Lingering Ghosts and the challenges of Public Art

Lingering Ghosts and the challenges of Public Art


For those of you who know Sarum College you will be aware that we have a long tradition of exhibiting Art. At the moment we are showing some arresting and disturbing portraits crafted by Sam Ivin (pictured above)

Sam Ivin is a photographer whose work focuses on social issues and the people connected with them. He studied Documentary Photography at the University of Wales, Newport, graduating in 2014.

This exhibition, Lingering Ghosts, consists of hand-scratched portraits of those seeking asylum in the UK. These are people living in a state of limbo as they await news of their application for months or even years. Their stories recount the experience of lost identity and frustration as they wait to learn their fate. Yet as we learn from the documented conversations, we recognise them as fathers, mothers, sons and daughters – human beings, after all.

Sam chose to scratch the portraits by hand, rather than altering them digitally: ‘When you systematically scrape at the image of a person’s face, it is very visceral way of expressing what it means to lose your identity.’

Look closely at this picture and consider some of the thoughts expressed by asylum seekers that Sam has gathered together:

‘I feel it is very difficult, honestly. I mean, I can’t enjoy my life because I don’t know what is coming up for my future. I am scared.’ (Afghanistan, 8 years waiting)

‘Life has been like up and down for me and it was really frustrating, me coming here in the UK. I don’t want them to treat me like a King or whatever but like a human, you know.’ (Cameroon, 6 years waiting)

‘You’re not forwarding your life. Which means you’re just like stuck or somewhere. You can’t do nothing. You can’t study. You can’t work. If you are qualified you staying at home and waiting for benefit. No one come down here for benefit, they want to make their life better.’ (Sri Lanka, 8 years waiting)

 So – what is Art?

As I pass these pictures and pick up a sense of the some responses to them it is  intriguing to consider what the purpose of art might be.

We all too often imagine that art should be limited to the portrayal of the beautiful, the rich and glorious world we live in. Art is partly about hope – the holding of and picturing  the colour and beauty of the world around us – the countryside, a vase of flowers, an iconic building. We need this kind of hope in a complex, disturbing and sometimes fractured world.

And while of course, there are many other purposes to Art, we might consider within the context of Sam’s work the role of Art in protest.

Sam asks us through these pictures to consider what kind of world we want to live in. How high are we prepared to build our walls to protect us and our world against the stranger, the alien, the asylum seeker? What are the limits to our communal and societal hospitality? What might we learn from someone who is so completely other or different? In our post Brexit Society reconfiguration of alliances and, perhaps our fundamental cultural values, Sam’s work might best be described as prophetic images for our day. He challenges us to think about what we do to the humanity of others and how easily it is for some to lose their identity through depersonalisation and a lack of compassion which fails to engage with fear and genuine aspiration.

We might even  go one step further and suggest that the process that Sam undertook in altering the portraits and removing some of the key features of these human beings faces reflects the restricting, shocking, depersonalising attitudes that seem to be so obviously present in the public domain.

I keep on asking as I familiarise myself with these portraits – what can I do to change what we do to those waiting for asylum: hoping for a better world? Sam’s work leads us into an important social and political engagement in the shaping of a society that might be different for those we marginalise. In our unimaginative attempt to connect with their vulnerability we surely are changed for the good? Hearts and lives enlarged and sympathies deepened. what would you like to change about the world ? How can Art empower us to change?


Come and see these images  at Sarum College for yourself and decide what art is for and look closely to see what might be revealed through them.


Grateful thanks to Fabrica for the loan of these nine works from their collection.


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