An exhibition about the silences and sacrifices of work, colliding materials from BLT19 with contemporary art
curated by Andrew King and Connie Gallagher
11 July – 14 August 2019
Stephen Lawrence Gallery
Conversation with the Artists 25 July 2019
The artists Catherine Hoffman, Emmanuelle Loiselle, Sarm Miccichè and Dr Joyce Jiang and Marissa Begonia of The Voice of Domestic Workers, talked about their contributions to the exhibition in a public discussion on 25 July 2019.
Chaired by Keep the Door of My Lips curators Professor Andrew King and Connie Gallagher, the open discussion, lasting over two hours, followed the many topics that this exhibition covered and enjoyed many questions from the audience. While we could have simply made a podcast of the afternoon, we felt that an edited transcript would be more useful. What follows is not an exact transcription of what anyone said, but a condensation and reworking, so that it reads well and coherently in written form: we all know that what sounds great live doesn’t read well on the page!
The artists all reviewed the following and are happy with its representation of their viewpoints and sentiments.
The artists, in order of speaking, are
- Emmanuelle Loiselle (EL)
- Sarm Micciché (SM)
- Marissa Begonia and Dr Joyce Jiang of Voice of Domestic Workers (VODW)
- Catherine Hoffman (CH)
Questions from the chairs and audience are represented by Q.
The transcription was made, compressed and edited into a form suitable for reading by Andrew King with help from Alexander Rose.
Q. What was your motivation to work with childbirth in Pitié?
EL. It was about the gap between what is shown of childbirth in media and magazines such as we see in the reproductions of Victorian magazine images on the walls here and in the British Workwoman in general, and my personal experience of the reality. It’s also a work of art about the “labour” of giving birth and the domestic work of motherhood that at least the British Workwoman acknowledges. That was something I learnt from BLT19 – I’d always thought the Victorians just forgot about that. I wanted to highlight a sense of the word “labour” that is forgotten in political and economic treatises: I wanted to focus on that gap, that silence about the emotion, the feelings, the sensations around this form of “labour.” I wanted to give voice to the women giving birth in these medicalised circumstances, and the lack of information we have about what it really means to give birth in a hospital. There was such a difference between what I lived and what I had seen about childbirth. For the birth of my second child I wanted to prepare by making the piece you see here. It’s definitely a very personal piece but it’s also quite primal and natural. Childbirth is quite violent but it’s also quite wonderful as well, and I wanted to convey what it meant to me.
Q. It’s clear that you are referencing in the work altar pieces and the Virgin Mary – images such as we see reproduced in the British Printer magazine on the BLT19 website as well as in the British Workwoman. But it’s very very different from the clean, commercialised images of motherhood that the Victorians promoted and which we can see right next to Pitié. How did you link that whole history of maternal iconography with childbirth?
EL. Yes, I’ve always been attracted to religious imagery, and the idea of the sacred nature of life. So I took the altarpiece structure of the triptych and made it my own, without prettifying the labours of giving birth. The title [Pitié] came from what I was shouting when I gave birth. I’m not sure why I was shouting it but it probably came from my religious upbringing.
Q. How did the piece change you?
EL. It was necessary for me as catharsis: as I said, it was a way of preparing for the birth of my second child. Going to the studio really helped me stay sane. The labour of making art with its own rhythms and demands helped me prepare for the other kind of labour. I became a bit more radical as well, as I felt I didn’t have time any more for the kind of superficialities one sees in commercial culture about motherhood.
Q. What motivated you to make 4.29.1992 Los Angeles?
SM: I was reflecting on Victorian mourning fashions and the importance of sewing and quilting so visible in the British Workwoman that you’ve uncovered for us on BLT19. The church on display here is a memorial piece, so I thought a black church would be fitting. The medium of needlepoint which the church is made from seemed to suit it as well, as during Victorian times needlepoint would be a work skill passed on from mother to daughter, as we see in the reproductions from the British Workwoman you’ve made for the exhibition. Needlepoint is sometimes seen as a ‘lesser’ artform, perhaps because of its association as an ordinary woman’s work – it’s not associated with leisure like embroidery or tapestry-making, for example. I also wanted to relate the piece to the Rodney King riots in LA. I was there at the time and my father had died a few days beforehand, so it was spiritually a dark day for me. I used to be obsessed with Bible Studies, but after that day it was over. Even today there is still a lot of injustice and racism, with police being acquitted of racially motivated attacks. I’m happy if I can bring subjects that are difficult to talk about to the forefront, and create that discussion.
