Syria to Scotland (widely publicised in the news and online), and the other to reflect migration from Scotland to North America and Canada after the 18th and 19th century Highland Clearances.

For the first banner, pupils chose to work with some pre-selected images (not too gory or graphic) which helped to tell the story of war and destruction in Syria, with migrants traveling across the desert and the seas to reach Europe and then finally Scotland. The images reflected the different landscapes, people, and means of traveling. Pupils used mixed-media to create their images, drawing onto sections of white cotton with pencil and then adding colour with watercolour paints. They added fine detail with watercolour pencils and coloured pens/gel pens, and extra visual impact and surface texture with beads, sequins, recycled materials, metal wire, felt, ribbon and mosaic etc. For larger sections, a group of six pupils worked with wool and warm soapy water to create huge handmade felt panels (with each panel the full size of a table, the boys especially enjoyed getting lost amidst the soapy bubbles!). These felt panels were cut up and brought together, and used to make the banners more 3D.

For the second banner, pupils selected images that related to the Highland Clearances and the strife associated with the Jacobite defeat at the Battle of Culloden in 1746, as well as images that could help tell the story of migration, with families leaving Scotland for North America and Canada. Once again, they used mixed media and handmade felt.

The pupils spent weeks working on their individual panels and then these were attached to large sections of hemmed cotton fabric with double-sided tape and stitching (luckily pupils were a big help with the double-sided tape – each banner is roughly 115cmx240cm and the stitching took a lot longer than anticipated!). The pupils were pleased with the individual panels coming together to create a larger whole (everyone's work was included).

Initially, text was going to be incorporated into the banners (a mix of English, French, Gaelic and Arabic) but it was felt that the images helped to tell a visual story which was more powerful without words, with the plain white cotton background of the banner making the images look like a page from a graphic novel or comic book. The images tell the migrants’ journeys simply, without words, in a way that reflects the imagery of Barroux.

The banners were displayed as part of the North Lanarkshire Youth Festival in February 2017, which was hosted by Greenfaulds High School for the first time, allowing hundreds of our pupils to visit the exhibition. The banners are now on display in the reception area of the school to engage pupils, staff and the public with the important, current issue of migration.

Once the banners were complete, Drama pupils and staff saw them first-hand and they all thought that the Art & Design pupils had worked hard on them and were impressed by the quality of the artwork. By this point, pupils in Drama had also studied Alpha and had worked through a specially created booklet. They had spent a lot of time working on performances relating to migration, with their own story lines, scripts and characters. Still pictures were taken so that displays could be created, and pupils from Art & Design were treated to three interesting performances by Drama pupils (featuring lighting and sound effects) which were all excellent.

The Alpha project is still not quite over – pupil feedback needs to be collated, and some information displays created about Alpha and migration to complement the banners. Images of the project in progress (lots and lots of them!) have been displayed in the classroom and used in the school newsletters. The pupils enjoyed working with the new materials, producing artwork on a large scale, and finding out more about migration. They also benefited from seeing how the Drama pupils approached the project, and from sharing in their performances.

We have some new pupils joining the school shortly from Syria. Hopefully, the Alpha project will have helped to make our current pupils more aware of the hardships involved with migration and the importance of extending the hand of friendship to people from other countries and cultures.

Watch Alpha author Bessora and translator Sarah Ardizzone discuss how they approached this important story in the context of the current refugee crisis in our Authors Live broadcast.

You can find learning resources and more information about Alpha: Abidjan to Gare du Nord and its creators at thealphabook.org


Take a look at more of the pupils' artwork below


Kirstin Armstrong

Kirstin Armstrong is an Art and Design teacher at Greenfaulds High School in North Lanarkshire