Elizabeth Kwant’s work engages contemporary socio-political issues; immigration detention, migration, gender and slavery through her multi-disciplinary practice. Her socially engaged arts projects have often been with refugees and asylum seekers.
Most recently, with Am I not a woman and a sister, a four-channel film installation for the International Slavery Museum, Kwant worked in partnership with Liverpool charity City Hearts to co-create a contemporary response to the trans- Atlantic slave trade together with survivors of modern-day slavery.
An earlier work, In- Transit, involved embodying and retelling migrants stories through site-specific performances staged across the Mediterranean. Kwant re-interpreted through movement various migrants’ stories having first spent time listening to accounts from refugees and asylum seekers and requesting them to re-enact their journeys through movement. In- Transit initiated an interest in the therapeutic benefits of theatre for survivors of trauma.
In this interview I wanted to explore the sources for her socially engaged work, issues these raise with which she grapples as an artist, and the ways in which her work is shaped by collaboration.
JE: Your work investigates migration, immigration, legacies of colonialism, modern-day slavery and the associated concerns of representation. You have a long-standing interest in these issues dating back, at least to your MA Thesis in 2006. How did this interest first develop and how has your engagement with these issues evolved over the years?
EK: At university, while studying for my MA in Fine Art (Edinburgh University/ Edinburgh College of Art) I volunteered with Refugee Action, which involved weekly visits to help a Sudanese family with administration and their children’s homework. Whilst at University I also studied Islamic Art under Professor Robert Hillenbrand and Professor Ulrike Al Khamis. My MA thesis focused upon the work of contemporary Iranian artist Shirin Neshat and the politics of identity and representation in her work. Following my degree I spent two years studying Arabic in Morocco. These experiences have profoundly shaped my work.
Upon my return to the UK, I vividly remember visiting the Curry Mile in Manchester – a street full of Middle Eastern cafes and Indian restaurants. Everything felt strangely familiar.
We have been living in this area for the last 10 years. In my first year in Manchester I facilitated art workshops for the refugee community in partnership with local charity The Boaz Trust. After this I was gifted with a studio space to be an artist in residence at The Mustard Tree for a year. During the residency, I invited women from The Boaz Trust to have their portrait painted. The project grew organically, with women I knew. That year I created a series of 10 life-size portraits of female asylum seekers Tracing Presence (2012). I’m still in touch with some of these women.
Following this, my experiences living in Morocco fed into Mediterranea – a body of work exploring the Mediterranean migrant crisis, through screen print and later performance and film. During that time I created In-Transit (2017- 2018) my first venture into film. In-Transit traced the western migration route – from Morocco to Spain – across The Straits of Gibraltar, one of the most dangerous migration routes in the world. The work was informed by conversations I had with refugees in Manchester at The Boaz Trust and filmed in site specific locations along the route; Algeciras (Spain), Tangier and Casablanca (Morocco). As my interest in these themes continued, I grappled with issues surrounding the politics of representation, my position as a western artist, and how the form of the work could allow for multiple narratives to co-exist.
JE: Collaboration has become a significant element within your work. What do your experiences of collaboration bring to your work and how has your use of collaboration evolved?
EK: This move towards collaboration is quite recent, born from ongoing dialogue and a desire for greater authenticity in my work. Film making is a collaborative process. I am faced with questions such as; What right do I have to tell someone else’s story? How can I give people a voice? How can my work be beneficial to participants? As an artist I’m a bridge – I have a platform, a voice. Collaboration allows a greater degree of participation and authorship, but also raises further questions: Who’s making the decisions?
Large scale projects/ ideas can also be birthed by collaborating that you simply can’t achieve alone (my recent short film Lady Justice is a great example) produced in collaboration with Navya Sah, an Indian performance artist.
JE: Several of your projects have involved conversations with and contributions from those who have experienced migration. To what extent do these encounters shape and inspire the work and to what extent does the work shape the encounters?
