The Visualising War and Peace project, based at the University of St Andrews, studies habits of imagining, understanding and representing conflict in different periods and places. We are interested in how war- and peace-storytelling works, across a range of media, and in what stories about conflict do to us as individuals and communities. At the heart of our project is an understanding that the tales we tell and the pictures we paint about war are world-building: they reflect reality up to a point, but they also shape how we think, feel, make decisions and behave. Some kinds of storytelling can drive conflict; but others can act as more positive interventions, helping to prevent or mitigate future violence and to contribute to peacebuilding.  

It was with this in mind that Dr Alice König (Director of Visualising War and Peace) applied to the Imperial War Museums’ 14-18 NOW Legacy Fund to work with artist Diana Forster on a new commission, designed to expand our study of the ‘long shadow of war’ and its multigenerational impacts on ordinary people. In our research and outreach, we conceptualise war not as a series of battles within a well-defined temporal framework (from declaration of war to ceasefire or peace treaty) but as a much wider set of experiences, impacting a very wide range of people. We include in our study of the ‘long shadow’ of war the many different legacies of conflict for everyone involved; and we are interested in the role played by different forms of storytelling (from news reports to novels, music to museum spaces) in helping politicians, militaries, and the general public to visualise war’s seen and unseen impacts. Hence Dr König’s interest in working with a visual artist, and with museum and gallery practitioners, to explore what art exhibitions can do in this space.

An older woman stands next to her sculptures, cut-out steel panels casting shadows.
Somewhere to Stay, Diana Forster. Image © Ed Broughton

In recent years, one particular legacy of conflict has become a recurring topic of political and media debate: the so-called ‘refugee crisis’. War is not the only factor driving an increase in forced migration, but in combination with climate change it is responsible for the displacement of millions of people around the globe. This is not a new phenomenon; as we discuss on our project website, people have been fleeing conflict for millennia. This means that, alongside testimony from people with recent lived experience, history has some valuable lessons to teach us about how refugees have often been treated, what their journeys can be like, and what communities can and should do to better support people driven from their homes by war. 

These questions are very personal to artist Diana Forster, whose mother was forcibly displaced from her home in eastern Poland (now Urkraine) during the Second World War. Moved by her mother’s experiences, Forster has been using art to explore different ways of visualising the rupture, loss, journeying and home-making which forced migrants experience in the wake of displacement. In dialogue with the Visualising War and Peace project, she has created a new art installation called ‘Somewhere to Stay’.

In 1940, when she was 16 years old, Forster’s mother – Anna Sokulska Forster – was deported from her family home in eastern Poland (near Lviv) by Russian troops and transported to a Soviet labour camp in Arkhangelsk. So began a long journey of survival and ongoing displacement that would see her travel thousands of miles, from country to country, in search of shelter and a new place to call home. Deportees were sent in cattle trucks with little food and water to logging camps where they were forced to work in temperatures as low as -40°C on a starvation diet. Detainees were released 18 months later when Stalin switched sides in the war, joining the Allies. With nowhere else to go, they travelled south to Polish Army recruitment centres in Uzbekistan, where abject conditions claimed the life of Forster’s grandfather. The family then crossed the Caspian Sea to present-day Iran before heading east across mountains to India (now Pakistan). They sailed from Karachi to Mombasa, settling in modern-day Tanzania until the end of the war, when they were sent to resettlement camps in the UK.

Image of cut out sculptures of buildings casting shadows on wall
Somewhere to Stay, Diana Forster. Photo © Ed Broughton

Forster has spent years researching what her mother and thousands of others went through during this mass displacement – which took place in a part of the world where people are once again being forcibly displaced, as a result of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. She has created a series of ten laser-cut aluminium panels to help us visualise their arduous journey and its many staging posts. Her aim is to communicate the unimaginably shocking rupture between a settled, normal life and a terrifying future, decided by people who did not care whether the deportees lived or died.

Adopting the traditional Polish craft of paper cutting, called wycinanki, ‘Somewhere to Stay’ makes use of both natural and artificial light to evoke the ‘long shadow of war’. Its first two panels depict the comfort and security of life before deportation, with successive panels showing the few possessions they were able to take with them on sledges, cattle trucks and trains, and the accommodation they lived in: from wooden barracks in Siberian gulags to an ordinary house in Uzbekistan, army tents, stables and a palace in Iran, thatched rondavels in Africa, and Nissan huts in resettlement camps in Scotland. Their story has rarely been told and has much to contribute to our understanding both of the Second World War and of the impacts of conflict and forced migration past and present.

‘Somewhere to Stay’ has so far been exhibited at Kirkcaldy Galleries (February to May 2023) and the Wardlaw Museum in St Andrews (May to December 2023). It is currently on display at Sikorski Memorial House in Glasgow (until August 2024), and it will transfer to The Dick Institute in Kilmarnock (September 2024 to January 2025), before making a final appearance at Callander House in Falkirk (March to September 2025). Dr König has been working with educational charity Never Such Innocence to host workshops for local schools in each venue, and she and Forster have also given public talks and tours of the exhibition. Visitors can enjoy a virtual tour via our website, and browse photographs of the artwork and learn more through the series of blogs and podcasts which we have curated in support of Somewhere to Stay:

Cut out sculpture of people dancing cast shadow on wall
Somewhere to Stay, Diana Forster. Photo © Ed Broughton

‘Somewhere to Stay’ is an IWM 14-18 NOW Legacy Fund commission in partnership with University of St Andrews. The IWM 14-18 NOW Legacy Fund is a UK-wide programme of over 20 artist commissions inspired by the heritage of conflict. The Legacy Fund was created in partnership with Imperial War Museums and 14-18 NOW – the official UK arts programme for the First World War centenary.