The artist Delaine LeBas invites you to the closing event of To Gypsyland.
Saturday 16 August 2014, 12 noon ’til 5pm, at 198 Contemporary Arts and Learning Gallery, Rainton Road, Brixton.
The artist Delaine LeBas invites you to the closing event of To Gypsyland.
Saturday 16 August 2014, 12 noon ’til 5pm, at 198 Contemporary Arts and Learning Gallery, Rainton Road, Brixton.
During the recent month-long bombardment of the Gazan people as they resist the siege imposed upon Palestine by the Israeli occupation of their land, we have been taking the banner out to express our concern. We are concerned by the increasing militarisation of the global powers and the continuing expansion of the weapons industries. We are concerned at the employment by the Israeli government of aerial bombardment upon civilians, their homes, hospitals,schools and universities. Therefore on 27th July we took the banner to the factory owned by EDO MBM Technology Ltd at Moulscoomb, in our home town of Brighton.
Since 2008, this factory has been owned by the US defence and intelligence technology firm ITT Exelis Inc. Its products include bomb racks, arming units, and electrical connectors for military aircraft weapon systems. They are also a ‘List X’ site certified to carry out secret research and development work on new weapons systems. – See more at: http://smashedo.org.uk/whoarewe/what-is-edo#sthash.Rx696Gtt.dpuf. For many years, a campaign of local people has organised noise demonstrations on Mondays in order to show the concern which the local community feels at the presence in our town of a factory which is directly responsible for making the precision delivery systems used in aerial bombardments. Our presence with the banner on 27th July was at one of these demonstrations.
We have also taken the banner to join the protests in Brighton town centre. On July 20th we gathered at a large rally by the war memorial and Steine Gardens, and then walked along North Street, past the Clock Tower and along Western Road to the now-closed SodaStream shop. For two years, local people have been sustaining a weekly protest outside this shop, which purported to be selling ‘green’ products but whose factory is built on land from which Palestinian people have been bulldozed and their ancient olive orchards uprooted. This is why the dying soldier on our Guernica banner is holding an olive sprig: as a symbol of peace but also as a symbol of the destroyed land of the Palestinian people. The local campaign resulted in SodaStream closing down its shop in Brighton last month. The protest on 20th July culminated in a ‘die-in’ outside the shop, in which people wrapped in sheets splashed with red paint embodied our grief and outrage at the deaths of children and civilians in Gaza.
The banner as an act of protest turns heads as we carry it along the pavements sideways so that passers by can ‘read’ it: many people have never heard of Guernica, but Brighton’s large population of young Spanish people understand it perfectly. Hundreds of people have now photographed it. There is something about the power of Picasso’s shapes and symbols which reduces people to silence – we who carry the banner see it in the eyes and faces of passers by. The dead baby; the dying horse; the cacophany of distressed women; the screaming bird; the falling walls – all these express outrage at carnage spat from the sky. The banner is a relevant and poignant presence on the Gaza protests.
On August 2nd, we took the banner and wrapped it around the Clock Tower as we waited to proceed on the protest. Passing traffic slowed down to see it and the police walked across the road to Boots so that they could get a proper look at it. We then walked the banner to Barclays bank, where local people distributed leaflets highlighting the financial connections between this bank – the largest UK investor in the global arms trade – and the bombardment of Gaza. Local members of the Paestinian Solidarity Campaign walked a large scale model of a drone over all our heads as a chilling echo of the daily experience of so many civilians in the world. We held the banner along the pavement and bus drivers slowed down so they and their passengers could get a good look as they drove past. After that we proceded to Steamer Trading, which was still stocking SodaStream products, and made a lot of noise outside, before proceeding to Sainsbury’s which, for all its supposed ethical policies, is still choosing to make profits from the suffering of the Palestinian people by selling products grown in the West Bank on occupied land.