EK: It’s a bit of both, depending upon the project. In-Transit was a result of listening to refugees stories, these stories were then translated into a series of movements, which I performed in the public space and recorded on film. More recently Am I not a woman and a sister demanded a degree of preparation and planning, in order to work with vulnerable women.
In January 2018, I met with a City Hearts staff worker Beth Piner and with the curator of The International Slavery Museum Jean- François Manicom. We chatted about the possibility of spending time researching in the archives and collection at the museum, with the view to collaborate with a local community group to produce a new moving image installation for the museum. This dialogue continued throughout 2018. Almost a year later, we received funding and gained access to meet female survivors through the charity. At that point we didn’t know exactly what the outcome of the workshops/ project would be.
We provided a framework and tools but we hoped the content would be shaped by the women. I really wanted to allow space for creativity. In that sense, it was very much a collaboration. We provided some boundaries; organised a safe space, planned the workshops which would give the women tools to create their own performances, raised important concepts related to the topic of slavery in discussion, guided the workshops. I documented each session on film, but ultimately, the performances were the women’s own work. It’s almost impossible to dissect a piece of work like that, everyone played a role, everyone contributed. The women decided how they wanted to move their own bodies; decided how to use the objects, and how to look at the camera, I held the camera, Magdalen Bartlett Luambia (Choreographer) guided the movements – offering suggestions, we each brought our skills. When it works well, everyone should feel a valued, responsible member of the final work.
JE: Where did the germ of the idea for ‘Am I not a woman and a sister’ come from and how was it developed?
EK: It was while making the work In-Transit, which I mentioned earlier, that I became aware of the connection between colonialization and the contemporary Mediterranean migration crisis. There are the obvious visual connections (images of migrants crossing the Mediterranean in flimsy boats). Then there are the underlying socio-economic issues facing Africa – a product of colonial rule? It became important for me to better understand the trans- Atlantic slave trade. Alongside this, I was reading ‘The Body Keeps The Score: Mind, Brain and Body in the Transformation of Trauma’ by Bessel Van Der Kolk. In this groundbreaking work Van Der Kolk writes:
‘…our sense of agency, how much we feel in control, is defined by our relationship with our bodies and it’s rhythms: our waking and sleeping and how we eat, sit and walk define the contours of our days. In order to find our voice, we have to be in our bodies – able to breathe fully and able to access our inner sensations… Acting is an experience of using your body to take your place in life.’
I became interested in ‘embodied movement’ by those who had directly experienced the trauma of modern slavery. The body was the connection – from the migration crisis to historical slavery – it’s all about the body. As Jean- François Manicom curator at The International Slavery Museum comments, ‘the story of slavery is a story about the body; bodies are captured, imprisoned, transported, sold and worked.’
I sought to produce a work, which enabled female survivors to create their own performances – embodied performances in key sites which referenced the history of slavery in the North West. The project was initially named ‘Surveying the Land: Legacies of Slavery’. It was this seed idea of ‘surveying’ that became important in the archives at the museum. Looking over, assessing or surveying the land to understand the relationship between the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the legacies of slavery in Britain today.
JE: Was collaboration a part of the work from the beginning or did its necessity become clear partway through?
EK: Collaboration was a critical part of the work from the outset. The project was designed to allow space for collaboration on a number of levels; with participants, artists, and partners.
JE: Was the idea of filming at Harewood House, home of the wealthy plantation owner Edwin Lascelles, always a part of the plan or a later inspiration?
EK: As part of my research, I became aware of the intimate connections between British stately homes and the trans-Atlantic slave trade. A great many stately homes were built or redeveloped from the profits of slavery. These stories don’t appear in the interpretation guide to the properties. The stories of colonialism connected to the houses and their owners (if told at all) are only told from the perspective of the coloniser, not the colonised.
