A project with teenage Bengali girls from Bow, East London exploring the theme of their experience of living in two cultures, resulting in a 16 x 12ft (4.8 x 3.6m) photo-mural and touring exhibition.
This was my first project with young people and took place at Central Foundation School for Girls in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. A number of the girls had only recently arrived in the country, some spoke no English, some had not previously studied art, and none took readily to brainstorming as a means of developing ideas. I had to find a way of working that would catch their interest while meeting their needs and chose to make themselves the focus of the work. I discovered that all had worked with fabrics or embroidery and the specialism of their teacher Ros Thunder was also in textiles. I began by asking participants to bring in images and objects that expressed something about who they felt themselves to be and they made collages combining fabric and photographic imagery were relatively loose and functioned as a means of exploring ideas and materials. Next a very ‘structured’ exercise highlighted specific ideas and helped to identify design possibilities. The process of combining ideas where choice was limitless into a structured framework clearly worked. The resulting A4 designs were stunning, and together indicated an emerging theme: the experience of living in two cultures.
Moving from individual designs to a shared work was not easy. The border was the most straightforward element. I drew up a template for the final artwork based on the imagery produced thus far and the teacher worked with participants to translate this into fabric using embroidery and quilting. The central images on each side of the border were taken from drawings that some of the students made for the first part of the project, depicting scenes remembered from Bengali village life. The corners related to images brought in to describe life in the UK. All the above were embroidered. Between these were lino prints of imagery created using the card ‘windows’. The inner border is made from embroidered words in English and Bengali selected by the group from sets of words chosen individually with the help of their language support teachers. However, while a satisfactory border could be constructed from materials generated through an incremental process, these did not work for the main image.
The shared central image needed to take on a unified and symbolic function in contrast to the fragmented and accumulative quality of the border. Out of individual discussions with the students a concept started to emerge of how each was grappling with their identity as a London teenager while living within traditional Bengali family values. The struggle of each seemed characterised by the attempt to join these identities rather than to be wholy within one. This developed into an idea of using one of the many sewing machines that filled the classroom to join fabric representing the two cultures. An initial photographic shoot was still not quite right but one day I arrived to find that the students had all done mendhi designs for hand paintings. Having experienced the first photo shoot, they had decided between them that joining the fabric together was symbolic of a marriage of cultures, and mendhi hand painting as used by a bride at a marriage ceremony would therefore be appropriate. The design in the final artwork does not use the traditional henna however. The girls regularly created these designs on their hands at school using nail varnish, which could be wiped off before going home so as not to be seen by their parents. The hand design in the final image is therefore made from nail varnish. The artwork was finally copied and enlarged – the first photographic print in full colour that it had been possible to produce for use on a billboard, due to recent advances in technology. Two years later when the photo-mural was recreated for display in Barcelona, inkjet printing onto vinyl overcame that problem and from that time presented a more durable solution to photo-mural production.
The reaction of participants to seeing their ideas sited in public demonstrated the potential of this aspect of the work to enhance the self-recognition of their ability to act on the world – a theme that would become central to VOLCO, The Young Person’s Guide to the Royal Docks and The Young Person’s Guide to East London several years later.