“I approach new projects with an attitude of openness and a willingness to embrace my own ignorance, a recognition of my own stupidity”
John Wynne sound artist

At the end of last month, I went to see photographer Peter Sanders in Conversation at the National Media Museum Bradford, which was part of the Bradford Literature Festival. Peter Sanders was a rock photographer in the 60s capturing many musical icons including Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan, but then went on to a different path – he coverted to Islam  in the early 70s and now photographs Islamic life and culture.  More than the photographs he showed as part of his presentation, I was drawn to Peter’s very calm and luminous presence. It’s difficult to describe but he had a certain aura that seemed clear and simple and honest, and I wondered how much of this was down to his faith. I was very interested to hear why he had chosen Islam over the other faiths he had explored, including Bhuddism and Sikhism.

I left the event intrigued, though a little frustrated; although the facilitator tried to probe him, Peter didn’t give much detail on why he had felt called to Islam. Maybe he’s not a natural speaker. That’s ok. Making visual work and having skills of being able to talk to a large group people are two very different things, as I well know.

But it’s being milling around in the back of my head since.

As I mentioned in my last post I’ve been working with a group of mothers  – the Coffee Morning Group  – at a children’s centre in Manningham in Bradford. The group are one of the best groups I’ve ever met. They are inclusive, friendly and a lot of fun. They have an amazing energy and it’s a joy to just sit and listen to their stories and banter. Most of the ladies are Muslim and from South East Asia. They have been celebrating Eid and a lot of the conversation over the past couple of weeks has been about preparations and celebrations. I’ve become aware through listening to them that I know very little about the faith, culture and traditions of Islam, beyond the basics. Although I’ve met and worked with many people who are Muslim (In Bradford where I mostly work one quarter of its citizens define themselves as Muslim)  and also have  Muslim friends, I’ve never really sat down and had a proper chat about Islam. I’ve been wondering why – its probably a combination of reasons – the focus is normally on something else, faith isn’t normally a general topic of conversation, and maybe coloured my own personal attitude towards faith in general. I had a very negative experience of religion being brought up as a Catholic and tend to avoid most things that relate to (any) religion.

I’ve been feeling in recent weeks though that I need to learn more. We’re living in very incendiary times, where in the wake of our government’s decision to take us to war against ISIS factions of the media are propagating anti-Muslim sentiment . I think all of us have a duty to reject this insidious Islamophobia. .

As an artist I’m especially interested in how Muslim identity has been or is expressed creatively. I’ve been listening and learning from my Coffee Morning group, I’ve got some books out of the library, and I found a great zine online called Oomk which features work from 40 women artists and writers many from non Western perspectives and experiences. Of particular interest was an article called ‘Islamic Feminism’ by writer Sara Salem which describes her explorations into her own Islamic roots and identity. Also a piece on British Pakistani and Muslim artist Nasreen Raja and her project Reconnecting Memories. Nasreen describes her work as inviting ” dialogue and re-centres a scape for Muslim women’s bodies to become people”

I’m feeling increasingly more awake to the fact that my influences up to now have been pretty monocultural and Western  – and I want to look and learn outside this. It’s a big world out there and I know so little of it. So inspired by the John Wynne quote above, time to declare stupidity and learn some stuff.



‘There is not story that is not true” Chinua Achebe

Working with the parents group at Midland Road Children’s Centre in Manningham, Bradford over the past weeks, I’m struck by their fantastic stories.  They are full of banter and anecdotes which intrigue me and make me laugh and want to know more. During my last session with them, we made instant books, working with collaged materials. For this week’s session I wanted to find a creative way of accessing some more of the stories – of  the group, their community, their friendships, and their history, without disrupting the organic and spontaneous flow of conversation.

I’ve been doing some collaborating and talking lately with Chemaine Cooke and Sam Musgrave, two Bradford based artists who run integrated dance company Maho. I’ve known Sam and Chemaine for some time and we share similiar approaches and ethos in working with people. Sam and Chemaine have worked with the parents group before me and were interested in collaborating with me on my sessions with them. As it happens our interests in storytelling shave converged at this time – Maho are involved in a current project called Electric Fireside which brings people together  in two sites in Bradford over two weekends “to share stories and express themselves creatively”.

So I spent the early part of this week gathering materials that could be used to explore stories with; cutouts, acetates, lights, objects, props. I’ve been exploring a lot of these materials through my own work over the past year  in my photographic project WE ARE ALIVE AGAIN in which I have been exploring performative and collage processes in working with personal and family archival materials – and I have been keen to involve others to expand the project.

So I had proper fun making a cardboard box set and covering it with streetmaps of Manningham. It felt like playing like a child again. I photocopied images of buildings and printed some onto acetate, and mined my box of cutouts to find images I thought might appeal. Letters to make words, and mini lamps for stage lighting, and by Thursday morning I had a box of goodies to bring.