Q. Since needlework is often considered a craft, and in the context of this exhibition where engraving, an industrial form of craft, is everywhere, your decision obviously raises questions about the “art work”. Do you see a distinction between craft and art?
SM: Art and craft have a difference in intent but not necessarily in technique. In the needlepoint church, I use a craft technique for an art work. Art for me embodies a unique intent; craft is more concerned with making useful objects, and often a lot of those objects. Craft is more associated with ideas about labour and making money. If a craftsperson reproduces the same thing a hundred times – say a hundred prints of the same engraving – it will have the same physical skill and amount of work each time of course, but each of those prints won’t have the same intent behind it, as the intent will change over time. The intent behind the engraving itself may be to realise a vision of a beautiful picture, whereas by the time we get to the hundredth or ten-thousandth print, the intent will be just to get it over and done with and sell. Art and craft have two different ideas of labour. I’m trying to turn techniques associated with craft into art, and thereby get us to think about the kinds of labour involved in each.
Q. We often don’t like to remember things – memories can make us uncomfortable. A question for both of you, Sarm and Emmanuelle: do you think one of the functions of the art work is to make us remember things we might otherwise forget, rather like what BLT19 is trying to do in general?
SM: First of all, I need to say that we don’t always “remember” or repeat the past: there are always new stories to tell – just look at how we have all reacted to the Victorian images here. We haven’t just accepted them – we’ve reacted to them, just as visitors in turn react to the juxtaposition of our art with the Victorian magazines you’ve discovered. But in the case of the church in this exhibition, it is inspired ultimately by personal events and it is a memorial – but also, in being a memorial, it is a re-narration, a reconfiguration of memory, a new story. It’s a choice you make as an artist to make autobiographical work and it may be a “working through” for you. But it’s also more than just a personal story. The church, in referencing the Rodney King riots, is also a political reminder and a provocation; and in using a disvalued women’s technique – Victorian needlepoint – it is another kind of political reminder and provocation that visitors who just come and see these reproductions on the walls might not get otherwise. But we also have to accept that when other people engage with our work, what we are trying to do may not work for them, and we have to accept that: other people will see something else, another narrative. Perhaps it will even help them to work through their own traumas.
EL: Because we deal with traumatic events, I think it’s important to create and keep these images and object to remind us as artists and as people. Pitié, although it is out there hanging on the wall, is an imprint on and of myself. I lived it, and now I use the imagery to say something about that experience. A painting is always an object and I’m happy with its utilitarian function in society to suggest stories and emotions. What I do is not purely abstract or aesthetic, though it has that dimension too. Art for me works through the personal into the political, while always being a work of art.
Voice of Domestic Workers
Q. Tell us about your work bringing attention to the Voice of Domestic Workers.
VODW. First of all, I want to say that our “work of art” is directly concerned with the world of work and with exploitation. That has profound legal and political dimensions. I’ve recently been to the House of Commons to speak to the High Commissioner. We’ve been hearing so much about modern slavery, and I wanted to ask what was being done about the current visa situations for domestic workers. We’ve been working for many years on a review in the Modern Slavery Act, but the difficulty we have is that we needed to prove the abuse faced by migrant domestic workers, which can be very difficult. If they haven’t been paid for months or even years, it becomes very difficult to prove as there is no record of it. They are unable to renew their visas independently of their employers, especially if their employers have taken away their papers, so they are often forced to stay in these abusive working situations. Not all domestic workers are victims, but they are workers without rights, which makes them vulnerable.
Q. We were really struck by how your video resonates with the situation of many Victorian domestic workers which this exhibition is based on. The title of the show enjoins all workers, both women and men, to “keep the door of their lips” – to be silent and not speak out – and we have juxtaposed your video with advice to servants from the British Workwoman which tells them, basically, to shut up and put up. Presumably you are not hoping to achieve that through this video.
