A personal response to Refugee Week, June 2019 …

‘Refugee Week takes place every year across the world in the week around World Refugee Day on the 20 June. In the UK, Refugee Week is a nationwide programme of arts, cultural and educational events that celebrate the contribution of refugees to the UK, and encourages a better understanding between communities.

Refugee Week started in 1998 as a direct reaction to hostility in the media and society in general towards refugees and asylum seekers. An established part of the UK’s cultural calendar, Refugee Week is now one of the leading national initiatives working to counter this negative climate, defending the importance of sanctuary and the benefits it can bring to both refugees and host communities.’

(from the International Awareness Events website)

‘WELCOME’  by Kate Murdoch 2019

I made a new piece of work at the weekend, in response to World Refugee Day and Refugee Week which ended this year, on Sunday, June 23rd.

I headed for a specific piece of coastline, Winchelsea Beach, in East Sussex which is significant to me for more than one reason.

It’s a place I’m very familiar with as my parents bought a caravan close to the beach some 30 years or so ago. I’ve been a frequent visitor to the area ever since and love the remote bleakness of this particular stretch of coast.

Two summers ago, I had a short exchange with a man I met on a morning walk, close to the caravan site where I stay. I commented on seeing a police car making its way down a fairly inaccessible lane, towards the beach, in the direction we were both walking. I said what an unusual sight it was, in what is a relatively crime-free corner of the world. The man simply replied: ‘immigrants.’ His aggression took me by surprise and when I asked what he meant, he went into a tirade about immigrants landing in boats ‘all along the East Sussex coast’ – ‘coming here, living off our land, claiming our benefits, etc etc’. He was full of anger and certainly very sure of his opinion, to the point that I was slightly nervous about voicing mine. But I felt I needed to speak out for what I believed in and told him how sad I thought it was; how utterly desperate people must be to put themselves and their children at such risk and how, crucially, after experiencing such trauma in their lives, they should be welcomed with open arms. The conversation ended there, thankfully and the man grunted and sloped off – we were clearly at complete odds with our opinions.

Albeit brief, this conversation stayed with me for a long time. I’d seen opinions like this expressed on TV, but had never actually been face to face with someone who felt so strongly about ‘his’ land, ‘his’ taxes and so full of fear about ‘the immigrants taking over’ and getting their hands on anything that belonged to him. The idea of laying down WELCOME mats to welcome refugees arriving in boats on the shoreline came to me at the point of being confronted with this seething ball of anger. This week, I finally managed to make the work that’s been buzzing around for such a long time.

Ironically, one of the things that spurred me into action was a recent news report that a small group of refugees did actually land on the very stretch of coast I know so well. I only wish the WELCOME mats had been there to greet them.

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It’s over a month since the show was taken down, but presenting the ‘102 Pieces of Glass’ installation work as part of the ‘Neither Use nor Ornament’ (NUNO) exhibition has left me with lots to think about – and not least how, after a recent successful second cataract operation, my vision is so much better! That in itself, has pre-occupied a lot of my thoughts. Looking back at photographs I took in preparation for the show and at the huge bold text I needed in order to be able to access anything on my laptop, reminded me just how poor my eyesight was, pre-taking my work to the OVADA gallery in Oxford. I’m so glad that, despite all the ill health of the past year and the challenges it presented, I managed to make it. As so often happens, completing one piece of work leads to creating ideas for another – nothing stands alone, as we know. Creative work can take on all sorts of other dimensions once it makes its way into the world – in relation to the environment it’s placed in, for example – to other work around it, and in relation to the audience that responds to it.

My art practice focuses on objects and in this case, I presented 102 of them, all made of glass, and each one representative of a year of my late Nana’s life. Glass in itself is a fragile material and reminded me of my own fragility and immortality, particularly in light of spending a rather surreal two weeks of last August, seriously ill in hospital.

It made me also think about how amazing it is that, despite its delicacy, so much of the glass that once belonged to my Nana has survived – how carefully she looked after the things she owned, keeping them safe for future generations. So many of the glass objects were from the everyday and used to present food in the best possible way: jelly moulds, milk jugs, sugar bowls – various foods were taken from their original packaging and carefully placed onto glass plates, into bowls and condiment sets. So much more washing up, admittedly, but the food looked lovely on the table – such care taken with the presentation of it, so that even the simplest menu looked appealing & sumptuous .

One of the dishes singled out by artist, Jenni Dutton was reminiscent of the sort her grandmother ‘always served beetroot in.’ Jenni and I spoke about the reverence around Sunday tea time in the past – best china and glass from the cabinet and no sign of the plastic supermarket packaging or jars on the table – heaven forbid! Maybe it was the years my Nana dedicated to working in domestic service that instilled these habits in her – ensuring that she took great care and applied the same high standards for her family as she did for the lord and lady she served (and yes, the lord & lady references are for real!) Pristine, white starched table clothes, polished, glittering glass & cutlery – a real sense of pride associated with the way she ‘kept house.’

Strong associations with grandmothers and older (particularly female) relatives was a common theme in the conversations I had with people who connected with the 102 glass objects – hardly surprising as so much of the installation was made up of domestic objects from the 1930s onwards. Certainly, for the majority of my Nana’s life time, a woman’s place was primarily, in the home.

I still miss visiting my Nana’s home in the small Cambridgeshire village where she resided for well over 70 years of her long-lived life and often find myself reflecting on her simple but seemingly contented existence; how so much of her life was based around domestic tasks and how hard she worked within the confines of her home. I don’t recall ever getting a sense from her that she considered housework a drudge, but what I do recall is how sparkling clean her home was. I also know that my Mum, the eldest daughter of my Nana’s six children, took on a large share of the housework; that it was expected of her as a daughter, she has told me many times, while her brothers in her words, were ‘completely let off the hook.’ All these years later, you can still detect a hint of resentment in her voice, whenever she speaks of it.

My late Nana has inspired a great deal of the work I’ve made over the years and I’m so grateful to own a number of bits and pieces that were once a part of her life. They provide me with a lot of the raw material for my work and, as our thoughts and feelings are inseparable in relation to the things that surround us, frequently open up opportunities for personal and political discussion. I’m fascinated by these conversations – they’re my prime motivation behind inviting audience participation into my work. The 102 glass pieces in this installation reflect historical & social themes, as well as personal & universal ones – of love and loss, mourning and memory – transition and the passage of time. For me personally, many of the objects in the installation evoke a strong sense of time and place – nostalgic memories of a 1960s childhood, filled with love and security and a sense of truly valuing what we had. They made me think particularly about the different generations associated with the glass pieces – grandmothers and great aunts, cousins & siblings – domesticity and family and my own position within the changing role of women in the home throughout the years.

All this recent thinking around the ‘102 Pieces of Glass’ work is timely: this coming Saturday, I’m going to visit the village of Weston Colville in Cambridgeshire, where my Nana was born. It’s been a while since I’ve been there and I’m looking forward to visiting the village church (St Mary’s) with my Mum and other relatives to see the annual flower show. St. Mary’s is where my Nana was christened, married and finally, laid to rest in her 102nd year. It’s also the church in which my Mum, herself was christened and married. Numerous family christenings, weddings and funerals have taken place in this church over the years and I’m looking forward to being there again on Saturday, soaking up the history and continuing to find inspiration for ongoing work around my much loved late Nana, Olive Mary Taylor (b 1908 d 2010).