Breaking through: An academic award and a confidence boost

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Ella Winning, BA Visual Culture final year student, on winning a Breakthrough award for academic performance.

 Fig. 1 Award winners and donors at the 2018 ceremony

I was very honoured to be the recipient of the Khadija Saye Visual Culture Breakthrough Award for 2017/18, for my performance in the second year of my BA Visual Culture degree. I hadn’t anticipated receiving this award – I didn’t even know of its existence – and I was (and still am) incredibly surprised. I am extremely grateful to my award’s donor, Andrew Davidson, who created and named the prize after the late Khadija Saye.

Saye was a 24-year-old artist based in London, whose work explored her sense of self, as well as common spirituality beyond religion. Her work was being shown in the 2017 Venice Biennale when her life was taken, alongside her mother’s, on the 20th floor of Grenfell tower on 14 June 2017. For someone so young, she showed masses of potential, and had started to receive the recognition for her talent she deserved in the days leading up to her tragic death.

As they were both involved in a mentoring scheme called Early Risers, Saye and Andrew met on a handful of occasions. Andrew was struck by the artist’s potential. He said, “I think one day she would have won the Turner Prize, or probably invented something better.”[1] To Andrew, the award is a “small way of honouring her memory and making some future creative paths to fulfilling careers a little smoother.”[2]

Alongside Andrew, many people have been inspirational for me throughout my studies, including my tutors and everyone at ONCA Gallery, where I carried out my Behind the Scenes  placement. They have helped me with my work and provided valuable insight into visual culture practice. Receiving this award has given me a big confidence boost in my academic abilities and has encouraged me to pursue further study through a Masters next year.

The university-wide awards celebration ceremony took place on 4 December 2018, and brought together over 150 beneficiaries, donors, staff and other guests to celebrate the achievements of students from across the whole of the university through Breakthrough awards, scholarships, governors’ prizes as well as others. I was struck by the amazing work of those around me, including students focusing their work to aid vulnerable people, setting up valuable organisations, alongside the sheer amount of hard work inside and outside of studies.

While I unfortunately didn’t get to meet Andrew at the ceremony, we recently met over a coffee. A member of the Visual Culture alumni here at University of Brighton, Andrew is an Education and Communications Consultant. I loved hearing about his very interesting work, and his thoughts on course related topics that he is knowledgeable and passionate about. He believes strongly in supporting the university, and paving the way for students to kick start their careers. Hearing about his amazing work within the industry was incredibly valuable, especially in terms of understanding practical careers in art history to help others.

With the prize money, I have donated some to ONCA in the hope that it will help fund some of their fantastic work! With the rest I will save to take my mum on a well-deserved holiday. Thank you so much, Andrew, for your generosity and foresight in recognising and developing the potential of newcomers to the creative arts.

[1] Andrew Davidson, qted in Sarah Grant, “Encouraging talent to flourish” University of Brighton Alumni Association, WordPress, 25 Sep, 2017.

[2] Davidson, qted in Grant, “Encouraging talent to flourish”

Discovering the Power of Resistance

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Photography PhD student, Epha Roe, reviews the University of Brighton symposium ‘Photography and Resistance’

Fig. 1 “A woman protests against the presence of soldiers in the townships, Soweto 1985”, Photograph by Paul Weinberg

I was fifteen when I first discovered photography. It was a last minute shift, not out of genuine interest, but because a close friend of mine had switched her choice from our mutually agreed-upon Drama and Theatre Studies, and I didn’t want to be potentially left alone at school. In the end we weren’t even put into the same group. But the choice had been made and has since ended up shaping the subsequent years of my life.

Fast-forward twelve long years to January 2019 and I find myself lucky enough to attend a two-day research symposium at the University of Brighton under the title ‘Photography and Resistance’, organised by visiting research fellow Kylie Thomas, and Uschi Klein. The symposium brought together photographers, artists and researchers from around the country and overseas, to discuss the varying ways in which photography (and other media) intersect with notions of resistance, in particular in relation to repressive regimes. It also connected researchers work on photographs taken during and after apartheid in South Africa, together with histories of photography in other locations.

A common thread throughout the speakers’ papers, as well as among discussions after, was whether the notion of resistance was implicit or explicit in its relation to photography. Indeed, whether or not resistance was an after effect, or might be contained within the action of taking a photograph. Further threads, however, seemed to demonstrate it as both.

Jordana Blejmar’s paper, ‘Spectral Topographies: Photography and Disappearance in Argentina’, explored the way in which the children of parents who were ‘disappeared’ during the 1976-83 military junta regime, used photography to reclaim their parents memory through constructed, fictional encounters. Using images of their parents translated through a mixture of photo-collage and projection, their photographs demonstrate a means of resistance both in the process and the result. Their images, effectively capturing the presence of absence, provide the potential of connection with other children of disappeared parents. Their photographs also act as visual invitations to activism.

