‘Creativity saved my life’: Sheba Arts founder chats Celebrating Diversity – finding new refugee narratives

When Fereshteh Mozaffari Vanani​ attended a national conference on cultural diversity, she was shocked to be the only black person in a room of 200 attendees.

In May 2018, Fereshteh founded Sheba Arts, a Manchester-based collective tackling this problematic representation of migrant communities in the arts.

After previously working as a journalist in Iran, Fereshteh moved to the UK in 2010 to start a new life as a multidisciplinary creative artist. With an acclaimed one-woman show, One More Push, and an MA in Creative Writing under her belt, she is determined to use her experience to support other underrepresented voices.

“I had a problem with the narratives created for refugees in the arts and I felt like we needed self-advocacy and to speak for ourselves,” Fereshteh, who now lives in Ardwick, told MM.

“In this society, there is too much hostility about refugees. We need new narration – we need to exist and have a presence through art.”

After attending several seminars on diversity, Fereshteh was concerned by the lack of BAME representation in leadership roles and Sheba Arts was borne from the desire to return agency to the artist.

“When you don’t invite diverse art leaders, there will be no diverse audiences,” she said on the irony of cultural diversity panels led by white men.

Launched only a year ago, Sheba Arts works as a self-advocacy group for artists from marginalised migrant communities. 

The network of freelancers lead projects to empower women from these diverse backgrounds while encouraging cross-cultural dialogue and facilitating social integration across Manchester.

The group have worked closely with HOME, Journeys Festival International and Community Arts North West (CAN) on a number of projects. A five-day performance lab, Explore Your Drama, was facilitated by Journeys Festival to help women from migrant communities develop their own writing and drama skills.

This project developed into Dance Away the Spiders, a dance performance created by a group of refugee and asylum seeker women for Push Festival at HOME. The show received fantastic feedback from Arts Council England for the liberating performances.

“They really enjoyed how the women took ownership of the space. Behind the scenes, these women were going through a lot – displacement, abuse, torture – and people had an insight into their lives,” Fereshteh said.


Sheba Arts also take their community projects to areas in Greater Manchester that are less engaged with the arts. The latest project, Explore Your Storyteller, works with women from refugee and asylum seeker backgrounds in Leigh, Wigan and Bolton and focuses on the positive sharing of cultures.

Funded by the Lottery Community Fund, the workshops combine a variety of arts practices and they end with participants sharing songs, dance and costumes from their own cultures.

The participants are from various backgrounds with many arriving in Manchester from Guatemala, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Iran and Syria.

“They are all shy at first and some of them can’t speak any English,” Fereshteh said.  

“We help them to express themselves through their own language and dance is always an easy way to connect with other people.”

‘DISPLACEMENT, ABUSE, TORTURE’: Female refugees and asylum seekers came together to put on the powerful Dance Away the Spiders (image courtesy of Sheba Arts, with thanks)

Most importantly, Sheba Arts gives these women agency over their own creative output. As creative director, Fereshteh brings together a strong team of freelancers but ultimately, their role is to support the participants to create their own stories. 

The project will culminate with a sharing event in Wigan on June 19.

“I think it’s very important that we value them firstly as human beings,” she said.

“Some of the participants are so educated – they have PHDs and have been on top of their game.

“Being an asylum seeker or refugee, it does not mean that you are nobody here.

“I am so lucky to have people around me that share the same values and we learn from each other in a very beautiful collaboration.”

On June 23 during Refugee Week, Sheba Arts will put on a festival called Celebrating Diversity in collaboration with Kudac Arts Centre.

“We didn’t want to call it a refugee-led festival as the word ‘refugee’ can be traumatising.

“Being a refugee is an experience – you leave it and it is finished. It does not become your identity.”

The festival will take place at St Peter’s Parish Hall in Stockport, an area with a diverse migrant community. The Hazel Grove event will welcome everybody and activities will include Irish dancing, Kurdish music and Afghan music.


The next step for Sheba Arts is registering as a Charitable Incorporated Organisation (CIO) to receive charity status. Although they aim to support all marginalised voices, they would like to remain a women-led organisation.

“We are not limited to performing arts or any geographical location and I am looking to collaborate with other organisations nationwide,” Fereshteh said.

“We have to create opportunities to empower underrepresented communities and give them space to explore. In the long term, this helps with integration and bringing people together.

“My aim is to produce high-quality work because refugee art is sometimes about sympathy. If you go to a community project, there is often nothing outside of that.

“In terms of developing skills, I think there should be a follow-up when you do a project. There should be access to training and other opportunities – a legacy.”

Alongside her work as “jack of all trades” at Sheba Arts, Fereshteh is working on a follow-up to her one-woman show One More Push after receiving funding. It will be produced in October this year and continue to explore her journey from her hometown of Isfahan to her current residence in Ardwick.

“I never expected to live this life,” Fereshteh said, reflecting on her experiences.

“To be an artist, you may be poor but you are in a constant creative mood.

“Creativity saved my life and I can’t do any other job now because this is what makes me truly happy.”

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