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Care, Caring and Carers - Communicating University research through artistic expression

Care, Caring and Carers

Dr Shahnaz Akhter, Politics and International Studies, University of Warwick

The experiences of care (and caring) for families and communities during the Covid-19 pandemic lies at the heart of Dr Shahnaz Akhter’s recent Coventry Creates project.

As part of Professor Shirin Rai’s Care, Caring and Carers, Shahnaz and Dr Jayanthi Lingham's project forms part of a study by the Consortium on Practices of Wellbeing and Resilience in BAME Families and Communities (CoPower). The research moves away from applying a theoretical lens to issues faced by participants. Instead, it works with communities to understand the challenges that they’ve encountered.

“I wanted to research areas of social history that are part of my everyday experience” explains Shahnaz. Working in collaboration with spoken word artist Navkiran “Nav” Mann (pictured right), Shahnaz obtained personal human stories from a series of narrative interviews she conducted in Coventry.

“Having these conversations allowed me to see where the research affected both of us as humans as well. Nav and I were both impacted by some of themes that were raised.”

Despite the difficult subject of end-of-life care, the researchers were able to engage with various marginalised communities and parts of Coventry that aren’t always at the forefront of research.

“It can be hard to present our work in accessible ways” explains Shahnaz. “The project explores topics such as ageing, unpaid care and experiences of end of life care. It’s really powerful to communicate the research in this way and represent and evoke such emotive themes for audiences outside of academia. In terms of impact, here is someone who looks like you, telling your story, and this really helps communities to feel seen within the research. It takes it out of the abstract and cements it in everyday existence.”

The Coventry Creates initiative has provided both researchers and artists unrivalled opportunities for learning. For Shahnaz, she was able to gain a greater and more in-depth understanding of individual stories and perspectives, including the emotional cost of research on participants and researchers. “Nav’s work as a spoken word artist helped remind me that there are histories behind everything that leads up to the research project. Essentially, you’re researching a particular part of their life, but this helps you appreciate everything before that, their history and Coventry’s history.”

By working together, Shahnaz and Nav created a poem entitled ‘Life on a Deadline’ about marginalised communities and impacted by Covid-19. “When I first heard the poem, it bought me to tears,” says Shahnaz.

“I’ve seen Nav perform and people crying in the audience - that’s an emotional connection that academic research can’t always create. The poem symbolises the emotions, the loneliness and the anguish that end-of-life care can bring, particularly during the pandemic. I’ve been in awe of people I’ve been interviewing, that they went through this in the most difficult of circumstances.”

“Nav made me think about presenting research through spoken word as opposed to more traditional methods. In academia, we’re almost trained to take a step back, to maintain a distance and emotional detachment, but Nav’s work helped me to consider the human element.”

The time constraints of the project meant it had to be delivered in a short window of opportunity, yet rather than see this as a challenge, Shahnaz reflects on how it proved advantageous. “The time restrictions actually gave us the freedom to just get on with it and dive in, without allowing our own personal views to encroach or impose on the work.”

Although this particular project has now concluded, Shahnaz and Nav are continuing to work together on a project for Resonate Festival, as well as on Shahnaz’s own ESRC project about Muslim women.

When it comes to encouraging others to take part in artist-researcher partnerships, Shahnaz is keen to extol the benefits of such collaborations: “Working with artists brings a new experience and point of view that you wouldn’t otherwise have insight into – such as working with a peer who asks very different questions that I wouldn’t necessarily ask with an academic lens.”

She concludes: “The project was a fantastic way of taking my research back to the communities I research, and I would encourage everyone to apply to artist-researcher funding calls in the future.”

About Coventry Creates

Led by Professor Jackie Hodgson, (DPVC, Research) at Warwick, Coventry Creates commenced in 2020 and was an initiative designed to bring together University of Warwick and Coventry University researchers with local artists to produce art reflecting key issues and themes across the region. In spring 2020, the City of Culture University Partnership funded 18 local artists to respond to, and work with, researchers from the University of Warwick and Coventry University - resulting in a wide range of innovative artworks presented through a digital exhibition. With funding from Arts Council England, the project ran again in 2021, with an additional 12 collaborative projects launched via a digital exhibition in December.

Find out more about Coventry Creates.