Since then, we have held periodic vigils by the war memorial on the Steine, where, once more, by turning heads, the banner has been able to raise awareness of the complicity of the UK and the US aid programmes and defence licences in the aerial bombardment of the civilian population of Gaza. Also since then, we have heard that, following the protest of local people outside their shop, Steamer Trading have now stopped selling SodaStream products, having decided to ‘de-range’. We continue to work towards a world where militarisation will decrease and peace will prevail.
On International Women’s Day, members of our collective participated in a symposium at the University of Brighton, to commemorate the work of Monica Ross.
In 2008, to mark the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Monica Ross performed the first of 60 recitations in her durational art series Anniversary—an act of memory: solo, collective and multi-lingual recitations from memory of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The premature death of Monica Ross occurred on the 14 June 2013; the very day on which Anniversary—an act of memory reached its 60th and concluding act at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva.
Many of us have worked with Monica Ross, and her collaborative practice is shared by us and has shaped what we do. Since the 1970s we have been influenced by her feminist ideas for political and cultural change. Monica’s work first made itself known to us in the amazing exhibition: Portrait of the Artist as Housewife at the ICA in the summer of 1977. For many women who went to that exhibition, it was the first time that we experienced a public space in which women as artists were able to leave the isolation forced on them in their exclusion by the then exclusively male art world. The focus of this exhibition was collaboration and communication, rather than perfecting so called aesthetic ideals. It was created collaboratively and it went on to engender a number of collaborative projects and collectives, such as The Postal Art Collective, whose influence has since been noted by male artists too.
Therefore in this exhibition, Monica and her collaborators began to create the space in which all women artists ever since have been able to be taught and make and exhibit their work. We are in a direct lineage created by Monica and her pioneering collaborators and we honour them. Monica was also an unforgettable performance artist who used her body with extraordinary focus to embody ideas of hope, justice and change. In her work as a teacher she has, and will continue to influence all who had the honour and privilege to have been touched by her.
Members of staff from Brighton’s School of Humanities including Lara Perry, Tomasz Kitlinski, Louise Purbrick and Pawel Leszkowicz organised this symposium on International Women’s Day, with help from Monica’s family including Bernard G. Mills and Alice Ross. The symposium was presented as a space for participants to reflect upon and celebrate the ways in which working with Monica Ross had shaped our work in the past and the present, and will continue to do so in the future. Monica didn’t just believe in ideas of justice, liberation and hope; she embodied them in her work. For us too Monica embodied a kind of magic which has influenced us very deeply, perhaps into the unconscious realms of our lives.
The symposium included talks on art, activism and collaboration, as well as films and performance. Contributors included Carla Cruz, Amy Cunningham, Claudia Kappenberg, Mikhail Karikis, Alexandra Kokoli, Pawel Leskowicz and Tomasz Kitlinski, Bernard G. Mills, Louise Purbrick, Peter Seddon, and others.
The symposium also hosted a sewing of the Remaking Guernica banner, in which we were able to reflect together upon Monica’s work, inspiring presence and legacy, which continues in all our work.
Following a fascinating first day at the conference and a well received public sewing, the second day changed location and feel. We moved from the beautiful and imposing Lydia and Manford Gorvy Lecture Theatre in the heart of the V&A to a much simpler seminar room in the Sackler Centre; consequently the second day felt more intimate. There were more moments in which paths crossed, which helped the ease with which conversations occurred. This proved to be very beneficial, for the room was filled with artists and activists. Day Two of the conference was very much tackling the themes of ethics, politics and activism.