Memory or remembrance as a tool of resistance was a theory reiterated by Patricia Prieto-Blanco, whose paper focussed on her co-author’s autograph book, inherited from her grandmother Viktorija; this was a product of Viktorija’s time in the Ravensbrück concentration camp in northeast Germany in the Second World War. Here the book is understood as a place of relational resistance, somewhere where both Viktorija and her friends wrote of their time within the camp. In it, Patricia argued, Viktorija’s writings ignore the present of their difficult conditions in favour of an idealised future. Rather than constructing the war, they obstruct it through the subject of the autograph book.

An analysis of the Austrian photographer Dora Kallmus, by Kylie Thomas, discussed the tensions between Kallmus’ pre-war society photographs and her post-war images of a Parisian abattoir. Kylie showed how the latter was a possible act of resistance, as an indirect visualisation of her sister’s death at the hands of the Nazis. Other investigations of photography and antisemitism were present in Gil Pasternak’s work on the ‘Landkentnish’ (Yiddish for “knowing the land”) movement of 1926-38. Gil explained how it sought to preserve Jewish heritage among the growing rise of Polish nationalism. This movement, among other things, used photography to document Jewish monuments and create archives of local Jewish cultural heritage, effectively imaging the significance of intersectional cultures and national belonging, using the Polish landscape as its backdrop. This imaging, Gil argued, allowed Jews to consider their heritage within the Polish landscape, and simultaneously allowed Polish people a way to consider the landscape with the presence of Jewish life.

These instances of resistance all challenged restrictive or repressive structures. These same themes were underlined by the work of Juliana Kasumu, especially in relation to the archive as a site of history. Through using her own creative work as an example, Kasumu highlighted the importance of intersectional thought, especially when considering colonial photographs, which are often considered to be objective representations rather than sites of exploitation.

After two days of wide-ranging thought, the argument that photography may contain the ability to resist forms of repression, both during and after traumatic events, seems only to ring true. As well as getting to hear the many speakers’ fascinating perspectives on resistance, it also allowed me some surprising time for self-reflection. My early self-portraits, for example, themselves a gateway into photography and as a safe mode of self-representation, were themselves, in hindsight, a reaction to an environment that was restrictive and repressive. And although I didn’t know it then, it was in that year of discovering photography and discovering myself that I also uncovered the power of resistance.

Further details of the symposium, including further details of speakers and papers can be found here: https://photographyandresistance.wordpress.com/2019/01/23/research-symposium/

Memory of Clothes

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MA History of Design and Material Culture student Tasha Cobb considers the intersections between clothes and memory.

Memory of Clothes exhibition poster

On 15 January 2019 Helen Barff and Suzy Joinson, an artist and a writer respectively, came to the University of Brighton to discuss their research into clothing and memory. This forms the basis for an exciting new podcast and exhibition at Worthing Museum and Art Gallery. The talk followed a seminar for students on the MA module History of Fashion and Dress: New Directions, led by Annebella Pollen, on the subject of interventions and creative responses to dress collections, in which we discussed recent research exploring dress, memory and oral/personal histories and considered the possibilities for including these ‘disruptive’ narratives in dress displays and exhibitions.

Suzy and Helen have been working with Worthing Museum’s outstanding collection of everyday dress, linking garments with the memories of local women. Their research comprises interviews and workshops with elderly residents of care homes in the town, where they encountered rich and often surprising stories about the women’s lives through the 20th century. Being led by these oral histories, the researchers could explore how the clothing in Worthing’s collection spoke of, or ran counter to, memories of life in the town. Suzy and Helen brought selected garments to the workshops in order to test whether the pieces matched the women’s memories, or whether they sparked further recollections. For example, one resident was a member of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) during WWII and recalled feeling extremely proud and glamorous in her uniform. The Worthing collection has an exemplary selection of military uniforms, so Suzy and Helen were able to bring a WAAF beret to the session.

Figure 1: Helen Barff. Work in Progress. 2019. Cyanotype on fabric. 97 x 76 cm. Image courtesy of the artist.

In the seminar Suzy and Helen discussed the challenges and opportunities presented by using oral history to inform a creative exhibit. The practical and ethical implications of interviewing the elderly were also fascinating. The researchers initially planned to ask participants to write their clothing memories on postcards which would be integrated into the exhibition space. However, many of the women were unable to write and preferred to talk, so they switched to an oral history methodology, capturing memories through audio recordings which Suzy is now developing into a podcast.

