Shared Sculptural Language

Yorkshire Sculpture International (YSI) is a 100-day festival of sculpture across Leeds & Wakefield, organised by the Henry Moore Institute, Leeds Art Gallery, The Hepworth Wakefield and Yorkshire Sculpture Park. The festival features new public commissions by international artists, major exhibitions at the four galleries and a lively programme of events. An extensive engagement programme works with artists, communities, schools and universities to participate in sculpture-making. This case study explores one of five community-based engagement projects which, in the spirit of YSI, aims to connect with the international in our local communities.

Each YSI gallery has worked closely with a local community organisation to engage participants from migrant and refugee backgrounds. Every project combines the practice of a local artist and visits to each of the YSI venues with practical sculpture-making activities in order to work towards increasing access to and developing a sense of ownership of our galleries and cultural offer.

This artist-led project was delivered by The Hepworth Wakefield (THW) and as such was shaped by our Community Programme’s core values.

Exchange — THW will play an effective role in developing community skills, capabilities and creativity: providing opportunity for mutually beneficial two-way learning between gallery and community experts through dialogue and reflective practice.

Co-creation — The opportunity for local communities to actively participate and collaborate bringing their voice to visible and valued outcomes throughout the gallery.

Partnerships — To work generously and sustainably with local partners so that we are effectively informed of, and respond to, the range of their communities’ needs and priorities.

In this case the project partner was Dominion Training, a local training provider which offers support to learners from across the world now living in Wakefield District. Their provision focuses on developing learner’s English language and employability skills to support them to fully integrate and feel a sense of belonging in their local community. We listened closely to the team at Dominion to build the project around their learners’ needs, including providing transport for each session and taking a break from the project for Ramadan.

The Hepworth Wakefield Vessels exhibition. Photo: Nick Singleton

‘Vessels’, as it has come to be known, was led by Leeds-based artist Emii Alrai. Alrai makes work which responds to her own Iraqi heritage and upbringing in the UK, as well as the way in which museums display international artefacts. Through collaborative planning and reflection with the team at THW, Alrai found accessible ways to look at, understand and respond to sculpture over the course of the project’s eight workshops.

Objects and meaning

At an introductory session, participants were asked to explore a range of everyday objects and match them with key vocabulary which linked to Alrai’s practice. This formed the basis of the project and quickly opened up conversations about objects and the multiple meanings and stories they hold for each of us. It also provided participants with an accessible starting point and the tools to go on to interpret sculptural objects in the galleries.

We continued to refer back to these key words as the project developed and incorporated them in the resources we devised to give participants confidence when exploring new and unfamiliar spaces and exhibitions. The resources provided an open-ended creative framework for responding to objects encountered by the participants and helped them to connect with the objects through drawing or linking them to emotions or memories. Using activity resources in this way was particularly helpful in overcoming the challenges raised by the wide range of English language ability in the group, as verbal instructions could be easily misunderstood, and it allowed participants to go at their own pace and seek clarity where necessary. 

You see people and they have different imaginations and creativity that you never know is there. Gallery visits brings that all out.

Making session at The Hepworth Wakefield. Photo: Martin Baldwin

Display and the value of objects

Gallery visits were essential in building participants familiarity of the local cultural offer available to them, whilst also informing the direction of the project. Along with the YSI venues, participants visited Wakefield Museum which, through a range of objects from the everyday to a taxidermied crocodile, tells the history of Wakefield and the surrounding area. Alrai chose this setting to introduce the concept of display and how it is used to tell stories. The next visit was to The Hepworth Wakefield to see Magdalene Odundo: The Journey of Things which displayed objects from many different cultures and periods of history that have influenced Odundo’s ceramics practice. Here participants identified directly with objects familiar to them and seeing them in the gallery space, were inspired to make their own as they explored sculpture-making processes in the Learning Studios. This resulted in a collection of sculptures that take familiar forms such as cooking utensils and pots found in participants home countries, as well as animals and natural forms, which became a shared sculptural language for expressing identity and personal narrative.

I found so amazing with the arts project is that participants translated what they saw in the galleries into their own cultural meaning. In the clay work, and the three girls made a cooking vessel we have never seen before and then they explained what they do with it. It brought out different cultures and ways of living. It opened a lot of minds. That things can be done in a different way.

Practical making sessions

Over a series of practical sessions, participants experimented with different materials including clay, plaster, gilding metals and steel, applying them through a range of processes which mirror Alrai’s practice. Playfulness and experimentation were encouraged while trying out building, casting and mark-making techniques before applying pattern and embellishment to their sculptures. It quickly became clear that many participants, particularly those who have worked in practical or creative jobs in their home countries, valued this time to use their hands and the opportunity to practice their craft and share their traditional making techniques. In this way the project allowed space for them to celebrate their identity and skills, becoming valued experts in a creative exchange.

One learner has a natural affinity for picking things up and using his hands. It is past language. He can communicate with his hands.

Making session at The Hepworth Wakefield. Photo: Martin Baldwin

Exhibiting project outcomes  

To complete the project, the group installed their work with Alrai in an empty shop space at Trinity Walk shopping centre in Wakefield. We involved the group in the build and in unpacking and arranging their sculptures, before a final opening event. We observed the pride and enjoyment participants took in being reunited with their work week after week. This ownership continued to grow through the project to the final installation, where their work was combined with armatures and stands designed by Alrai. The display created a dialogue between Alrai’s practice and the expertise and lived experience participants brought to the project, giving equal value and providing an authentic sense of shared ownership.

Participants preparing for The Hepworth Wakefield Vessels exhibition. Photo: David Lindsay
The Hepworth Wakefield Vessels exhibition. Photo: Nick Singleton

Underestimated outcomes

At the end of the project we discovered that the workshops had stimulated discussion beyond the walls of the gallery. The ESOL teachers found it helpful to have the visits and objects as the basis for discussions in non-art sessions and participants felt enthused to talk about what they had seen, which meant that they were using new words and sharing in new ways in the classroom. This speaks of how effective participation with exhibitions, artists and making can help connect people across cultures and help build their vocabulary.

Arts expands the mind and makes more conversation. You ask what do you think of this sculpture. Everyone talks.

Visiting those places was more useful and memorable than just sitting in class. I learnt new words about people, places and culture, which I tried to memorise. Just listening in the class I don’t remember every word. Being out and about is much more helpful.

The Hepworth Wakefield Vessels exhibition. Photo: Nick Singleton

Rachel Craddock      
Communities Manager, The Hepworth Wakefield