WHEN I heard that there would be an exhibition in Chichester Cathedral (until 31 August) featuring seven portrait sculptures of asylum-seekers, now based in Chichester, who had shown outstanding resilience and strength of character in coping with their predicament, I expected to be presented with grim details of horrors suffered and the trauma of fleeing them.
In fact, the exhibition “Resilience in Clay” is, as one subject says, “about the ability to bounce back after a set-back, to form new goals after serious problems, to get things in perspective after grief and tragedy”. It focuses on living in the present and in hope.
The cathedral is well known for its multi-cultural community spirit. With the Chichester branch of Sanctuary, a national network seeking to welcome asylum-seekers, it linked up with the sculptor Kate Viner to give a voice to the “new residents” and select seven asylum-seekers, young and elderly, from a range of war-torn countries.
Viner chose the ratio of five women to two men, as women, their husbands often killed in conflict, are abandoned to cope ill equipped with a large young family; but men and especially boys need help too. She also chose the number seven as “it is a spiritual number.”
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None of the subjects had posed for a sculptor before. “Usually it is famous people who get to do this kind of thing,” said one subject. “It rarely happens to an ordinary person.” Although they were all flattered and wanted to be sculpted, it was a new experience and sometimes difficult to adapt to.
About 24 hours, overall, was spent with each subject. Viner served coffee, discussed things, and laughed with them, to make them feel relaxed, but all the time watching their every movement and expression, so that the sculpture would capture the essence of the person.
One elderly lady was very touched that Viner brought her a heated cushion so that she would not feel the cold when sitting on the chair. The young boy found it difficult to sit still, but enjoyed making shapes with the clay while Viner worked sculpting him.
The heads are 25 per cent larger than life. Viner uses traditional water-based clay to make her maquette, which, when dried, is cast in plaster. Even then, she makes adjustments to the cast before polishing it.
Each of the seven heads is placed at eye level on a pedestal, positioned so that, mid-morning, the sunlight passes the stained-glass windows on to the sculptures. Placed below the heads are statements by the subjects about what they would like their sculpture to convey. Viner had wanted the pieces not to seem posed.
The outcome is a group of amazingly warm and human and real faces. You can easily relate to the tired smile of acceptance of one of the older ladies, and almost hear the young Ukrainian defiantly proclaiming: “We are free. We are independent. We are unbreakable. We are Ukrainian.”
You can feel your heart go out to the shy young African boy, who is bashfully lowering his head, and appreciate the wisdom of the oldest sitter, who is not a new seeker, but the direct descendant of a refugee and a cathedral and Sanctuary volunteer, when she says: “Face life’s problems with courage and resilience. Be involved in the community, be active in trying to make the world a better place.”