The first session was: The ethical stitch: fashion, clothing and the global textile trade. In this session Leah Borromeo, journalist and filmmaker from the UK, gave a presentation that has stayed with me. She spoke about her feature length documentary Dirty, White, Gold, which investigates why almost 300,000 Indian cotton farmers have committed suicide to get out of debt; raising the question ‘When you bag a bargain, who’s paid for it?’ You can follow the continuing work of this project at: https://www.facebook.com/dirtywhitegoldfilm
In session two, The activists’ stitch: from craftivism to craftwashing, Betsy Greer pulled no punches. Greer is a US based crafter, activist and writer. Since 2003 she has often been described as the God Mother of Craftivism (craft + activism = craftivism). Her paper gathered together an important range of craftivist work from the non-English speaking world. For more on Betsy Greer and her activism see: http://craftivism.com
The craftivist theme was developed by Sarah Corbett, who created the UK based Craftivist Collective in 2009. Corbett spoke about her activism in its use of letter writing and protest and of how this seemed to rarely elicit a meaningful response. However, when she moved into stitchery, her samplers embroidered with messages of protest and resistance really engaged the recipients and prompted a dialogue. Her journey of using craft in activism can be followed on: http://craftivist-collective.com/about/
Anthea Black and Nicole Burisch, from Canada, gave the final paper of this session, which firmly located craftivist practices within a historical legacy. They reminded us of 1970s feministrevolutionary knitting circles amongst other activities and provided a critique of recent craft practices that consume and co-opt the politics of craft. Their introduction of the term ‘craftwashing’ brought a useful note of critical reflection. For more information see their respective websites: http://nicoleburisch.com/tag/anthea-black/ and http://antheablack.com
Our paper: Remaking Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ as a banner was part of Session three: The political stitch: collaborations and collectives. Megha Rajguru and I introduced the project, outlining the collective’s motivations and intentions. We spoke about the 1937 aerial bombardment of the civilian population of Gernika that prompted Picasso to create ‘Guernica’, and linked this attack to the contemporary use of drones to hit civilian populations in Afghanistan and Pakistan, including tactics that target rescuers and funerals. Amnesty International’s 2013 report: “Will I be next?” US drone strikes in Pakistan is the first attempt at creating a methodology in order to identify and name the innocent women, children and civilian men who have been killed. Available online: http://www.amnestyusa.org/sites/default/files/asa330132013en.pdf
In the days that followed, Betsy Greer retweeted a link to Pakistani artworks that responded to drone attacks in an article titled ‘Drone art: death on canvas.’ See: http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2013/11/drone-art-death-canvas-20131117105627465861.html
Following our presentation, I was delighted that Michael Sanders, artist and designer, made himself known to us. We have begun a conversation about his anti-drone artwork, including his intervention piece at RAF Waddington Airshow in July 2011 titled: This machine can kill children. For this he dressed in the clothing of an enthusiast wearing a bomber jacket sewn with an anti drone badge. In this way, his under cover disguise served to subvert the intentions of the ‘family friendly show’ by highlighting the murderous reality of the airbase. RAF Waddington in Lincoln is the airbase from which the UK’s increased capacity of Reaper Drones is launched by UK service personnel.
These interactions that occurred beyond the conference really validated our involvement. It was a real honor to be a part of an event that brought together such a range of artists, activists and academics all attending to the politics of cloth in global and historical contexts.
Rozsika Parker’s The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine was a ground-breaking book when it first appeared in 1984. At that time, embroidery was excluded from the narratives and discourses of the fine arts. Written texts on embroidery focused solely upon style, technique and pattern; rarely were the names of embroiderers known, in contrast to the rollcall of generations of named male artists. Parker’s consideration of the marginalisation of the work of women has meant that analyses of textiles now take place around meanings, and means of production. Parker’s book was republished in May 2010 by I.B Tauris, with a new introduction in which she reflects upon the stitched art of Louise Bourgeois and Tracey Emin as well as that of new young male and female embroiderers. The insight and generosity of her ideas were very sadly cut short by her death only five months after publication.
The Subversive Stitch Revisited: The Politics of Cloth was a conference called to explore the legacies of Parker’s text. Dedicated to her memory, it was initiated and curated by Jennifer Harris, Deputy Director, Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester; Pennina Barnett, writer and curator, and Althea Greenan, Curator of the Women’s Art Library, Special Collections, Goldsmiths College, University of London, in collaboration with the V&A and Iniva (Institute of International Visual Arts). We were delighted that our contribution, by Megha Rajguru and Nicola Ashmore, was selected out of the 180 proposals submitted from all over the world.
