For the past two months Emma Curd has been Bow Arts’ Visible Voices artist-in-residence, inviting members of Bow’s community into her residency space on Bromley High Street where she has turned what was previously a shop into a community space hosting art workshops. The site of one of Sylvia Pankhurst’s early Suffrage speeches, the Visible Voices residency was created to make local voices visible on Stroudley Walk, which Emma has led by making small books, stencils, posters and flags with local women and children. Here, Emma tells us all about her residency so far…
Throughout my residency, looking back at the local history of 26 Bromley High Street has been a crucial way to shape what has temporarily become a creative space for women and children. Formerly a beauty salon, and before that a launderette, it would seem that the shop has been used frequently as a space of domesticity for women by women.
Before the residency started two months ago, the shop had been sitting empty for two years. Sat in the middle of a row of four other shop fronts, the roller shutters bore the brunt of disuse; waiting for impending demolition. Once inside, the only hint of its former life is a framed flower motif, detailed with gold, magnolia, lime green and lemon intricacies. The picture now sits majestically in the bathroom, alongside tampons, sanitary towels and miscellaneous cosmetics. The windows look directly onto a paved and tarmacked area that may have once been cherished and used as an area for lively public discourse. Indeed, the shop also has its roots in the importance of public speech and crucially, is the very site where Sylvia Pankhurst first addressed the East London Federation of Suffragettes in 1913.
This was the starting point for Visible Voices, a project which looked to create a series of artworks utilising activist and DIY processes to make voices visible in public space, much like the suffragettes would have done over 100 years ago.
The workshops have so far looked to explore what ‘speaking out’ might mean to local women and their children. One way we have done this is by creating ‘zines’ – small handmade magazines – with the ambition to tell the story of people’s lives in Bow. The created zines feature self-portraits, a collaged garden, cartoon strips and henna designs, aspects of which will be made into one collaborative design for the project’s culmination.
Another workshop was based on visual expression and the public ways to make text visible. Drawing from street art around Stroudley Walk and the graffitied roller shutters, we designed our own tags as a way to symbolise authorship and ownership on the front of and inside the shop. In the session, we also created our own stencils that symbolised the power of having a voice, which we then spray-painted on the walls to reveal colourful ‘emoji’ style wall designs including a camera, microphone, a bow (to symbolise Bow, and the power of craft!). Creating these symbols got people talking about the powerful message; ‘No Vote, No Voice’, to which end we discussed how and why the suffrage centenary is essential when discussing women and their rights.
Bow is a vastly multicultural area and the site of the residency is located within a large Bangladeshi community. Therefore, it has been crucial that this residency is reflective of the fact that women’s suffrage has been a movement that has excluded working-class, Black and Asian women. This project has hoped to do the opposite; to be inclusive of all women and their children and to provide a positive and creative space to craft, make and talk. In this way, it is a priority of Visible Voices to platform the local women who have dropped into the shop, stayed to chat, brought their children and families to make and create the artwork, or just grab a cup of tea.
As a result, the collaborative artworks that are being produced are visually informed by the conversations had and the artworks made in the shop at 26 Bromley High Street. These will inform the production of four flags that will culminate to subvert the flag’s traditional icon of patriarchy as a radical transformation of power. In their nature, flags have been symbolic gestures of identification, political allegiance and making visible the voices of the people. In history, they have been used to lay claim, to decorate and to protest; as we have seen in many campaigns. In this way, the processes used throughout this project reflect the women’s suffrage movement, but importantly, accepts that that there are many hidden histories that we are not aware of, due to the inadequacies of the feminist project and patriarchy itself.
Throughout the residency, I have been hyperaware of my role as an artist-researcher and therefore I have been keen to share authorship as much as possible. I’ve taken time and care to make sure that the possibilities for connecting people and art are many and engaging; chalk boards are painted onto the walls with chalk lying about the place, a communal table is set up full of colourful paper and pens; the graffiti wall is looking particularly lively. After the project finishes the artworks themselves will be taken home by contributors, and the flags will be distributed to the community centres that I have developed links with throughout the project including Bromley By Bow Centre, Linc Centre, Bow Arts and Women East.
Looking towards to the rest of the residency, the next workshops are planned to be a collaborative poster and banner making session, the third will produce a collaborative flag and the last; a session to create a poem; to chant, to sing, to shout and to make our voices heard as part of the open day on Sunday the 16th of December. Open to the public for a warm drink and a snack, the community day will be an opportunity to celebrate the value of art and craft to women’s lives and the importance of having a voice.
Find out more about the open day on Sunday the 16th of December here