VODW. We are trying to raise awareness in the public and make audible the unheard – we work to give a voice to domestic workers – but more specifically we are asking the Home Office for a separate organisation to deal with the rights of domestic workers. There is a double standard for domestic workers not being able to renew their visas when workers in other fields can do so. The government argues that domestic workers count as being unskilled, but I would disagree. Taking care of children, the elderly, and other responsibilities is all skilled work. The Voice of Domestic Workers is run by and for migrant domestic workers, which is very empowering for the women to build their confidence and skills. We drew inspiration from the Victorian and Edwardian suffrage movement, that sort of campaigning spirit. We are working exactly against the kind of dehumanising thinking that the images from magazines here show the Victorians – and many people today – still think as just normal, the way thinsg are.
Q. What inspired Free Lunch with the Stench Wench?
CH. The idea of the woman’s body and the economics of that in the workplace – how a poor woman’s body, or a poor black woman’s body, is considered the lowest form and how that is then exploited. In terms of sexuality, I also wanted to explore ideas of shame and how a woman’s body comes to be something to be hidden. The piece has a lot of Victorian resonance and interacts with the magazines here. It even includes an updating and regendering of a Chartist protest song to end with a note of hope. It’s ironic that we have to go back to the past to find that hope. I read of how a workhouse master described the women there as being nothing but ‘saucy wretches’ and you can find a lot of assumptions about women in the Victorian magazines here – that’s the point of the idealisations I think – to stop women speaking out and owning their own bodies. That’s just an example of the idea that women are lower creatures who are, and deserve to be objectified. I wanted to make visible the social pressures of being a poor woman or girl but also having to be presentable, and how that can really affect girls’ ideas of self-esteem and self-value. Working-class women are still seen as being ‘rough and ready’ or somehow lacking in morals – you’ve made that very visible here in the magazines – and that really interested me. Like everyone else’s here, there is an autobiographical element in my work, for I also wanted to explore how these Victorian ideas related to my own ideas of my mother, who was judged for having kids at a young age, and who felt shame about having as many kids as she did. It also related to my own experience of trying to hide my background, of trying to ‘pass’ as middle class, which is actually related to what kind of job you do – or don’t do but could. I’ve carried shame practically all my life. This show has made me wonder if it’s a Victorian inheritance. Of course we all carry shame to some extent, but the shame of being working class, of being a woman, of being poor is forced on us very insidiously by society and is quite a burden. It’s what social scientists call “intersectional”. The scapegoating of groups and making them feel shame for things that they aren’t responsible for is very visible in the magazines you’ve made available to us. I wanted to share my own shame as a way of relinquishing it. By sharing it, by working on my story to share it with others, it becomes somehow no longer mine alone to bear.
Q. Do you think these barriers of class and gender are still common in the art world?
CH: It’s important for voices that aren’t being heard to have a platform, and, yes, we have to fight to create these platforms. Today, there are so many people who want to be artists, which lends itself to exploitation as everyone is aware that they can so easily be replaced if they don’t accept what may be a poor deal. This goes on to disproportionately affect working-class artists, as they are squeezed out by the cost of art school and the costs of actually making art, all of which have risen with the huge cuts to the arts since “austerity”. Like us all here, we have to work to ensure that shame, whether economic or other kinds, does not disable, does not silence artists or indeed anyone. But as artists, I think it’s our task to speak the unspoken, say the unsayable, break down the taboos and the repressions to open the doors of our lips. And that goes for the work involved in art as much as for all other kinds.
Q. We particularly wanted your work to feature in this exhibition as, even from the way you have described it here, it has huge resonance for what we are trying to do: show how what we think about the value and position of work has its roots in history. There’s nothing “natural” or universal about it. There is one image that we’ve used several times in the exhibition: the image of a poor Irishwoman who looks as if she is about to speak, who is on the point of striding out yet looking back. We thought that you uttered the words she’d dare to say if she had ever been asked. And, as you say, it’s by revisiting that past, by thinking about it anew, that not only can we understand where we are now and perhaps find resources of hope, but we can also stride out towards alternative futures.
In that sense, perhaps the work of art is a bit like the work of researching history, helping us remember, as we said before, what many of us prefer to forget.