Rozsika Parker’s Legacy
The introductory talk by Pennina Barnett paid tribute to the legacy of Parker, surveying the two exhibitions from 1988 – at the Cornerhouse and at the Whitworth in Manchester – which developed Parker’s ideas. The opening keynote speech, by Griselda Pollock, Parker’s collaborator in the Feminist Art History Collective, and co-author with her of Old Mistresses (1981) and Framing Feminism (1987), looked back at debates about art and feminism from the 1970s and ‘80s. She reminded us of the searching questions into women’s place in culture explored for the first time in Old Mistresses. From their work here on women, art and ideology emerged Parker’s statement: ‘To know the history of embroidery is to know the history of women’ and Pollock considered her exploration of the relationships between ideas about textiles, and ideas about women, femininity and feminism. She considered feminist interventions in historical accounts of art, and the connections between textiles and the textual.
Pollock began her exploration of relationships between women, art and ideology by considering memorials to the dead. She compared the Menin Gate at Ypres and the Vietnam memorial in Washington D.C, which commemorate in granite and concrete those who have fallen in wars fought by states, with the memorials created by the Madres de Playa de Maya, in which the names of their disappeared children and grandchildren are embroidered on babies’ nappies, which the women wear as scarves,. In this way a humble textile object which is also a powerful symbol of birth and nurturing, becomes a constant challenge to dictatorship.
Pollock’s frequent use of puns brought to life the relationship between textiles and the textual. She spoke of drawing together threads, joining seams, gathering yarns, adjusting tension. She drew attention to the tension in the word ‘stitch’: from its Old English root = puncture; through the Germanic = pierce; sewn into; to the Middle English = loop, elaboration. She also spoke of how feminism was subverted by patriarchy, so as to become enclosed in a time-frame of the past, rather than being a process of becoming, into the future.
There followed presentations from a range of academics and curators who considered, among other things, how to exhibit feminist artefacts from the 1970s; the disruption of art galleries from the 70s to the present by the inclusion of kitchens and crocheted food by, for example, Su Richardson; the insertion of colour and play into the masculine and urbane by yarn-bombing interventions; and the use of unwanted knitted gifts in recent installations by artists such as Mike Kelley. Although revealing wit and humour, it was suggested that much recent work has lacked the subversive edge which would radically address or challenge codes of masculine or feminine behaviour.
During the lunch hour, we hosted a public sewing. It was very moving to see the banner which has been created as a result of meetings of our collective in Brighton, and in public sewings far and wide, laid out beneath the dome in the Lydia and Manford Gorvy Lecture Theatre: an imposing space of high status. In this way, we felt, we were continuing the process begun by Parker: challenging the male dominance of spaces such as this. Indeed, as we gazed around the lofty walls of the theatre, and noted one after another the parade of male painters depicted there for us to look up to, we enjoyed the destabilising of this hierarchy by the process of our occupation of this space, among a large group of women artists, academics and activists and by the presence of our stitched remaking of the great anti-fascist artwork Guernica.
We enjoyed meeting the contributors who joined in to add their stitches and to ask us questions which were engaged and probing. As always, these encounters create powerful connections, between lives, memories, histories and creativity. And, as we cleared up in preparation for the afternoon programme, much to our further delight we were asked to leave the banner in situ, as a backdrop to the conversation between the leading American artist, Elaine Reichek and Jenni Sorkin (from the University of California, Santa Barbara), and all the presentations which followed. It was fantastic when we walked back up the tiered stages of the lecture theatre and looked back down to see the banner displayed there so beautifully.
