Becoming visible: the Mojawharat jewellery project for migrants

Vicky Tsaconas

13 March 2018

The jewellery exhibition displayed the kind of aesthetic I am very drawn to: simple designs that suggest other places. The latter was perhaps not surprising since the jewellery was designed and made by migrants, mainly from asylum seeker and refugee backgrounds. Mojawharat (Arabic for ‘jewellery’) was a group exhibition held in 2016 at Atelier Claire Taylor.

Looking at the exhibition, I felt something about cultural diversity I had not felt since working in arts and cultural development at an inner-city local government authority some years before. I felt excited. Here, terms we used often and principles we drew on were brought to life: social inclusion, economic participation, the inter-connectedness of the two and the impact of that on the wellbeing of marginalised groups in our community, and so on. But more than excited, I felt inspired. There were aluminium earrings and pendants of simple forms, such as leaves, hearts, geometric shapes, some ‘solid’ that had plain patterns pierced into them, others outlines, pairs of enamel earrings and beaded earrings, both colourful. I sensed pride in the making, showing and selling.

Mojawharat was part of Craft Cubed. It was the culmination of a jewellery-making programme organised by the Fitzroy Learning Network (FLN), a not-for-profit organisation and affiliated Community Neighbourhood House Learning Centre, with a focus on newly arrived migrants, refugees and asylum seekers.

Claire Taylor developed and taught the eight-week course, assisted by Nikki Jones. It was one of a number of new courses organized at the FLN. As well as making jewellery and running Atelier Claire Taylor in Fitzroy, an inner city suburb in Melbourne, Claire had been teaching English at the FLN for a few years. When the organisation was looking into introducing new programmes, they approached her about the possibility of organising a jewellery-making course. A funding submission to run the course during which students would learn to design and create jewellery, exhibit the work in Claire’s studio/shop and try to sell it, was successful. Tools and some materials were purchased with a portion of the grant monies and some tools and silver were donated by suppliers.

“There were about twelve to fifteen students who did the course,” remembers Claire. “There was a good mix of men and women and ages ranged from twenty-five to sixty. A lot were asylum-seekers – mainly from Iran. There were also people from Vietnam, Thailand, Ethiopia and Tanzania.”

“Some [of the students] had really good craft skills already,” comments Claire. One was a jeweller, a stone-setter, in Iran and another a watchmaker in Ethiopia. Others had not made jewellery before.

Victoria was one of the latter. Born in Tanzania, she has been in Melbourne ten years. Prior to the FLN course, she had started a silversmithing course at another organisation, but did not continue because, she says, “I was scared.” Claire, her English teacher at the FLN, encouraged her to take part in the course.

Victoria was interested in doing the course as she feels “it is hard for a woman to get a job and hard to access childcare that would enable her to work outside of her home. “Making jewellery,” she thought, “is something I can do at home.”

The eight-week programme started with drawing and cutting out shapes for designs the students had developed themselves after doing a walking tour of art studios in Fitzroy, and looking at samples and images. They then learned how to prime these brass pieces for enamel paint, designed pieces to be made in silver, learned about saw piercing, waxwork, ceramics, beading, combining the silver pieces, beads and brass work into finished pieces and threading ceramic pendants.

All of the students exhibited what they made and had the pieces for sale. The exhibition went very well. “The turn-out was bigger than I’d expected,” comments Claire. “There were heaps of sales. Some sold everything. Every student sold at least one item.” For some students, it was the first time they had earned money since arriving in Australia.

Besides the money they earned, Claire thinks it “gave them confidence in their future here. They felt the community accepted them. There was an immediate outcome, but there were also longer-term outcomes—learning English, learning new skills that could lead to employment, contributing to a sense of achievement.”

“The students and their families were very happy. The students found seeing their pieces evolve satisfying. And they were very proud as they felt people were interested that they had done something creative and did not see them just in relation to their migrant background.” The artists Claire knows “loved” it. “They bought work. It wasn’t a ‘sympathy’ buy.”

Claire also feels that another positive outcome was the meeting of two parallel worlds present in inner-urban, now very gentrified Fitzroy. This included migrants who were largely refugees and asylum-seekers and experience socio-economic disadvantage and relatively affluent residents and others with a range of resources.

Victoria has continued to make and sell jewellery since completing the course in 2016. Not only has she been making and selling jewellery through Sisterworks, in the last year, she has started teaching jewellery-making there too. “Before [the course], I feel empty. I feel like a nobody. I made friends. I make money, buy clothes for my children. I have hope.”

The FLN successfully applied for funding to run the course for two terms last year (Claire taught one term, jeweller Jana King another) and it seems likely it will be taught again this year. According to Claire, “it’s more an ongoing class now for students to learn new skills.”

Developing skills that involve creative expression and also have the potential to earn an income. This is an affirming combination that contributes to positive visibility and meaningful participation.


Vicky Tsaconas lives in Melbourne, writes poetry, essays and reviews and has worked in arts management and social policy. She has collaborated with visual artists and film-makers on independent cross art-projects. Currently, she is working towards the completion of a manuscript and facilitating a poets’ group.

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