Celebrating bilingual artists in Edinburgh: The story behind the award-winning “Arts in Tongues” project

“Arts in Tongues”, a joint project of UoE’s Bilingualism Matters, the arts and early years organisation Starcatchers and bilingual theatre group Theatre Sans Accents has won the Collaboration Award at the recent Creative Edinburgh Awards. Katarzyna Przbycien of Bilingualism Matters and Marion Geoffray, founder of Theatre Sans Accents, talked to me about the motivations behind the project and their plans for future collaborations.

Cynthia from Hong Kong talks about the beautiful iconicity of Chinese pictograms and makes them come alive through her artwork. Jessica, who has Swedish and Columbian roots, speaks about the release of her novel “How we are translated”, in which instead of suppressing her multilingualism, she embraces it. Ida from Italy tells us of a theatre workshop she set up in Edinburgh that allows Italian immigrants as well as learners of Italian to perform in Italian.

These are the stories of some of the protagonists from the short videos that form part of the award-winning “Arts in Tongues” project. They represent what is at the heart of the project – connecting communities with bilingualism research through art. The project, a collaboration between Bilingualism Matters, Starcatchers and Theatre Sans Accents, was specifically aimed at multilingual families trying to engage them with multilingualism in a playful and creative way. Apart from the short videos that are to encourage families to recreate some of the artwork presented to them, the “Arts in Tongues” project also comprises a series of one-off events that took place in-person in August last year. These events brought together families from all over the world speaking different languages, while at the same time interacting through the universal language of art. Multilingual artists involved in the project gave workshops at these events showcasing how their multilingualism influences their art.

Multilingualism and Edinburgh – a two-way street

The project also offers a way for multilingual artists to present themselves and highlight the opportunities rather than the drawbacks that multilingualism offers for artists. Thus, the artists involved in the project to some extent can function as role models for other multilingual artists: they show that it is possible to be a multilingual artist in a ‘foreign’ country.

But the project does not only highlight multilingual artists and families. It specifically puts the spotlight on Edinburgh as the backdrop for this multilingual activity – and thus shows what a multicultural city Edinburgh is in the present and has been in the past. Each video makes a connection between Edinburgh and the artist’s home country – be that in the form of a statue of the first Chinese doctor to have graduated from University of Edinburgh Medical School or the many Italian restaurants and cafés in Leith as a remnant of migration from Italy to Edinburgh in the 19th century.  

The story behind the project

The struggle of being a multilingual artist in Britain is something Marion, who is the heart and soul of the project, can personally relate to: originally from France, she moved to Britain 12 years ago trying to make it as an actress. But she continually ran into obstacles: not getting roles because she wasn’t English or Scottish enough, only being type casted and eventually not even being deemed French enough anymore to play French roles. These experiences have ultimately inspired her to set up her own theatre company, Theatre sans accents. Theatre sans accents is thought to be a meeting place for like-minded artists, creating a setting for fairer access for multilingual actors. Projects such as “Arts in Tongues” which celebrate rather than problematise arts and multilingualism fall right into her sphere of interest.

On the other side we have Bilingualism matters – a 14-year old institution born at the University of Edinburgh and since its inception always eager to make evidence from bilingualism research more palatable for the general public. And what better way to do this than through art:

With art and languages and bilingualism, it’s such a personal experience to everyone, and people are trying sometimes to get definitive answers from bilingualism research. Art is able to convey those nuances and connect with you immediately.

Katarzyna Przbycien

Starcatchers as Scotland’s Arts and Early Years organisation also played a vital role in the project, providing its focus on multilingual families and children.

“Arts in Tongues” is the outcome of a previous collaboration between the Bilingualism Matters and Theatre Sans Accents. This collaboration included different smaller performances and workshops at Bilingualism Matters events, where they tried out different innovative ideas. These things culminated at the Edinburgh Multilingual Art Festival, where they gave workshops for multilingual artists. The artists were being equipped with facts from multilingualism research and encouraged to incorporate them into their arts. “Arts in Tongues” constitute the outcome of this earlier project: it showcases how artists embrace their multilingualism and translate it into their art.

Upwards and onwards

While “Arts in Tongues” as a project went out with bang – winning the Collaboration Award at last year’s Creative Edinburgh Awards – the idea behind it is still very much alive and is being woven into a follow-up project.

“The idea is to take the project further and meet other artists in Scotland. We also currently looking for funders and investors for this”, Marion says. They feel there’s still a lot of work to be done, as they received a lot of interest for the “Arts in Tongues” project from artists form outside Edinburgh.

Writing about the celebration of bilingualism, I am inspired to end on a bilingual note myself (drawing on my experiences as German-English bilingual), because everything has (o)n(e) end, only sausages have two.

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