Conversation with Elaine Reichek
The conversation with Elaine Reichek was so interesting; throughout her life she’s worked in a range of media: embroidered samplers, knitting, painting, appropriated ethnographic photography – in order to make work about war and security; imperialist destruction; the ways dominant cultures stereotype ‘the other’ – and about the process of representation itself. Some of her projects have been Native Intelligence (1987-92) (about representations of Native Americans); Tierra del Fuegians (1986-87) (about how the people of this island were wiped out in the 1940s by the germs in the clothes the Christian missionaries insisted they wear); Home Rule (1992), which draws parallels between the colonisation of the people of Ireland and of Native Americans.
Stitching and Unstitching Identities
The rest of the afternoon saw a range of presentations which considered cultural myths and ideologies influencing social definitions of masculinity, femininity and race. In Unpicking Queer History in the National Trust, Matt Smith recounted how he broke through the hetero-normative filter which had excised the relationship between stage designer Oliver Messel, the most famous resident of Nymans in West Sussex, and his male lover Vagn Riis Hansen. Smith created an intervention in the house which included a remaking of a jacket from the family dressing up chest and clothing a statue with it. His intervention culminated in the placing of Hansen in the family tree. By doing this in a National Trust property, Smith has challenged accepted notions of nationality and sexuality. Smith continues his collaborative intervention work through the Unravelled project.
Then followed an analysis by Leora Farber (University of Johannesburg) of the work of Mary Sibande, a young South African artist, who deconstructs ideas about global colonial dominance and imperialism. She has done this by assuming the persona of an alter ego, a black domestic worker whom she names Sophie Ntombikayise. Sibande appropriates the modest uniform of the maid, with its pale blue colour, lack of decoration and restrained cut, and makes of it something opulent, vivid and billowing with flounces. By dressing Sophie in lavish Victorian ball-gowns, sometimes on horseback, Sibande engages in cultural re-makings of the social identities of black South African women. She creates real spectacles, exaggerating the costumes and thereby restoring power, dignity and grace to the figures of hitherto invisible female domestic workers.
The Social Stitch
After this, Brenda Schahmann (University of Johannesburg) spoke on the astonishing Keiskamma Tapestry and Alterpiece, created by the Keiskamma Trust in Eastern Cape South Africa, which uses stitching in holistic creative programmes in order to address the challenges of widespread poverty, HIV/AIDS and disease. The altarpiece is an astonishing recreation of the “The Lam Got” Altarpiece by Jan Van Eyck- one of the largest and most complex altarpieces produced in the Netherlands during the 15th century. The Creation Altarpiece is modeled in structure and theme on this great work. However, every Creation panel and every depiction has been interpreted in a meaningful way, relevant to the Xhosa Hamburg and Ntilini communities and their experiences.
Kimberly Lamm (Duke University) analysed the work of Ghada Amer, who uses threads to create connections between women and the veil in the Middle East and Western imperatives that women use their bodies for sexual display. Amer conceals pornographic images behind threads that drip and defy voyeuristic engagement. Day one concluded with the lively and inspirational work of Anne Elizabeth Moore, who shared the work of the LadyDrawers Comics Collective who use a mix of original data, research and humour to explore through comic strip how gender biases impact culture. The current project Our Fashion Year traces fast fashion from the second-hand clothing industry back along the distribution and production lines, to the workers themselves.
Ishan Calder interviewed one of the participants in Re-Making Picasso’s Guernica for Pod Academy: Sound Thinking: podcasts on current research. As with all collective projects that are continuous and participatory, Re-Making Picasso’s Guernica has revised some of its decisions and designs since the podcast was made. But, the relationship between art and political action, under discussion here, is still current:
We were invited to host a public sewing at the Working Class Movement Library (WCML) in Salford, by Lynette Cawthra, as part of the Manchester Weekender, a buzzy weekend celebrating arts, crafts, and activism. Serendipitously, this meant that our sewing coincided with the opening of Jeremy Deller’s new show: All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, on the Friday evening. So, Jeremy and two of his collaborators, the banner maker Ed Hall and the photographer Ben Roberts, were in Manchester. Both Ed and Ben came to the sewing in Salford after Ed’s talk at Manchester Art Gallery on the Saturday morning.
