Hear Her Singing

A collection of songs by women asylum seekers in the UK

Hear Her Singing is a newly commissioned Hayward Gallery project by Taiwanese artist Charwei Tsai, in collaboration with Tibetan filmmaker Tsering Tashi Gyalthang, taking the universal nature of song to create a platform for refugees and asylum seekers currently living or detained in the UK. In a series of film installations at Southbank Centre, Tsai presents multiple voices of struggle, resistance, and hope.

The Project

Tsai has developed Hear Her Singing with the charities Bedford Music in Detention and Women for Refugee Women. Working closely with each organisation and vocal leader Phoene Cave, the project was initiated with a series of vocal workshops with women at Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre in Bedfordshire and the Women for Refugee Women drama group who meet every Saturday at Southbank Centre. Drawing on the foundations of care and solidarity among the women, Tsai used the vocal workshops to invite the groups to sing to each other and send each other messages via audio recordings, creating a point of exchange for women who have experienced similar journeys.

Following the workshops, the Women for Refugee Women drama group were invited to sing their chosen songs to the camera as dedications to the struggle of women in Yarl’s Wood and beyond. These personal and powerful songs include religious, political and pop songs as well as original material. Performed and filmed in various locations around the Royal Festival Hall, Hear Her Singing creates a presence for the women’s voices across the site and invites visitors to stop and listen where they are encountered.

Hear Her Singing Trailer

Words from the participants from Women for Refugee Women

"It is so enjoyable and inspires us to see that we have some talent. I feel good to know that I have the capacity to sing and add hope to the lives of other people." - Maria

"For me, as an individual, singing emotionally repairs me and plants the seeds of joy and gladness in me. I express myself and I feel it is helping my soul, spirit and my body. When I express the meaning of the song, I feel repaired. And for me, I feel young! There is no more sadness - just joy and gladness! I feel like dancing, and so you see it makes me happy!" - Elizabeth

"It was so emotional and sensational. The first time I went I felt so emotional that I broke down and cried for the torture and violence that the women detained inside Yarl's Wood have suffered. It really affected me and touched my heart because of the past violence and abuse that we have all experienced. The group was really there for me and it felt good to do this." - Salomy

Words from Women for Refugee Women

"Women for Refugee Women is a small charity which tries to ensure that women and children who are seeking safety in the UK are treated with justice and dignity.We believe that the voices of refugee women need to be heard.
We provide a welcoming and supportive space in London in which friendships across cultures can blossom. As part of our work, we host weekly English lessons, advice sessions, yoga and lunches cooked by one of the women in our network. We also support an active and committed drama group, which meets weekly and is currently hosted at the Southbank Centre.
We were delighted that members of this drama group were able participate in this arts project, 'Hear Her Singing', as this provided a great opportunity for refugee women to express themselves through song. The making of this project included workshops which were emotional and challenging, but often joyful.
Many of the women who participated in this project have themselves been detained in Yarl's Wood, and they know only too well the isolation and trauma that are a result of the UK's detention policies.

The exhibition displays the strength and love of the women involved as they sing for their asylum-seeking sisters who are currently in detention.
The women in our network continually support one another through their recovery from past trauma and through the challenges of the UK asylum system. This opportunity for further exchange of hope and solidarity with the women detained inside Yarl's Wood has been meaningful for all of us. For more information about our work and about our campaign against detention, please visit our website, www.refugeewomen.co.uk
We'd like to thank Charwei Tsai, the Southbank Centre and all involved in producing 'Hear Her Singing' which shares the beautiful voices and songs of women who are seeking safety in the UK. Their courage and creativity are an inspiration for all of us."

Women for Refugee Women

Words from Jih-Wen Yeh, who facilitated our workshops in the detention centre

“An emotional release through artistic expression in which detainees voices are heard near and far through community exchange projects in all music led art forms.”

Jih -Wen Yeh
Bedford Music in Detention

Words from Phoene Cave, who led the workshops for this project

Singing is our birthright. When we sing, we convey feeling and engage breath, body and vocal cords in an intricate dance to produce a call, cry, or melody. Group singing has been shown to support participants socially, mentally, emotionally and physically. Singing is simple – everyone can sing. Really?

Singing is complex physically: we need to balance effort levels around a variety of skills including pitch, volume, phonation, breath, and support, articulation, and resonation. These can all be impacted by physical and mental wellbeing.

