Episode 2: Threading Identity | Antwerp, Belgium
In this episode, we head to the Flemish region of Belgium and focus on a community centre in the heart of Merksem, a multicultural district of the city of Antwerp. Merksemdok Community Centre serves as a meeting point for people in the neighbourhood to participate in programs such as community theatre, Dutch language practice groups and a number of cultural and artistic programs for children.
In December 2020, the centre held the “Stay Yourself” Fashion show and exhibition, an event culminating 2 months of work during which 10 young people created their own collection focusing on fashion & identity. The fashion show gave the pre-teens, all girls between the ages of 10 and 13, the centre stage to present their self-designed and handmade creations to a live audience comprised of their families, friends and other community members. In a flurry of purple and pink lights and accompanied by the beats of their handpicked songs, the girls took their turns striding down the runway, presenting their garments that not only aimed to show off their newly acquired textile skills but also tell stories of their heritage and experience growing up in their neighbourhood.
Koen Pyls is a Community Programs Manager at Merksemdok Community Center. He originally started thinking about the fashion program as part of ongoing initiatives focused on cultural education. The centre had already been running textile programs with adults, but the idea arose to organise similar workshops for kids in the 5th and 6th grades of primary school. Koen, along with two teaching artists Laura and Fadime, decided to create a program exploring fashion and identity with the group of girls. I talked with him to learn more about the project and what type of impact it has made in the community.
Why did you choose fashion as the focus of the project?
It’s a very interesting subject because fashion is already a language that a lot of kids speak…We wanted to make it more explicit for them and give them an active role in doing things around their identity and the way they present themselves and the way they think about themselves with this language.
And where did the decision come from to create this program specifically for girls?
In the beginning, we were thinking about doing it for both boys and girls, but talking with the art teachers we found it more interesting to focus on girls because fashion is a lot more present in their lives and it’s also something that they are more limited in than boys. There is a lot more external pressure on them, on how they can present themselves, what they should or shouldn’t wear..there’s a lot more pressure from parents on how they should leave the house and more pressure from schools about what they are allowed to wear and more pressure from society as well.
Sadia is ten and from a Ghanian family. Jeneba, 11, has parents from Mali. 11-year-old Ina’s father is from Morocco and her mother is from Poland. Together the girls chatted about their experiences in the workshops. The girls were initially excited to be in the fashion project because they wanted to learn to sew and they liked the idea of making their own clothes. A few had already had some experiences sewing and wanted to see what else they could do in the workshops.
Fadime Tezerdi and Laura Vargas led the workshops, both coming into the project with a unique set of skills to offer. Laura, a teaching artist, focused on designing the concept of the pieces and leading discussions about self-identity. Fadime worked with the group to develop their textile skills alongside self-confidence exercises. The workshops used a number of mediums for the girls to explore, from screenprinting to textile painting, embroidery, lino print and learning to use equipment like sewing machines and a heat press. Together, Laura and Fadime used the foundation of educational workshops for sewing, textile art and fashion design as a way to open deeper conversations and build self-confidence.
The two working artists made it their objective to not only deliver workshops focused on the technical skills of sewing or the aesthetic aspect of designing outfits but to frame these activities by creating a concept that would engage the girls in conversations about self-expression and empowerment and the impact of their everyday experiences. The conversations were so present within the workshops that they collectively made the decision to name the program after one of the phrases that came up during a workshop.
Where did the concept of the project come from?
The concept started from a question: what is your biggest challenge as a woman in Belgium…We started gathering these challenges into categories. The most recurring ones were that men think that because I’m a woman that I just have to stay at home and not study or that I’m only made to be a housewife. There was also a lot about body insecurity. But the most recurrent one and the one that felt the strongest when they spoke was everything that had to do with street harassment. This had to do with their daily lives. And as we spoke they kept sharing moments of harassment they experience in their daily lives and were very real to them.
Fadime talked about the importance of having an open start with the group and the value of beginning the project from their perspective, really using their input to feed the creative process. She says that she has been leading workshops across Antwerp for a year, but more recently started focusing attention on working with youth in the Merksem community, wanting to start engaging her passion for clothing and fashion at a different level. She also talks about how the backdrop of the sewing classes become a place where social development and connection between them flourish. How they interacted, how they talked with each other, how they grew and worked towards the fashion show. All of those emotions, she says, are beautiful to see.
Over the course of the project, Koen, Laura and Fadime have seen the shift in attitude and confidence in the girls. The biggest moment was the fashion show, which took all of the thinking and talking over identity and poured it into their creations, to a new height. When asked what their favourite part of the whole project was for them, they immediately start talking about the fashion show. I asked them how they felt being in the show. They go on to say they felt good and stronger being in the show, but they also talked about how it was nice to work on something with each other.
Koen reflected about what made the project impactful and how can this be translated into other spaces where more traditional methods are being used to reach the same goals around youth empowerment. One lesson that he infuses into the pedagogy of his programming is the importance of developing children’s cultural consciousness. In this case of the fashion project, it was important for him that the girls learn new ways to talk about themselves, their neighbourhood and society at large. He says by focusing on building cultural consciousness it makes children stronger and more reflective humans and he thinks that’s sometimes what is missing from more traditional approaches.
He says that first building trust is one of the most important factors in creating impact in the community. The project was successful, not only because of the workshops themselves but because the community centre has worked to build trust with the children and their parents over time. They worked with teachers that the kids already know and share similar backgrounds with. Koen says it was important, especially in a workshop tackling issues around women’s empowerment and their cultural identity, to work with teachers that share similar migration backgrounds. He says it’s also important to choose a language that they already are fluent in. In this case, it was fashion. Then the task, as organisers, was to make the topic more complex and interesting.
As you know this podcast is trying to bridge this gap of knowledge about what’s happening at the community level across Europe and how decisions are made at a European, institutional level. What is something about your work at the community centre that you wish was more understood at the EU level?
We’re really working in the neighbourhood and building a lot of relationships and trust. It takes a lot of our time. It’s different from working in regular cultural institutions and it sometimes makes it difficult to communicate. We don’t always speak the same language…I think it’s important for us to keep getting funding to do smaller projects in neighbourhoods so that people who visit our centre can discover the wider cultural world.
One of the greatest outcomes, all of the organisers say, was seeing the growth of the girls from the beginning of the project to the end. Fadime reflects on the moment when they finally walked out in front of the audience and all of the stage fright and vulnerabilities that they had during the rehearsal had vanished, really revealing the self-work they had completed over the course of the project. Laura attributes this to the overall power of fashion to transform how girls see themselves in the world.
“What you wear is a projection of yourself. If you can give space for a girl to say something and feel proud of herself, then what’s more amazing than that?” – Laura Vargas