Manchester and Salford are stimulating and thought-provoking places to visit. The hotbeds of industrial capitalism and of the writings of Marx and Engels, they have each been visibly battered by the boom-and-bust late phases of capitalism’s decline. There are strong and proud communities here who feel utterly betrayed; frequently drained and exhausted by successive assaults on their incomes and dignity. The future has no shape and is suspended. Anger and determination are palpable in the fights against fracking, zero-hours contracts, the bedroom tax and the privatisation of the NHS. Victories are inspiring: the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union at the Hovis plant in Wigan entered into dispute with Premier Foods over use of zero hours contracts and agency staff. After two walkouts the employers agreed to all their demands – including parity pay for agency workers.
The people I met were very conscious of their place in the continuum of struggle. During the Deller exhibition and throughout the public sewing, people shared thoughts on histories of cotton: of the impact of the mills on social change, family life and health in Lancashire, India and Egypt – as well as of the beauty of the fabrics which were made. As we sewed, two Antifascist actions were taking place nearby, in Bradford and in Liverpool, in response to the EDL’s stated intention of inciting race war in Bradford, and their repeated attacks on Unite union meetings in Liverpool. This context gave a clear focus to the sewing process.
The public sewing had received much publicity prior to the event, thanks to an article by Bernadette Hyland in the previous Wednesday’s Morning Star, and to hard work by Lynette at WCML, and also by Alex from Creative Tourist, who included our event on the publicity for the Ed Hall talk. Thank you, to all of you, as well as to Suzanne Hindle, who led an historical walking tour, bringing seventeen participants with her, from the People’s History Museum in Manchester to the WCML in Salford. The Library railings had been hung with pompoms and knitted flags by the Craftivism Yarn Trail, in time for the arrival of the banner.
Ed Hall arrived as I was setting out the banner, and he stayed and chatted about the process and the purpose. He was interested in the collaborative process and he explained that when his banners are commissioned he always travels to meet the people who commission them, as the inspiration can only come from face to face meetings. He was also interested in the idea that our banner is made to be carried in the hands of perhaps twelve people walking side by side, rather than suspended from poles and harnesses like most trades union banners. Ed’s banners are commissioned by campaign groups and by union branches. They are meticulously crafted and beautiful. They cheer people up, empower them and inspire resistance. This much was triumphantly clear during the five-hour long procession of trades union banners, most of them made by Ed, in Manchester three weeks ago, for the NHS protest during the Tory Conference.
The sewing was really well attended – over sixty people came. Molly Garner, a student at Manchester Metropolitain University’s art school, was wonderfully generous and dedicated in response to my suggestion that she document the event while she was there. Molly took some lovely pictures which will be uploaded here shortly. It was fantastic to be among so many people committed to collective activities, with lively political awareness, as well as impressive sewing skills. Blanket stitch was child’s play to this lot, whether male or female, old or young – as was tea-making on a lavish scale, in proper tea pots and proper cups! The tea, biscuits and parkin so generously shared by Lynette and the volunteers made for a cheerful convivial atmosphere throughout the day. Heartfelt thanks to all for this, as I’d come on my own for this event and it couldn’t have happened without everyone who came sharing it and owning it.
I wish I’d been able to get round and chat to everyone! However, those with whom I did have a chance to talk and listen were most memorable. Firstly, Stuart Walsh from the Clarion Cycling Club, who is also a volunteer at WCML, and who was about to set off with his club on a ride from Bilbao to Barcelona, read out an exceptionally moving letter to us from the Gernika Gogoratuz Peace Research Centre, which says:
“in times where wars are being fought and others about to be fought in too many places around the world…as direct consequences of the economic war and structural violence which are at the root of most of the conflicts taking place on a global level and which put our very survival as humanity at stake…we understand and want to support your symbolic action linking art, memory and engagement for a peaceful world based on social justice and human dignity.”
