Following in Obama’s footsteps

Guest blog from Creative Scene Director Nancy Barrett, attending the Tandem Europe partnership event in Athens with Heckmondwike art ambassador Simon Thirkill.

I’m getting a little concerned. Simon’s flight arrived two hours ago and I’ve still not heard from him. I’m due to shepherd him to the hotel and then on to the Benaki Museum where we’re making our first public presentation of our project, ‘Taking Our Place’.

Over the past 16 months, Creative Scene’s Producer Vicky has been part of a network of 25 young cultural producers selected to take part in Tandem Europe. The ‘Tandem’ is a partnership working together on creative solutions for social innovation.

Vicky has been sharing the model of community commissioning that saw Simon bring a whole host of digital fun to the annual HeckmondLIGHT event.

I get a call. Simon’s already arrived, checked into the hotel and is at the Museum ahead of me, so I get my skates on and head off too. The Benaki is the oldest museum in Greece, now housed in a swanky new building. President Barack Obama, I read in the in-flight magazine, visited last month.

Simon and Vicky are in the midst of a large crowd as a panel of the project organisers is quizzed, game-show style, about the Tandem programme. The host is a man dressed in a long curly wig and a woman dressed as a snail is making her way slowly around the room.

We grab a glass of wine and settle into the merry throng. Soon, Simon and Vicky take up their place by their poster presentation and field questions about the project from the curious arty crowd.

It’s good to hear the interest in how local people in North Kirklees are working as co-commissioners and producers with professional artists, and to see Heckmondwike take its place on the European map.

Simon must be tired – he had an early start to make the flight to Athens – but you wouldn’t know it. He’s found other ‘light-art’ projects around the room, is sharing experiences with fellow enthusiasts, and making plans to visit.

“I’ve never seen that in our town before.”

I’ve dug out my thermals. The Met Office app says it feels like -7. It’s not wrong.

The Weeping Sisters are already leaning against the neo-classical façade of Huddersfield railway station as our procession gathers.

“Your ‘sister’ looks very different from when I saw her last,” I say to Joanne who is here with her daughter Iris.

“We’ve done a lot haven’t we? She looks lovely, and it’s great to see the two ‘sisters’ together. We had a rehearsal on Saturday and it was good to meet the Bosnian women who’ve been working on theirs.”

Adam from the 6million+ charity gathers us together for a briefing. “Thanks everyone for coming, it’s wonderful that you are all here. It’s a cold night but it’s better than wind and rain. Okay, this is the plan…”

For the last couple of months 6million+ has partnered with Creative Scene and local people to create these two Weeping Sisters, representing the suffering of the Holocaust and of the Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia.

The idea is to make a massive visual impact ahead of this evening’s Holocaust Memorial Day commemorations at the University. Judging by the number of onlookers we’re attracting, it’s doing just that.

“They look terrific,” I say to Jasmina who is standing under Hava – our Bosnian ‘sister’ – with her own daughter, 20-year-old Melissa.

“Yes. We’re very proud of what we’ve done in such a short time,” Jasmina says.

“She’s put in such a lot of work,” says Melissa as the samba band strikes up with a mournful beat.

It’s time. Alan leads us past the taxi rank towards the bus station where our procession officially begins. “Watch that bollard,” says one of the stewards to Kitty, our Jewish ‘sister’ as we pass SpecSavers.

“It’s amazing,” says Creative Scene’s Parveen, “just watching people’s reactions. They catch sight of us, stop, and try to figure out what’s going on. They’re transfixed.”

We’re joined by the Mayor outside the Plumbers Arms who, like everyone else, whips out his mobile and takes a few snaps. A trio of singers from the University, led by lecturer Ben Spatz, sing a Jewish lament. With Medina on the accordion, a group from the Bosnian community reply with a melancholic song about estranged lovers.

And then we’re off again, across the dual carriageway and towards the shopping area.

Outside VapeSuite I put my tape recorder in front of two women who’ve just been handed one of our leaflets. “It’s for Holocaust Memorial Day,” I tell them.

“It’s really nice of them to do that,” says one.

“I’ve never seen that happen before… not in our town anyway,” says the other.

As we pass down King Street hairdressers stand with clients in their doorways, scissors in hand; restaurant staff and diners peer from their windows.

Outside Boots I say hello to a woman ladened with bags and clutching her shopping trolley. “I was on my way to the bus station,” explains Shirley, “but then I saw this. It’s very interesting. I’d rather get cold and watch this than go home. It doesn’t happen every day.”

After an hour our procession reaches the University for the main event. We’re relieved to be in the warm. “How was that?” I ask Jasmina.

“Very special,” she says, “but very cold. It reminded me of being in Croatia, after we’d fled Bosnia. It was snowing. It was so, so cold and we were sleeping outside for 23 days. It was horrible.”