Singing is complex psychologically – family, home, and environment, gender, culture, physical health, beliefs about singing and self-esteem all impact. When your breath may have been stopped by witnessing the unspeakable, when your liberty is curtailed and you are placed in detention, when the physical or emotional pain so strong it feels as though your throat has a stopper in it, when your stomach is twisted with stress that you are in permanent ‘flight or fright’ then singing could feel almost impossible. It can also give voice.

“When we sing our voices… resonate inward to help us connect to our bodies and express our emotions and they resonate outwards to help us connect to others” (Diane Austin. Music Psychotherapist)

I was delighted to work with Vanessa Lucas-Smith, a cellist who initiated The Calais Sessions [https://www.thecalaissessions.com/], recording musicians in the ‘jungle’ camp in France. She and I supported women in Yarl’s Wood, through musical play, to feel comfortable to share their songs. Confidence to feel comfortable to sing in a one-off workshop is not easy. Those who could, embraced the invitation to be ‘be heard’.

 “Everyone needs confidence before they can let themselves play in the fullest sense of the word. Playing, is what people need to do if they want to express and communicate something of themselves through music” (Steve Lewis. Percussionist)

Meeting the drama group from Women for Refugee Women at the Southbank was a different experience. They have been working together for a while, and value the close support provided by their group and facilitators Marchu and Rebecca.

Imagine sitting in a room being invited to sing individually? Even as a professional performer, it makes your heart beat a little faster. This was not the “X Factor”. This was revealing and scary for some. Powerful and important for all. They were brave and jumped, only to find voices cracking, breath juddering and tears tumbling as the thought of singing to women inside a detention centre reminded some of them of a difficult past. Others wanted to challenge themselves and speak out through song. Hugs and tissues were in good supply.

“People’s core relationship to music often remains sound and whole, even if everything else around this seems disrupted or damaged. This basic attachment to music is often a key resource for people to locate what is still healthy in themselves and others” (Dr Gary Ansdell. Music Therapy Professor)

Filming day was intense. I had a short time with each individual to gain trust, and to support them to sing not just with words, but with a connected sound, with a presence, truth and clear intention. Their performance needed power and not to be a pastiche. Different participants called for different focus – i.e. play, ground, breath, body, words, awareness, emotion etc. Some sang pre-composed material, others created their own. I trusted in them, the working relationship and fundamentally in the power of music. I am very proud of all who sang and their courage to create, call and connect through song.

Phoene Cave
Music Therapist & Vocal Coach

Conversation between curator Stephanie Rosenthal and artist Charwei Tsai

SR: Our invitation to realise a new work was very open, but had the remit of engaging with people who maybe aren’t able to come to the Southbank Centre. I always appreciated the quiet but powerful way your work engages with different belief structures and cultures. In the past you have worked with people to realise your writing projects, but HEAR HER SINGING takes a very different approach. How did you become interested in engaging with communities?

CT: I first started working with communities when I was filming an indigenous tribe on a remote island Lanyu (Orchid Island) in Taiwan in 2012. It was my curiosity in their practice of shamanism that led me to observe them through the process of filming. After spending more time on the island and getting to know the local people, I began to learn about the island’s social and environmental issues related to how the government stores nuclear waste on the island. These discussions eventually became a part of the work.

My most recent project working with a community took place at the earthquake camps in Nepal. My initial interest in visiting Nepal was actually to meet a Tibetan yogi. He is known for teaching through spontaneously singing his songs of spiritual realizations. He was already very senior when we met and I was able to witness someone who is the embodiment of his teachings. After our meeting, I became interested in the ways in which people make spiritual connections through singing. This experience led me to the video work “Songs of Chuchepati” where I filmed earthquake victims in a makeshift camp singing songs that expressed their current state of mind. It became the main source of inspiration for our current project.

SR: Could you describe the project and its complexity?

CT: Working with Southbank Centre in London has been very different from my past experiences of working in Asia with local communities on my own. When I proposed to film asylum seekers in the UK singing, Southbank Centre connected me to a charity group Music in Detention which has been running music workshops inside immigration detention centres throughout the UK for over a decade. We ended up conducting workshops together for this project inside Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre in Bedford.

We invited expert music therapist Phoene Cave and musician Vanessa Lucas-Smith to lead vocal workshops which encouraged the detainees to express their emotions through singing. As we were not allowed to bring a camera inside the detention centre, we made audio recordings of these songs. Besides telephone calls, this was the only opportunity the detainees had to have their voices heard in the outside world.