Stuart also read out a letter of solidarity from Ciclista Gernikesa, in which the Club President, its Secretary and its liaison cycling guide sent greetings:
“to all the participants in this important work of co-operative art, that so powerfully affirms the fellowships of peace and solidarity among peoples of different cultures, and especially the message of non-violence and respect for others, that such endeavours send to our younger generation. In this way we can all do our part to ensure that the horrors that are portrayed in Picasso’s great painting of the bombing of our peaceful town cannot happen again.”
These words, read out as people sewed, were a powerful accompaniment. Stuart then presented me with a neckerchief embroidered with Gernika Cycling Club’s insignia, the Oak Tree, which survived the bombardment, and two badges enameled with the same emblem of resistance. Thank you to Stuart for his dedicated commitment to the project and thank you to the cyclists and to the people at the Peace Research Centre. Hope the trip to Gernika went well with many great memories to follow.
Next I met Adrine and Lance Middleton, who have been in love and together for seven decades. Lance described for me a very old cardboard jigsaw of Guernica which he has somewhere at home. He worked in Burma for signals during the second world war, and claims to have spent most of his time using the surplus paper at his disposal to write passionate letters to Adrine. She, meanwhile, had joined the Young Communist League in Manchester, as a direct consequence of Franco’s appalling attacks on the Spanish, Catalan and Basque peoples. Adrine’s friend Vera had a brother who was shot dead in Spain, and the impact of this upon the whole family and their entire friendship group has never left Adrine; it was evident in her intonation of every word as she recounted it to me almost eighty years later.
Adrine also described to me her memories of a visit to the top floor of Lewis’s department store on Piccadilly Corner in Manchester sometime in 1939. This Lewis’s has absolutely no connection with today’s John Lewis, by the way. It was, by Adrine’s account, an amazing place, where people could go and be entertained for their entire shopping experience: it had a basement which was flooded for swimming spectaculars and the top floor was a kind of ballroom, with a stage at one end, where dancing classes were held. In this top floor, according to Adrine, Picasso’s Guernica was hung during its visit to Manchester, and used for fundraising for the Manchester foodships to Spain. It was extraordinary to feel history being brought to life, as Adrine explained to me how vast the painting was, and how it was attached to three walls of the room, so that you could walk along beside it and take it all in. In this way, you could not help but engage with the agony and suffering of the people it depicted and the brutal destruction it conveyed. When I asked Adrine if she could recall any of her thoughts upon seeing it, she said, “Not really, because it was very tear-making.”
Although I’ve heard the story of Guernica’s visit to a car showroom in Manchester, which was reported in the Manchester Evening News at that time, I hadn’t heard that it might also have spent time in Lewis’s, and Suzanne and other participants in the sewing were soon buzzing with ideas about the archives into which they could delve in order to find confirmation or find out more. It will be fascinating to see the developing history of Adrine’s memories. Certainly I felt honoured to be in her company and to listen to her sharing them, so that we can pass them on.
The library is a place where this lively curiosity for history, and for the people who make history, is in the very fabric and air of the building. It was founded by Ruth and Eddie Frow, a Communist couple who, in the nineteen fifties, used to drive around the country buying up books that nobody else wanted: books on labour history from the nineteenth century and earlier. Their dedication to the idea that activists should collect their own histories, in order to pass them on to those who come after, led them to fit out their home as a library and archive, and, when it was bursting at the seams, they entered into a deal with Salford Council, renting a former nurses’ home as the home of their archive, which has now become the Working Class Movement Library.