As the giant figures are dismantled to negotiate the doorway I notice Shirley following behind with her shopping. Still not on her way home.

“We really haven’t learnt anything.”

“Have you done anything like this before?” I ask Iris.

“No, never,” she says, continuing to cut holes in the material.

“But you’d like to do more, wouldn’t you?” says her mum Joanne.

CS_120117_600-EditI’ve come to document the creation of the second ‘Weeping Sister’ for the Holocaust Memorial Day commemoration in a couple of weeks time. This ‘Sister’ – another giant carnival-type figure –  is based on a Jewish woman from the Lublin Ghetto.

Her sibling is being made by members of the Bosnian community over in Batley. Tonight we’re at the Howlands community centre in Dewsbury where Iris and Joanne are mucking in with Neil from the 6 million+ charity and Creative Scene’s Parveen, all under the supportive eye of costume designer Naomi.

CS_120117_637-Edit“We normally have more here,” Parveen explains kneeling on the floor, ironing, “I think the threat of the snow has put people off this evening.

“We’ve finished the papier mâché hands and face,” she says, “and last week we chose the fabrics. So tonight we’re starting on the construction. This is going to be her apron.”

CS_120117_645-EditLike the Bosnian ‘Sister’, Naomi has lots of photographic references and has sketched out a design. “When the ghettos were first created people looked quite smart,” she explains, tapping one photograph and then another, “but, many months later, before they were deported to the camps, their clothes had pretty much disintegrated.”

“The contrast between the two is really quite stark and emotional,” says Parveen. “Towards the end the figures all have lifeless eyes and look like skeletons – they don’t know what’s ahead of them – it’s really quite haunting.”

“Our figure will have an overcoat, a blouse and a long skirt,” says Naomi, “She would have been cold so there are lots of layers. And remember the wind has to pass through it…”

“So it’s not like a sail?” I say, referring to last week’s discussion.

“Yes, so we’ve cut holes in the overcoat and covered them with a netting and disguised that with patches of fabric.”

Joanne and her 14-year-old daughter are placing squares of fabric around each hole. “It might be nice to lay out those squares more randomly,” suggests Naomi.

“All higgledy piggledy?” says Iris.

“Exactly.”

CS_120117_681-Edit“Have you learnt anything new about the Holocaust, from doing this project?” I ask no one in particular.

“When you think about the Holocaust you obviously think about Germany, don’t you?” says Joanne. “But being involved in this has made me realise that atrocities are still going on. It makes you think, doesn’t it?”

CS_120117_668-Edit“We haven’t got much better at tolerating difference,” says Parveen as she lays out the giant apron. “Even in this country, there is still discrimination against people who are different. When I think of some attitudes towards refugees and people who are not like us, we really haven’t learnt anything.”

Joanne and Iris are now sewing netting to the holes in the overcoat. “It’s like nailing jelly to a wall,” says Joanne.

“On the night we’ll need volunteers to carry the figure through Huddersfield, would you be up for it?” he asks Joanne.

“I could do a hand,” says Joanne, “if no one else wants to.”

“You could do the other hand,” I suggest to Iris, “or you could do one between you.”

“That would be nice,” Joanne says to her daughter, “we could do one together.”

The Weeping Sisters, accompanied by a ‘mournful’ samba band, will process through Huddersfield on Thursday, 26th January ahead of the Holocaust Memorial Day commemoration at the University from 7.15pm. The procession starts at the Bus Station at 6.20pm.

“This will help us tell people what happened.”

“Why do we have to have holes in it?” asks Jasmina.

“Otherwise it’ll be like a sail,” explains Adam, his hands thick with glue, “and the wind will just take it.”

It’s Holocaust Memorial Day at the end of the month and the 6 million+ charity is working this morning with the Bosnian community on a giant female figure as part of the commemorations.

cs_070117_025-edit“We need something big and theatrical,” says costume designer Naomi Parker to the small group of woman, eager to get started, “so we need the fabric to flow from the arms and float around.”

Already this group has made the figure’s papier mâché head and Jasmina’s son Aldin and Dzevad are helping to finish the hands. “Maybe use some of this lighter paper for the edges,” suggests Adam.

This isn’t the first time I’ve followed communities creating work with 6 million+. Last year I documented Put Yourself in Their Shoes where Gaynor and Tracey, a couple of local amateur actors, played out moving stories from the Kirklees Kurdish community.

“This year we’re making something that will be highly visible,” charity director, Adam Strickson explains to me, as he sticks Indian rag paper to another finger. “As well as this figure representing a Muslim woman from Srebrenica, we’re also making another of a Jewish woman from the Lublin Ghetto.”

cs_070117_052-edit cs_070117_053-editThe figures, known as The Weeping Sisters, will head a solemn procession through Huddersfield town centre on Thursday, 26th January to mark the Memorial Day commemoration at the University.