This raises important questions surrounding memory and history. Who writes history? How is it recorded? Who’s telling the stories and who do these benefit? In this case, the British narrative has been told and retold from the perspective of the plantation owner – the coloniser. It has been perpetuated down through the centuries through a lack of alternative narratives. Through my project I wanted to shed light on some key locations in the North West, whose history is intrinsically linked to slavery. Harewood House and Quarry Bank Mill were some of the places I visited. Despite the project being public funded and not for profit I was restricted in my choice of film locations as some sites were unwilling to allow filming, or wanted a significant sum of money in return. Reading between the lines, some of these properties were afraid of potential negative press which may arise from associations with slavery. This is changing, and now I know of more projects like ‘The Colonial Countryside’ project led by Dr Corinne Fowler, which are bringing to light these hidden histories.
After some research, I approached Harewood House. I was fortunate to connect with Diane Howse, Countess of Harewood, herself an artist and curator, she grasped the scope of the project. We met and spoke with David Lascelles (8th Earl of Harewood) who has himself led tours unpacking Harewood’s links with slavery.
I will never forget the day we took a small group of women to film on location. As the women crept around the Georgian rooms – designed by the famous architect Robert Adam – gazing up at the gilded ceilings there were gasps of sheer delight. On the drive home discussions ensued, how could one could marry a prince?
JE What reactions and responses has the work generated; both from those involved and those who viewed it at the International Slavery Museum? What were the museums/ commissioners expectations? Were these realised?
EK: The response exceeded my expectations, both from partners, artists and the women involved. The immersive nature of the four screen film, installed in a circular room in the Middle Passage Gallery provided the context to an immersive experience, which was complimented by the hauntingly beautiful soundtrack composed by musician Sarah Sarhandi. The viewer is physically implicated into this space, navigating between screens as the film jumps from screen to screen, in this way they become the interpreters, deciphering and knitting together meaning for themselves. To quote curator Jean-François Manicom;
‘At the International Slavery Museum our constant mission is to help visitors understand how something as absurd as slavery took place, comprehend something incomprehensible. With elegance, modesty and gravity, Elizabeth Kwant established a relationship of trust and collaboration with women who suffered in their flesh. They are the Parcae who thread a new connection and embodied relationship. Their bodies become what links two traumatic histories: that of trans-Atlantic slavery and that of modern slavery in its many versions.’
As the project came to a close I visited the charity where the women meet weekly to show the film in an intimate setting with those involved. I received a card and a bunch of flowers which read ‘thanks for giving us a great experience.’
Ultimately, I think it’s very difficult to quantify the value of socially engaged projects. For me, it’s a tension between creating a piece of quality artwork, and involving the participants in a way which benefits them. I hope and believe that this project achieved both of these things.
JE: To what extent does this work grow out of earlier works and to what extent does it represent a new era in the development of your work?
EK: Most of my work grows out of and builds upon earlier works, whether in form, skills or themes. Am I not a woman and a sister builds upon past works such as In-Transit. In other ways, it marks a departure in my practice – both in ambition, scale and reach. I found myself working more as a project manager than a traditional artist. Pulling together and weaving the parts of the project, keeping an eye on the whole, liaising with multiple stakeholders. The fact is, these kinds of projects involve many people and simply couldn’t be achieved without everyone playing their part. For each contribution and the support provided by a National Lottery Project Grant (Arts Council England) I’m very grateful.
JE: Where do you envisage the arc of your work taking you next?
EK: Over the coming year I plan to conduct further research into the legacies of slavery in the North West of England. I feel I’ve only scratched the surface of a much larger topic. Moving into 2021 I plan to organise a follow on project, in the hope to continue relationships with women from City Hearts to build on Am I not a woman and a sister. I enjoy working on research-based projects, responding to history, place and sites. I’d like to push this further, so I’m looking to work with new partners and places to explore collaborative socially engaged projects with communities – with a view to make site-specific work, which responds to the history and narratives of the place. In order to do this, collaboration will continue to play an important role in my work.
Words: Revd Jonathan Evens © Artlyst – Elizabeth Kwant – Am I not a woman and a sister – Maritime Museum Liverpool Top Photo by Gareth Jones