Women’s struggles. Women’s pain. Women’s compassion and resourcefulness, and the coded messages they send out to the world every day through their clothes, their language, their actions.
I cannot call this post an objective review of Statements in Semaphore or its accompanying exhibition, A Series of Events (Part I), which ran for almost a week at Platform 1 Gallery in Wandsworth Common – because I have made my own emotional investment as one of its contributing artists.
But I can tell you my impressions of what the project was about, and what made my work with fellow artist and sign language interpreter Susan Merrick, who initiated and led it, so invaluable.
Statements in Semaphore aims to highlight the rights of women; particularly, marginalised women. It began with Susan visiting the National Archive building in Kew and discovering the voices of suffragette prisoners and women ‘hidden’ in its archives during an art residency – before climbing the roof to make literal semaphore signals, filmed by an accomplice (for want of a better word).
In the two ensuing years, a socially engaged art practice exploring power, access, language and control in perpetually exciting and diverse ways has emerged. From initial workshops that involved women being photographed from behind making semaphore signals, each of which were printed on giant fabric banners and displayed in public spaces, Susan has reached a point where she is able to create ‘safe spaces’ for creative conversations with women whose voices are often ‘unheard’, so she can invoke thought, debate and awareness around contemporary women’s issues, and link it to her archival research.
As an experienced and qualified sign language interpreter, she felt compelled to add Deaf women’s voices to the mix. They are, after all, twice as likely to experience domestic abuse as hearing women, primarily because the Deaf community is so small and gossip is rife, placing them at increased risk of abuse. Deaf women also experience language and communication barriers in accessing support services, exacerbating their isolation.
In order to empower Deaf abuse survivors to speak for themselves in their own culture and language, Susan resolved to get a Deaf artist running the workshops instead, and invited me to take it on. That I had previously been involved with DeafHope, the anti-domestic abuse charity run by and for Deaf women, was sheer coincidence. I accepted without hesitation.
My workshop, which took place inside Platform 1 Gallery at Wandsworth Common station, was just two hours long. It consisted of a 15-minute ‘brainstorm’ of words the survivors associated with their experiences of domestic abuse, and then a hour 45 minutes making small-scale, mixed-media effigies that were pegged, like washing on the line, above our heads. Immediately afterwards, Susan made a 360 camera clip of the gallery space with the same associated words fading in and out as the film progressed.
In another workshop, I was filmed conversing in BSL with my partner in crime on the steps of a former Victorian hospital for women and children, as if on hidden camera. This became one of several ‘documentary’ pieces looping on a laptop screen in A Series of Events (Part I), the partly obstructive imagery of Platform 1 trains thundering past heightening the sense that you were prying into a confidential dialogue.
Platform 1 Gallery isn’t a large space. For that reason A Series of Events (Part I) felt more like an all-white sanctuary than an exhibition, the perky upcycled or vintage furnishings dotted around giving it an elegant intimacy. That was Susan’s direct invitation for visitors to sit down and chat with her about their life experiences over a cup of tea or coffee.
On the one day I was able to visit the completed exhibition (single-parenting commitments kept me away), I found it very moving. There was a sense of the outwardly pristine finally unveiling signs of women’s oppression, like gilded houses occupied by victims and their still-active perpetuators. You had to engage directly with the effigies, the documentary pieces, the 360 film clip (now accessed as a virtual reality installation), the vintage clothing that Susan had strung up like a giant textile cobweb, in order to identify the coded messages.
Susan extended the theme to the train platform. At 12 noon and 6pm every day, she’d venture outside to make semaphore signals, but her performance had no fixed content. Over time, she also lined up vintage shoes, some of which she walked briefly in; quietly knitted an ultra chunky scarf after a particularly affecting conversation; and roped in volunteers like myself and a couple of others to copy her signals with revolving layers of borrowed clothes. Each of these performances symbolised the myriad ways in which women try to reach out to others for support without endangering themselves.
This was women reflecting upon themselves, simultaneously looking for a means to liberation and self-respect while maintaining their right to be treated as fellow human beings. As a member of the same gender, it made sense that I should respond to the project with two pieces of my own – and one of them was a gilded house.
Reaching (2018) was a 3D cardboard house model sprayed metallic turquoise on the outside with white tissue roses jutting out, while Selfie (also 2018) comprised a framed 300mm x 300mm largely blue monochrome self-portrait with (obviously) a mobile in my hand, drawn on manilla paper.
Reaching seems to have left a huge impact on many people. Given the deceptive appearance of the exhibition – although I am obviously touched by the public’s emotional reaction, I am not surprised.
You entered the space, saw the metallic turquoise and gold house on the low side dresser with the pretty white roses and, wondering why some of them were singed, peered inside – only to be confronted by dark fake blood and debris splattered across one corner of its pretty floral-print walls and gnarled roots. I don’t need to explain why the roses got burnt as they erupted from the house.
Further enhancing the sense of ‘living space’ was a rail and a floor pile of donated vintage clothing, rows of shoes fringing the adjacent side dresser. These were offered in free exchange for the shirt off your back, as if to give you another crack at a fresh start or a new identity.
Interestingly, within four days of its opening, Susan – who had manned the exhibition from day one – was exhausted after several intense conversations with strangers, and wanted to hide; hence the enormous textile cobweb, part-draping the gallery entrance.
If you have been following my work on Instagram, you will know that for the past year or so, I have been making and posting almost every day very small mixed-media drawings that utilise fine lines, cross-hatching and sometimes experimental use of colour and tone.
For some time now, I have been seeking a way to free up my drawing and my thinking so my work on Statements in Semaphore, however much it diverts from my practice, is a crucial step towards developing a bolder and more experimental approach.
Certainly, I valued being able to avoid following a rigid structure to my work with Susan Merrick. Not only did it allow for childcare responsibilities, but also real scope for flexibility and lateral thinking. I am honoured and proud to have had such rich and fulfilling discourse with her and those who participated in my workshops, and more crucially, feel more emotionally grounded as an artist, a Deaf person and a woman – which is exactly what meaningful, socially engaged art practice should do.
Statements of Semaphore is a project led by Susan Merrick and funded by Arts Council England. A Series of Events (Part II) takes place at Princes Hall, Aldershot on 18th and 19th October 2018. See website
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