“It’s a cumulative project,” explains Adam. “Next year the Bosnian and Jewish ‘sisters’ will be joined by a couple we’ll make with the local Kurdish and Roma communities. And after that, Rwandan.”

Jasmina, Emsuda and her daughter Medina start to lay material out on the joined-up tables as Naomi positions pipe lagging as arms. Nermina stands on a chair to get an idea of the overall shape.

“The proportions don’t have to be accurate,” says Naomi, “as long as it has a big impact.”

weeping_montageAs the length of the figure’s arms are discussed I ask Aldin how they made the huge face. “We looked at some pictures of a woman and shaped the face in clay first,” he says.

“And how would you describe the face you’ve made?”

“She’s always sad,” he says, “she doesn’t want to talk to anybody.”

After more debate about the costume, some measuring, cutting and pattern-making, Jasmina unpacks a flask and a tower of plastic cups. A plate of homemade biscuits and some Bosnian sugar cubes appear. “Does everyone take milk?” she asks.

cs_070117_077-edit“My story is a little different from other stories,” she says as I take the opportunity to ask Jasmina about her own experiences. “My family came out in 1992 but we were separated.”  She tells how her younger siblings and mother first came to the UK and then her father. She stayed with her disabled grandmother and, despite numerous visa applications, wasn’t reunited with her family for another three years.

“It is heartbreaking. From then until now, it is heartbreaking. Families are broken. Even now my brothers and sisters are all over the world. None of us are in the same country.”

Jasmina hands me a coffee. “Better than Red Bull,” she say, smiling.

cs_070117_037-edit“And this project? How important is it to get involved?”

“It is very important. We know what happened in Srebrenica and we want others to know too. It’s recognised in the UK [as a genocide] but not everywhere. This will help us tell people what happened. So many people were killed just because of their nationality. There are still mothers looking for the bones of their children that they will never find. It’s just wrong. This is a small thing we can do.”

“And it’s important for your son too?” Aldin is now picking papier mâché off his fingers.

“Yes, yes. I don’t feel hate towards anybody but I want him to understand. I want him to understand how it happened and how things can go wrong.”

Batley, the town that sings

“I like singing, but I don’t want to belong to a choir,” says Elizabeth. “I don’t want to have to dress up and go out to perform.”

We’re in the community room at Batley Central Methodist Church and Elizabeth is preparing for another session with Opera North’s outreach people. “Last week we sang Evening Prayer from Hansel and Gretel… and in harmony.”

cs_051216_045-editEarlier this year Opera North worked with the people of Batley to put on Batley Does Opera in this very church. It was a huge success.

“This is something a little different,” says Hayley McColl, Opera North’s lifelong learning manager who is preparing refreshments. “Batley Does Opera was very much cross-generational with children and adults performing together. These sessions are for older adults and they have lots of social side-effects.”

I must look quizzical because Hayley explains, “There are lots of proven health benefits associated with singing in a group. And we keep it very informal, people can drop in and out.”

This is the second of three taster sessions running before Christmas. For those who want more there’s a 10-week session in the new year.

I’m introduced to Hayley’s colleagues, soprano Sarah Ogden and pianist Jenny Martins before Sarah invites the group to stand for some warm-up exercises.

“Okay let’s start with ‘One… two.. three… four…’” she sings, moving her hand higher and higher on each beat.

cs_051216_022-editcs_051216_033-editAfter the group have sung about ‘Chicken tikka, mango chutney and a pint of lager,’ it’s down to business as Sarah and Hayley distribute the music for Evening Prayer. “We’ll do it line by line and if you could repeat it after me,” says Sarah.

“That sounds really good. Really good. Would you like to do some harmonies now?”

cs_051216_040-edit cs_051216_023-editDuring the tea break I ask a couple of the singers why they’ve come today. “Because I love singing,” says Diana. “I used to sing in a choral society and I’d like to get back into real singing.”

“The last time I sang seriously was in the school choir,” says Trish. “I really liked it and, apart from singing around the house, I haven’t sung since.”

“What does singing do for you?” I ask. “I can’t sing but listening to you lot I wish I could. It feels quite spiritual.”

“It can be,” says Diana. “It can be quite spine-tingling.”

“You certainly can’t be thinking about your shopping list,” says Trish. “You have to concentrate so I think singing is ‘otherly’ in that respect.”

Tea and biscuits complete, Sarah kicks off part two. “You can come in your Christmas jumpers next week if you’d like. We’ll do my version of the Twelve Days of Christmas.”

I’ll be back.