British suffragettes and ceramic art

Mary Bamber election leafletBy Lizzie Cocker in Britain:

Platform for polemicists

Friday 25 February 2011

It’s very rare that the establishment stumps up funding to bring radical history to the general public. It’s even rarer for it to commission someone who is working-class and radical with the task.

But this is what ceramicist Carrie Reichardt, with the aid of sculptor Nick Reynolds, has just achieved.

Her work, commissioned by the Liverpool Discoveries project, is now on show at Speaker’s Corner in the centre of Liverpool. It’s one of 10 public artworks on the theme of social justice and radicals currently on show throughout the city.

Reichardt’s artistic aim is to bring the story of people’s struggles to the public gaze with her striking, in-your-face ceramic constructs, so she jumped at the chance to work on a piece about Mary Bamber, founding member of Liverpool’s Communist Party, socialist, suffragist and trade unionist.

Described by the legendary suffragette leader Sylvia Pankhurst as the “finest fighting platform speaker in the country” Mary Bamber was a regular at Speaker’s Corner on Lime Street and her unknown story – until now – is told in Reichardt and Reynold’s interactive sculpture which is on show there for the next four weeks.

The artwork is a museum in itself of the Liverpool suffragettes. The soap box on which Bamber stands is covered with tiles onto which Reichardt has painstakingly transferred each of the personal details of suffragettes involved in the campaign for the vote.

Reichardt explains that they are invariably those of the suffragettes from wealthy backgrounds that she culled from researching newspaper archives. “But the only people who were written about in the newspapers at the time were the middle classes and the upper classes, the vicars’ daughters’ or the bankers wives,” she explains.

“So I made a plaque that goes on the back of the panel that says ‘persons unknown.’ It’s dedicated to the people that you don’t know about and underneath it says quite specifically that ‘change doesn’t come about through the heroic acts of just one or two, it comes from a mass movement of the people.'”

She says the plaque pays tribute to the “hundreds if not thousands of working-class Liverpudlians” who devoted themselves to the suffrage campaign and were physically and sexually assaulted as a result.

These women were classed as “terrorists” and were the first in Britain, and possibly the world, to be subjected to photo surveillance. The level of state brutality meted out to the working-class suffragettes inevitably brings to mind the torture reserved today for the prisoners of the “war on terror.”

Force-feeding for hunger strikers was the most common form of punishment, where four or five prison guards would restrain the suffragettes and shove pieces of broken crockery between their lips and into their gums to force their mouths open. A contraption to pour raw egg was inserted and the procedure frequently resulted in pleurisy.

But this treatment was reserved exclusively for the poor, who were almost always the only women to be victims of arrest. It was often the middle-class women smashing windows, demanding to be arrested and refusing to stump up bail money because it was in their privilege to do so.

One of the tiles is an official record of all the acts of vandalism carried out by the suffragettes in one year, ranging from smashing windows to setting MPs’ houses on fire. But the suffragettes always ensured that no one was ever harmed.

In the few photos of these Liverpool women Reichardt uncovered are some of Sylvia‘s People’s Army – girls who look as young as 15 – with guns.

There’s a stark contrast made in the artwork’s narrative between these militant women, who made it impossible for the government to concede the vote to women, and the Establishment line that suffrage was eventually only granted as a reward to women for their participation in the war effort.

The women’s militancy was in part due to the fact that in the 40 preceding years women had peacefully been writing letters to their MPs with no result. The younger generation of women from 1907 onwards decided that pacifism yielded zero results.

“They decided to go into a meeting and shouted out ‘votes for women‘ and were instantly arrested,” Reichardt says. “But what they also got was instant front-page news – it was the the first time ever that the suffrage campaign had ever been covered in the papers. The suffragettes were the first people to realise how to manipulate the press and they did everything to grab the headlines.”

This history is an example of how power concedes nothing without pressure from below, Reichardt insists, and she has made every effort to make the parallels with the growing militancy of today’s youth and political environment starkly explicit in the work.

Reichardt hopes that once the exhibition is over, her artwork will be permanently installed in the Museum of Liverpool because she’s honoured to have been given the chance to uncover some of the city’s hidden history.

“Liverpudlians have got a reputation for standing up for their rights. I’m hoping this will do them proud.”

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