The Art of Social Connection: Exploring Former Refugee and Host Society Integration via a Collaborative, Participatory Painting Project in Wellington City
In light of the global humanitarian crisis, a climate of fear has arisen around refugees which is often exacerbated by the media perpetuating misinformation and negative stereotypes. Such misrepresentation is problematic as a skewed perspective of refugees, compounded with ethnic and cultural barriers to belonging, is leading to discriminatory practices in New Zealand. Thus, there exists an incongruence between New Zealand’s non-discriminatory equal citizenship rights in law; and refugee and ethnic discrimination and marginalisation in processes of social integration. To begin to bridge this incongruence, this research explores how theories of social connection may be practically applied to enable more equitable social outcomes. A scholar activist orientation was employed, informed by a participatory action research epistemology. These philosophical foundations influenced a qualitative multi-method methodology consisting of painting workshops, semi-structured interviews, participant observation, and public feedback. Within the workshops, former refugee and host society participants explored how concepts of home, belonging, and visibility within public space are imagined, normalised, and contested within everyday practices of inclusion and exclusion in Wellington. These themes were significant in enhancing understanding of participants’ unique experiences of displacement and place-attachment, and theorising how host societies might extend a more sincere welcome to newcomers. Applying a sociospatial relational framework to centralise participant interactions, I analysed how processes of social connection can begin to deconstruct negative refugee stereotypes, challenge normative conceptualisations of belonging, and enhance former refugees’ access to citizenship rights. As New Zealand prepares to raise the annual refugee quota, such democratic explorations and representations of place are crucial in informing a multicultural social policy framework to guide equitable integration praxis and critical political debate.