Weaving voices together – collaborating across cultures through Mexican mask-making

The TRUST project collaborated in the autumn of 2016 with two artists, Anne Lihavainen and Rosamaria Bolom, in a Mexican mask project for unaccompanied minors and Finnish art class pupils. We met in four workshops where the masks were made and also attended a party where the pupils performed with their masks.

The aim of the art project was to offer a platform for cross-cultural communication and interaction and to support mutual understanding and solidarity among the young people. For us researchers, this art project offered a perfect opportunity to examine how collaborative methods actually work and how communication between different groups evolves. Our research method was participant observation: we talked with young participants and photographed their working for research purposes. We also worked as “helping hands” for Anne and Rosamaria when necessary. Some of the schoolteachers were also present in the classes.

During the workshops, we witnessed various ways of communication. At first, there seemed to be no relations between the unaccompanied and Finnish youths, some even rejecting others. However, with the artists’ support, we began to notice some small acts of communication. At first, these were non-verbal (such as eye contact, smiles etc.), but as people became more familiar with one another, verbal communication also began to take place. This verbal communication, however, needed a lot of support from the workshop’s leaders. Language seemed to form a barrier to deeper communication – the unaccompanied minors seemed quite uncertain about their Finnish skills even though they had learned Finnish extremely fast. At the same time, some of them seemed uncertain about the Finnish pupils’ interest in them. “They are probably not interested in us”, one of the boys commented. In our understanding, Finnish pupils actually wanted to socialise but hesitated communicating because they felt that using Finnish might prove too difficult for the non-native speakers. In a way, each group tried to protect the other and avoid embarrassment.

Three of the workshops were organised in a school environment and the fourth in a group home of unaccompanied minors. The school environment differed greatly from the home environment. At school, the pupils behaved in a very organised way. They seemed to act as if programmed by teachers to perform school tasks and mostly obeyed without questioning. At the home environment, the young made an effort to create activities for themselves, for example playing volleyball while others were finishing their masks. The young people were much more active at the group home than at the school.

All in all, we observed constant negotiation of visibility within the entire group: some of the Finnish pupils were very noisy during the classes and confronted the adults while others worked silently and obeyed orders very literally. Unaccompanied minors were polite to the adults but were constantly moving around and in and out of the classroom. They also used their mobile phones very cleverly to hide from social interaction if they felt unable to join in. The boys from the preparatory class also constantly negotiated whether or not to participate in various workshop tasks.

The photographing collaboration in the workshops was my responsibility. We had agreed on how and when to do it, we had explained it to the pupils and had their written permissions. Despite this agreement, one of the unaccompanied minors constantly questioned my right to photograph. Sometimes he looked at me in a challenging way, shook his head or just watched me very sternly. Once he even played the headmaster (sitting behind the teacher’s desk) and told me not to take photos. I interpreted his way of behaviour so that he was worried about where his or others’ photos might be shown – even though we had tried to explain that we would take photos only for research purposes and not show them anywhere. However, my interpretation may not have been correct because at the same time he kept asking me to take pictures of him and posed very eagerly for me with and without masks. He also liked to look at the pictures I had taken of him. In a way, he used his power on me. For me as a researcher, this meant that I had to be ready to constantly negotiate the means of research with participants to make it collaborative. I also needed to consider that ‘the accepted means’ of working together are not always the most suitable ones; and neither are ‘the non-accepted’ ways always wrong in collaborative research. In our case, none of the boys ever asked me to delete any pictures. I interpreted this as an acceptance of my research method.

In many ways these collaborative mask workshops were a success. We heard and saw all kind of voices from different cultures woven together. While at first these voices were rather weak, they were nevertheless seeds of some kind of deeper understanding between young people from different backgrounds. It must be remembered that collaboration demands time to develop and we only managed a glimpse of it. In order to support the communication and strengthen the belonging of these lovely young pupils, we need ways that maintain relationships between young people and trustworthy adults, such as the artists Anne and Rosamaria. Working together is one way to create these necessary relationships. This kind of work requires a lot of social skills, empathy and compassion from the facilitative adults as the artists Anne and Rosamaria showed us.

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Photo: Kristiina Korjonen-Kuusipuro