The library receives no funding, apart from a grant – soon to reach its end – from Salford Council, and donations from trades unions and friends. It needs £80,000 a year to survive, and every year this becomes harder to find. Thankfully they don’t have to pay for the maintenance of the building, or for the energy bills needed to keep the air at the consistent temperature and humidity essential for the conservation of the precious books, papers, artefacts and textiles, because Salford Council, as freeholder, pays for this at present. However, the future is uncertain. I really hope it can continue. Like so many people, I’ve had some fantastic hours there, freely browsing the eclectic collections, in room after room where even the wallpapers are historical documents! Lynette and Sam and their team of volunteers, and Michael Herbert, trustee and friend of the founders, bring to the whole building the kind of passion, commitment and loving attention to detail which one rarely sees anywhere anymore. They welcome all who wish to use the archives. It was inspiring to spend time with them in this special place.
The sewing event itself was great. People were silenced by the beauty of the banner when they first saw it, and they really looked at it, walking around it, examining it and discussing it in detail , before picking up their needles and choosing where to sew. Loads of people said they were thinking about organizing a banner-making for their group and even for the WCML itself; people were enthralled by the story of how we went about making the banner: projecting Picasso’s great work onto a wall, choosing the shapes; climbing around one another to cut the stencils, discussing how we would interpret them and how we would select the fabric. Celia’s friend Bec brought her son Sam, who had wanted to join a sewing club at his primary school, but didn’t get a place as it was so oversubscribed. It was so nice that he came and took the trouble to learn blanket stitch, and very nice to see how he persevered quietly and patiently until he got it and sewed a beautiful edge. Everyone wanted to know when the banner would be finished, which I was unable to answer, as the process is what has been so captivating, rather than the aiming for a product. Towards the end of the afternoon, Ben Roberts and his friend Francheska came and hung out and chatted about galleries and art and global economic practices, and drank tea while Ben took photographs of people engrossed in their sewing. There was a lovely interplay of voices as people chatted and shared stories. It was a really nice day. So, the life of the banner continues strongly, drawing in people, places and histories as it goes, within the contexts of art, activism, conviviality and resistance.
Jenny Engledow, a participant in Re-making Picasso’s Guernica from the outset and a member of Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), writes about her reasons for making (and re-making):
I like sewing, so when making a banner choosing the fabrics for their textures and colours that work together, creating a message so it is understood by its visual content, possibly not requiring any language or using universal symbols, feels very important to me.
Being involved in working for peace, justice and human rights and making an analysis from a woman’s perspective has been part of my life for many years, because women’s experience is different from that of men. Women are used in war as the target of such excessive brutality it often brings the feeling of despair. Indeed there are so many issues of injustice, racial and gendered hatred and state backed violence worldwide, that it is not possible to become involved with all of them.
The medium of the banner is for me the obvious way to communicate the message about whatever injustice or demand is being demonstrated. Held up, it becomes a focus for people watching a demonstration to identify what the action is about. For TV and the press cameras it presents an instant visual message and a natural focus. For those carrying the banner it says in bold ways what would not otherwise be heard to say. It is also a permanent record of the motivations and analysis of the time it was created.
Making (and re-making) against racism
Politicians, the press, right wing groups and some members of the public frequently talk about ‘foreigners,’ who they say take our jobs, claim benefits to which they are not entitled, live in houses that cost rate payers mountains of money, drain our national health service and so on. There is a drip feed of frustration, fear and anger directed, sometimes overtly sometimes not, at people whose nationality, religion and/or culture is identified as ‘other’, which far right groups and others feed on.
Racism has many forms, too many for this short piece of writing but people who come to the UK as refugees, do so because of wars in their home countries, in which, often the UK and other western nations have intervened, invited or not, looking out for their own interests. The selling of weapons and equipment by the west, (the UK’s biggest industry to our shame) cynically causes a massive drain on funds away from what they should be spent on, creating poverty and misery and enabling repression by governments in many parts of the world and causing their citizens to become refugees, who then face the criticism and racism mentioned above.
Just sewing might not solve all this, but collective effort to re-make Picasso’s Guernica is reminder of the link between war and racism.