Sam and I co-facilitated the session – Sam began by asking the group to get into pairs and come up with two stories to share with the group – one true, and one made up. Much hilarity ensued as the ladies told their real and made-up stories and we all had to guess which was which. We talked about what makes a good story, and decided as a group to make and enact a story, using the materials I’d brought.  A photocopy of mehndi sparked the story of how the group came about; two years ago one of the ladies offered to show a couple of the other mothers how to do menhdi, over a coffee morning at her house. The numbers grew over time and the group got too big to fit in a living room. They found space to meet at the nursery (where many of their children go) and have been meeting up there every week since. The ladies made the set and stood up at the front, and the story was told to us all. For the ending of the story the group chose to tell about a communal trip to the Bradford Alhambra to see a show, where they danced onstage with the cast and their celebration afterwards. Everyone got up to tell this last bit. The telling was communal, collective, joyous and fun, dancing and laughing. It was magical. The identity of the group is so strong, and this I think comes from the stories they tell about themselves.

Later that day I went to another storytelling event. My best friend Andrea has recently set up the Ilkley Writers group  and they put on an event as part of the Ilkley Literature Festival Fringe called ‘The Witching Hour: Dark Tales From Ilkley Moor“. In a darkened room,  we listened to ten stories by ten tellers, a mix of professional and amateur writers, told against a background of a eerily beautiful black and white film showing details of the moor. It was a powerful evening, the tales all so different but all with a darkness at their heart. I thought about all the stories I had heard that day- formal and informal, real and made up, and how they’re all mixed up in my head. Our lives are just the stories that we tell.

On Friday, I made a zine  called 60 Minutes Later – A Collaborative Zine About Identity” with a Facebook friend who I have never met. Arlene lives in Largs, Scotland, and I’m near Bradford. From 2pm  – 3pm we each made 12 pages of a zine which we are going to collate and photocopy. It’s something Arlene and I have been talking about for a while  – inspired by a zine Arlene had made and sent me called ’58 minutes later’ in which she set herself the challenge of making a zine in under an hour. We agreed that we could gather materials beforehand but that we had to actually make it within the hour. It was an exhilarating, fun, and slightly stressful experience. I surprised myself slightly by the stories I told of myself in this pressured time span. They are far more direct (and true) than anything I could have done given more time. Maybe this is a good method for getting to the heart of a story, the heart of a person.


I read this great quote about the power of stories the other day from Shami Chakrabarti,  who was talking in an interview  about a biography of Eleanor Marx

She says

“My career has been about being a grim and worthy lawyer and political campaigner, but I always thought that it would be stories that shaped the narrative, the campaigns and the agendas. This book proves my point. I believe more people will be moved politically, women in particular, by reading Eleanor’s story, than by reading a thousand Comment pieces from me about how our rights and freedoms are important, and how internationalism is important, how feminism is important.
….We’re storytelling creatures. It’s Aesop’s Fables and fairy tales. This is how we listen and how we learn. And the great political campaigners are those doing storytelling. In the modern world everything goes into silos: we have fact and we have fiction, politics and the arts, it all gets compartmentalized, but actually we are a bunch of relatively basic creatures who want to sit around the camp fire with a drum listening to stories. It’s not about facts, but progress and our values.

In a week of sometimes overwhelming impotence, rage and despair at world events – the Uk’s decision to go to bomb Irag yet again,  propaganda and the   misrepresentation of truth in the media,   the proposed scrapping of the Human Rights Act  and the government asset stripping of our NHS  reading this was a tiny beacon.

All week I’ve been thinking

What can little I/we do in the face of this? How should I be spending my energy? Direct action? Lobbying? Demonstrating? Is what I do as an artist of any use?

After reading the Chami’s comments I was reminded of Rebecca Solnit’s wonderful book The Faraway Nearby which is a kind of anti-memoir, about, among other things family, stories, empathy and activism. I read it a few weeks ago, in the space of a day. I felt like she was talking directly to me, and I wrote so many passages down that I may as well have photocopied the whole book. Solnit talks about us as being ‘leaky vessels’- (http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/847270-listen-you-are-not-yourself-you-are-crowds-of-others), our identities are made of stories –  past present, real, fictional  – which are continually being made, and remade, according to our needs.

“Stories migrate, meanings migrate, everything metamorphoses’

Solnit  also talks about storytelling as a means to understand and feel our connections with others, to expand the boundaries of the self.  Empathy, in other words. My favourite writer, the late David foster Wallace,  says fiction gives us an opportunity to “jump over the wall of self and inhabit somebody else.”

Back to Solnit:

“Empathy, solidarity, allegiance – the nerves that run out into the world – expand the self beyond its physical bounds”

I think about the Coffee Morning group I’ve been working with at Midland Road Nursery School in Bradford, a group of mothers who meet every Thursday. The group, who mostly live in close proximity to each other in Manningham, has been going for a couple of years and in that time they  become a very strong community. They talk all the time on whatsapp, they go shopping together and out for lunch, they do fund-raising projects together.  They are one of the liveliest groups I’ve ever met, with a  strong group identity, pride and sense of belonging.  Being in their presence is like being in a bright full sun – I leave feeling warm, dazzled,  and a bit giddy and befuddled.  On Thursday, as we made instant books together, I listened to their banter and stories  -plans for Eid,  what they were going to cook and bring round to each other’s houses to share.   A beautiful, strong thing, this sense of belonging, community, ‘us’.

The power of  stories, strengthening us as individuals and groups. Creating space to share these – over the making of a zine or a collage or a cup of tea – to make the ‘I’ a ‘we’ –  a powerful thing.