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Using art and drama to explore refugee stories

Kirstin Armstrong from Greenfaulds High School used the graphic novel Alpha: Abidjan to Gare du Nord (translated by Sarah Ardizzone) by French author and illustrator duo Barroux and Bessora for an inventive cross-curricular art project.

Last updated: 11 May 2020

The project started with pupils working individually or in pairs, considering the different themes, characters and interwoven stories in Alpha. Alpha was easy for the pupils to engage with, as the language is simple and Alpha is a likeable character. However, they were disturbed by the sadness of the his journey; the diary-like format made the story feel real and perhaps more evocative than any newspaper article or TV clip they have seen previously. The graphic novel was informative and thought provoking.

Once pupils were familiar with the text, they turned their attention to the illustrations. 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 then set the challenge of creating two large-scale banners – one to illustrate migration from Syria to Scotland (widely publicised in the news and online at the time), and the other to reflect migration from Scotland to North America and Canada after the 18th and 19th century Highland Clearances. This encouraged pupils to make links between current and past migration.

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 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. These were then attached to large sections of hemmed cotton fabric held in place with double-sided tape and stitching. The pupils were pleased with the individual panels coming together to create a larger whole, and 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 told a visual story. Pupils felt the story 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.

Once the banners were complete, they were displayed in a school exhibition and everyone was impressed by the quality of the artwork and the challenging themes the banners explored. Pupils enjoyed working with the new materials, producing artwork on a large scale, and finding out more about migration.

As a school, we hope that 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.

You can watch Sarah Ardizzone and Bessora talking about Alpha in our Authors Live On Demand Library.