Unlocking the creative learning city

How can co-produced participatory art practice, storytelling and ethnographic method benefit older populations from South Asian backgrounds, enhance their wellbeing and in what ways?

Dhek Bhal, a community-based charity, has been working with the ageing South Asian population in Bristol experiencing social isolation and vulnerability. This project sought to build on their unique legacy of culturally responsive services to collaboratively explore the use of participatory art methods, ethnography and storytelling in enhancing Dhek Bhal’s work in health and wellbeing, and share it with broader audiences across the city.

What did the project involve? 

The key aim of this project was to work with Dhek Bhal and ageing South Asian people living with difference and uncertainty to explore the ways they have experienced the learning city in Bristol.

The key research questions the project explored were:

  • How can co-produced participatory art practice, storytelling and ethnographic method benefit older populations from South Asian backgrounds, enhance their wellbeing and in what ways?
  • What forms of co-produced art, ethnography and storytelling methods can support the health, social wellbeing and individual development of South Asian people?
  • How can co-produced participatory art practice, storytelling and ethnographic method be implemented and used across various culturally diverse settings?

The project was part of a larger piece of ethnographic research exploring the perspectives of Bristol residents on the learning city. This broader study, itself part of the Connected Communities programme, focused on the wide range of learning practices and narratives present in the city. The project aimed at developing new methodologies in the study of urban learning, setting new research agendas and championing interdisciplinarity. The
research outputs included a co-produced exhibition experiment, bringing together community researchers, respondents and the core team at the University of Bristol.

The artworks were designed co-productively during two workshops with individuals who were Dhek Bhal service users. Produced during storytelling and critical making sessions in collaboration with artists, they explored how the city acts as a medium for learning as seen from the perspective of the ageing South Asian respondents. The storytelling and making session provided a platform for exploring memories and current concerns.

The workshops were centred on the creation of a film and illustration piece, collaborating with members of Dhek Bhal, filmmakers Tom Stubbs and Eleanor Shipman from Biggerhouse Film, and the graphic novelist Joff Winterhart.

These workshops occured on the 7th and 8th of July 2017. In the morning Tom Stubbs, Eleanor Shipman, and Joff Winterhart went around the group and recorded stories, feelings and thoughts from individuals, using both drawings and film. This session was focused and quiet, other people in the group can listen and also join in. There were 2 or 3 key questions that were planned in advance with the partners of the Unlocking Creative Learning Cities project, the questions sought to facilitate stories about Bristol, learning, life, health and wellbeing. As participants recounted things Joff  drew and illustrated key points with chunky black pens, on large pieces of paper or card, Tom and Eleanor recorded the sound and picture of those people talking. When people were talking though a translator Tom filmed both.

The session after lunch was more informal, the group participated in a drawing activity. Either working by themselves or with the help of the filmmakers and illustrator. The members of Dhek Bhal drew and created portraits of either each other, family, friends or themselves on large boards. The afternoon  culminated in a series of considered moving portraits which were filmed and discussed. There was a group sharing session where the pictures and video portraits created were presented to the group.


After the sessions the drawings and film were edited into small films, these and the artwork the participants created along with Joff’s illustrations were made available for the planned Hamilton House show at the end of the summer.

As the sessions were supported by community interpreters and professional artists experienced in work with seniors, they provided a welcoming environment, encouraging the participants to recall stories, share with others and think creatively about their experiences.

Who are the team and what do they bring?

  • Magda Buchczyk (Education, University of Bristol) is a researcher focused on social anthropology of cultural expressions. She conducts ethnographic research on collections, material culture and intangible heritage.
  • Keri Facer (Education, University of Bristol) is a researcher in social futures. Her  overarching research interest is in understanding how to create the conditions for ecologically sustainable and socially just futures and in developing the roles of education and informal learning in these processes.
  • Zehra Haq (CEO, Dhek Bhal) is the CEO and contact for Dhek Bhal. Dhek Bhal is a Bristol-based charity providing care, social support, as well as assistance with mental health to elderly South Asian people over 50 from diverse backgrounds. It provides an opportunity for isolated, frail, disabled men and women to meet within a culturally appropriate setting for friendship, mutual support, to access information in their language of choice. Dhek Bhal also offers a range of activities to maintain physical, social and mental wellbeing and has previously worked with community artists and identified art and craft activities.

What were the results?

The project produced a series of illustrations, films, and artworks as a product of a collaborative workshops involving ethnographic group interviews and participatory art sessions that helped ageing South Asian people explore their own experiences creatively and provide a therapeutic environment for co-production.

These were displayed during an exhibition experiment at Hamilton House to juxtapose the Dhek Bhal stories and objects with those collected from other research participants of the “Reinventing Learning Cities” project. This enabled us to engage in thinking visually in interdisciplinary ways about academic production. The workshop photographs and the narratives were showcased alongside the artwork.

Following the exhibition, the artwork will became the property of Dhek Bhal and was used in a range of training and display activities within the charity.

Eleanor Shipman developed the below proposal for ‘Unlocking Creative Cities’ based off her experience in this project.

This project also fed into the “Learning City: A Self-Portrait” exhibition forming content for the “How do different people learn?” section.