We speak to Stills Engagement Producer Claire Cochrane and Edinburgh Art Festival Learning and Engagement Coordinator Helena Barrett about Every Woman Super Woman, an upcoming exhibition at Edinburgh’s Central Library between 2-31 December. The exhibition marks the culmination of two projects, Beyond the Selfie and Every Woman A Signal Tower, that saw Stills and Edinburgh Art Festival work alongside girls and young women from Young Saheliya, a mental health and well-being support organisation for black and minority ethnic (BME) women.
During the summer, as part of Edinburgh Art Festival 2016, Stills showed an exhibition by Jo Spence, whose photography explored subjects such as women’s rights, family, class and illness. Spence demonstrated an enduring commitment to her belief in photography’s ability to empower those that use and experience it.
Inspired by Spence’s work Beyond the Selfie was a summer project exploring how photography can disrupt traditional representations of women in print media, television and film using self-portraiture, photographic collage and text. Participants in the project came from Young Saheliya, a service providing support for young BME women aged 12-25.
The young women were given the opportunity to explore ideas of representation using photography. Working with artist Morwenna Kearsley they were given a platform to discuss their experiences whilst learning the technical skills with which to translate their ideas to artworks.
Focusing on reflections and self-portraiture the girls explored alternative methods of making selfies in the city using both Digital SLR and disposable analogue cameras. Using photographic editing software and traditional darkrooms the young women learned a host of new skills whilst simultaneously questioning how we see ourselves versus how others see us.
The project was delivered in partnership with the Glasgow Women’s Library where the work was exhibited at the end of September 2016.
Ciara Phillips’ Every Woman, co-commissioned by Edinburgh Art Festival and 14-18 NOW, is the fourth in a series of dazzle ship artworks developed by contemporary artists to commemorate the First World War. Every Woman pays tribute to the role of women in designing and painting the WW1 dazzle ships and highlights the untold stories of women throughout history.
The Every Woman A Signal Tower project, named after the morse code quote painted onto the dazzle ship, was a partnership with Edinburgh Rape Crisis Centre to deliver a series of summer creative workshops to the Young Saheliya girls on female empowerment, sexual violence and consent and female representation in the media and to give them a chance to tell their stories in a world that wants to silence them.
"The project created a safe space for them to express themselves freely and it showed them that their voices and opinions matter too"- Young Saheliya leader
In partnership with Edinburgh Art Festival, the group visited Ciara Phillips’ Every Woman and the rest of the EAF commissions programme including a talk from Pakistani artist Bani Abidi at her installation Memorial to Lost Words, worked with writer and poet Marjorie Lotfi Gill to write their own dazzle poems, visited Stills for a selfie studio workshop, and took part in further workshops including blogging and riso printing. The work culminated in the group designing and printing a zine called Every Woman Super Woman at Out of the Blueprint.
Each opportunity helped them see art in a different way, learn new skills and explore their creativity. Participation also strengthened the girls’ relationship with each other, many of whom were new to the city or the group. As a Young Saheliya leader identified, it created: “a safe space for them to express themselves freely and it showed them that their voices and opinions matter too and that they can express it in so many different ways by art, poetry, music, photography.”
In spring this year Edinburgh Art Festival appointed a new Learning and Engagement Coordinator whose role includes working across partner exhibitions to forge links between projects.
With both the Beyond the Selfie and Every Woman A Signal Tower projects focusing on women’s rights, female representation in the media and taking inspiration from strong female artists there was a natural connection between the projects, and in addition both were working with Young Saheliya.
It was the girls themselves that made the links and from the beginning there was crossover in their learning and inspiration between workshops and interactions with each other. As the girls didn’t differentiate between projects, soon neither did we; and Stills and Edinburgh Art Festival brought the two projects together to continue their legacy and build on the relationship we had formed with these inspiring young women.
The title Every Woman Super Woman originates from the zine made at Out of the Blueprint but has become an umbrella title which brings together the summer projects – a title that belongs to the participants and reflects the conversations had and work made.
The main ambition of both projects was to give the young women of Young Saheliya an opportunity to have their voices heard and tell the world how they feel about female representation in the media. In the current climate this has never been more important. We hope the exhibition of their photographs and launch of their zine encourages questions about what type of women we see portrayed in the media every day and the impact this has on young women in our society. From this incredible body of work, we want the world to see the talent, opinions and strength of these young women who often don’t get opportunities to express themselves or have their stories listened to.
The project has already grown larger than Stills and the Edinburgh Art Festival had planned, having a bigger impact than if we had worked with the group separately. Both organisations have built strong relationships and sense of trust with both the girls and group leaders from Young Saheliya. A lot of the girls come from cultures that discourage participation in the arts, and involvement in the project has helped to build confidence, resilience and ambition, and given them a space to express themselves creatively.
One of the group has joined CONTACT, the Stills Young Photographers group and, following the design of the zine, is working on another freelance project for Edinburgh Art Festival.
We are continuing the project beyond the original dates with an exhibition at the Central Library from 2 - 31 December, including photographic work from Beyond the Selfie as well as the launch of the Every Woman Super Woman zine.
In the new year Every Woman Super Woman will build on the legacy and work with new and old participants from Young Saheliya by partnering with Marjorie Lotfi Gill’s Belonging Project which will include poetry and creative writing workshops as well as further photography workshops with artist Morwenna Kearsley. The planned project will culminate in an exhibition at Stills in April 2017, though we expect Every Woman Super Woman to continue to grow because until there is equal representation there will always be a need for projects like these.
The Every Woman Super Woman exhibition opens at Edinburgh's Central Library on 2 December until 31 December.
Images provided by Stills, Edinburgh Art Festival and Young Saheliya.This article was published on 23 Nov 2016