The nature of the topic meant that interviews could be long and rambling, encompassing numerous anecdotes and intimate details. As other researchers have noted, clothing elicits strong and very personal biographical memories.[i] Additionally, the elderly residents could struggle to remember specific details and especially chronologies of events, meaning there was much to be unravelled.

We listened to a recording of an interview between Suzy and Jackie, in her early 90s, in which Jackie recalls her time in the Women’s Land Army (WLA), characterised both by hard labour and new-found independence. She has strong memories of the uniforms and how these were intrinsic to the women’s identities as contributors to the war effort. Helen explained how she has been working with a cognitive psychologist, Catherine Loveday, who is researching the link between clothing and memory. In biographical memories, including those involving clothes, there is a ‘reminiscence bump’ whereby memories dating from a person’s young adulthood (roughly aged 17-25) are strongest. For the participants of this research, young adulthood coincided with WWII, so the project captured some fascinating stories from this period.

In ongoing research, Loveday is using brain scans to test memories associated with different objects. Findings suggest that clothing, along with music, elicit the strongest reactions. A correspondence already explored by numerous authors in fashion studies, material culture, psychology and beyond, there is no one explanation for clothing’s heightened significance to memory.[i] However clothing, more than simply housing the body, can be thought of as a ‘second skin’ through and with which the body experiences the world.[ii] As well as contributing to our sense of self, clothing is inherently sensory, involving not only touch but smell, sight and sound.[iii] Second-hand clothing often ‘stands in’ for an absent body, or else it seems uncannily invested with traces of its former wearer. This could be through physical traces, marks, tears and smells: as Bethan Bide notes, clothing ‘take[s] an imprint of the body’.[iv]

 

Figure 2: Helen Barff. Work in Progress (detail). 2019. Jesmonite, rope, concrete. 675 x 65 x 25 cm.

Image courtesy of the artist.

The idea of memory becoming embedded in clothing is key to Helen’s artistic practice. The central element of the upcoming exhibition are sculptural artworks created in response to the narratives explored in the research. Helen uses jesmonite to craft sculptural forms from second-hand clothing, filling garments with the substance to create an imprint from which the fabric is later removed. Helen’s work engages directly with the materiality of clothing, exploring how clothes ‘wear’ and how they physically mould to the body. Particularly intrigued by the intimacy of clothing and the relationships which it materialises (for example, mother and child), Helen explores boundaries- where does the person end and clothing begin?

Another issue which emerges through Helen’s work is the impossibility of re-creating or recovering a remembered object. Helen asked participants to describe a remembered garment, which she then attempted to rediscover by scouring charity shops. These second-hand items were then transformed by the artist, sometimes sewn together into new formations before using jesmonite to stretch and distort them, transforming them into sculpture. The result is a series of strange forms, resembling textiles but hard to the touch, and appearing somehow excessive and in unrecognisable shapes. The work speaks of the irretrievability of lost garments, and how even in personal memory these may be blurred or altered versions of the original objects. As Alison Slater writes, not only do material objects change, but our memories of dress also ‘wear’ with time.[iv]

Memory of Clothes opens on 23rd February at the Studio Gallery, Worthing Museum and Art Gallery. Suzy Joinson and Helen Barff will be running a special tour and Q&A session at the museum on 6 April 2019 at 2pm.

Figure 3: Helen Barff. Work in Progress (detail). 2019. Jesmonite, rope, concrete. 675 x 65 x 25 cm.

Image courtesy of the artist.

[i] See, for example, Carole Hunt, “Worn clothes and textiles as archives of memory,” Critical Studies in Fashion and Beauty 5.2 (2014): 224-228; Robyn Gibson, “Introduction,” The Memory of Clothes, ed. Robyn Gibson (Rotterdam: Sense, 2015) xiii.

[ii] Lucia Ruggerone, “The Feeling of Being Dressed: Affect Studies and the Clothed Body,” Fashion Theory, 21.5 (2017): 585.

[iii] Marius Kwint, “Introduction: The Physical Past,” Material Memories: Design and Evocation, ed. Marius Kwint, Christopher Breward and Jeremy Aynsley (Oxford: Berg, 1999) 13.

[iv] Bethan Bide, “Signs of Wear: Encountering Memory in the Worn Materiality of a Museum Fashion Collection,” Fashion Theory, 21.4 (2017): 455.

[v] See, for example, Alison Slater, “Wearing in memory: materiality and oral histories of dress,” Critical Studies in Fashion and Beauty 5.1 (2014).

[iv] Slater, “Wearing in Memory,” 136.