I was also introduced to another group of women from Women for Refugee Women who campaign for the rights of detained immigrants and asylum seekers. Many of the women in this group have been detained in the past and could relate to the hardship of this process. We ran vocal workshops with them as well and recorded messages and songs of encouragement to play back at Yarl’s Wood. It was a way to let them know that their voices are being heard and understood by people who have shared a similar journey. As a part of this project, the Women for Refugee Women will sing songs that were taught by the detainees at Yarl’s Wood at a public event and will invite people to join in.

SR: One of the strongest aspects of the project for me personally is the way you are projecting these unheard voices into the world. For you, it wasn’t at all about working with professional singers, but quite the opposite. You wanted people to connect deeply through songs which have a connection to the past or show hope for the future. Starting from this point, how do you feel the work developed?

CT: Yes, I was not interested in the technical singing skills of the women. The language was not an issue either. I was most interested in how we make meaningful connections with one another through the raw emotions that are expressed through songs. It is a way to understand each other’s suffering beyond verbal communication. This process was especially powerful at Yarl’s Wood, as most of the detainees did not share a common language.

SR: How did you experience the different phases of your project?

CT: The plight of asylum seekers and migrant workers around the world is not just an issue in the UK or a political issue, but a humanitarian one. Most of us don’t understand what it means to be stateless and detained indefinitely without committing any crimes. However, we can relate to the basic emotions of sorrow and despair by listening to their songs. Hopefully, it is from this starting point, the desire to relieve others from their suffering that a beneficial approach is taken. It could begin from the guards being more sensitive to the way they treat the detainees, or from journalists who actively raise this issue which is often hidden from the public eye. Eventually, through heightened awareness, we will be able to influence the policymakers who are otherwise so distant from these immediate situations.

SR: You mentioned several times during the project, how much it meant for you to be able to meet the women in Yarl’s Wood. What did you learn from the project?

CT: During the conceptualizing phase of this project, my motivation for the project was to somehow contribute something positive to the situation of the detainees and asylum seekers. However, soon after meeting the two groups of women as well as the workshop leaders, I felt like I had a lot to learn from their life experiences. Their strength and resilience were so powerful. At Yarl’s Wood I met a detainee from Sri Lanka who was less concerned about her own situation and paperwork and was instead trying to help us with our workshop and to gather the participants. She also mentioned that after she leaves Yarl’s Wood, she would like to help the people who are still inside. Another participant from Women for Refugee Women became emotional while she was singing her song. Then she bravely finished her song when someone from the group encouraged her to be strong for the others who are also suffering.

SR: The site-specific aspect of the installation at the Royal Festival Hall is really special. It is beautiful that you have found different ways to film and present the videos of the women in each location, which also makes each work very personal. What was your approach here?

CT: Filming each woman in the area where the videos are presented is a way which emphasizes their presence in our immediate environment. Southbank Centre is where the drama group from Women for Refugee Women meet every Saturday.

They leave their domestic environments and gather there to support each other as a community. After spending more time with the group, I got to know them a little more individually. Therefore, I placed videos of the shyer women in areas that are more intimate, those who are more confident on large monitors in the lobby area, and the group songs as projections in the ballroom.

SR: You realised the work with the filmmaker Tsering Tashi Gyalthang. How long have you been collaborating with him and what has been the nature of your collaborations?

CT: Before working with Tsering, my work mostly took place in nature and in solitude. I am more of an introvert by nature. I rarely included manmade objects, buildings or even people in my work. I created my own little universe without much consideration for the audience’s experience. In contrast, Tsering was born and raised in a tightly knit Tibetan refugee community in India. This experience has shaped the way he considers people in his work. There is a deep sense of compassion in the way he treats the characters in his short films. Since working with him in 2012, I have started to look at broader social issues and have been working more with specific communities in my projects. We have collaborated on almost all of my film and photography work up until now.

SR: What did this work open up for you and what do you think the future will bring in relation to works which engage with communities?

CT: One major project that I would like to develop with Tsering is to build a space in his hometown in Dharamsala in India that encourages creative thinking for the local youth community. We hope to invite people who work in the creative fields to conduct meaningful workshops with local students. It is our long-term plan, so we are still in the process of planning. It will be yet another completely different environment to work in, but I hope to develop our own methodology with the experiences that we have accumulated.

Stephanie Rosenthal
Chief Curator
Hayward Gallery