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With Pencil and Paper: Capturing One’s Lived Experience through Art

When I asked Leo to create a drawing to accompany his story, he smiled, took a few seconds to contemplate the blank page before him, picked up a pencil and sketched the horizon line.

By Kyra Sjarif, PPR and BuildaBridge Intern
Second-year Art Therapy & Counseling student
Drexel University

As an art therapy intern for PPR, I began working with Leo* (pseudonym) in October 2016 to relieve the stress and anxiety related to his current status as an asylum-seeker.  Art therapy is used to provide him with additional mental health support through the use of the creative process.  Coming to Philadelphia as an asylum-seeker means that Leo lives in a state of flux, mired with uncertainty due to his insecure immigration status.  A fifty-six-year-old Angolan man, Leo was forced to leave his family because of his involvement in political protests against the Angolan government.  He speaks of joining marches and rallies on the streets with fellow protesters to put pressure on the government and to condemn the injustices perpetrated by a corrupt system.  Instead of paving the way for dialogue, the government responded with force.  When he speaks of Angola, in French, he speaks in the collective “nous,” meaning “we,” stating, “Our history is marked with suffering, where we lacked many aspects of modern life.”  According to Leo, though colonialism brought about a shift to modern life in cities, parts of Angola remained untouched by these seeming advances, especially in the countryside.

Despite being university-educated, Leo shares how his higher degree was futile because of the lack of opportunities in his country.  “The people do not benefit from anything the government promises,” Leo says.  He speaks of the poor infrastructure of roads and the unreliability of public transportation, the rampant corruption in the government, and the immense potential Angola has as a nation rich in natural resources, that instead are squandered by politicians.  Whatever funds allocated toward social programs instead “line politicians’ pockets.”  Blackouts and power outages occur frequently in the city without warning.  In coming to the United States, Leo states, “I was searching for a place where I could work, where I could be human. In America, life is calm. As long as you follow the rules, everything is as it should be. Here I have running water, gas, electricity. Once I have the necessary documents, I can work.” 

When I asked Leo to create a drawing to accompany his story, he smiled, took a few seconds to contemplate the blank page before him, picked up a pencil and sketched the horizon line.  I noticed the ease with which he now wields a pencil, without traces of the hesitation he once expressed in our earlier sessions.  Leo titles the drawing, “The Village in the Countryside,” reminiscent of where he spent many summers visiting his family.  Though he primarily lived in the city for most of his life, he speaks fondly of his memories of the village, where there is an abundance of fruit trees, ranging from mangoes to bananas, flowers that grew without abandon, and the presence of livestock.  He would watch his family cook their meals over an open fire, which are demarcated by the three stones placed a few meters away from the entry of each hut, with kindling and wood placed in the center.  He points to specific types of trees in his drawing, differentiating between the fanned leaves that arch outward for palm trees and the more clustered leaves of a mango tree.  In the distance, the sun is rising, illuminating the countryside, with birds circling above.  He tells me, “The village will always be a part of me; it is in my blood.”  When asked about his experience with art therapy, he says, “It has helped me grow as a person.  In Africa, I never had the opportunity to do art the way I do here.  When I draw, it is not simply to draw, but to capture my lived experience.”