There’s something about the light in Yorkshire. When I’m away, I sometimes forget how uncanny it is. On return, as soon as the first golden hour hits, followed by the twilight, I remember. Light is often spoken of as something important to painters, but Yorkshire light doesn’t just trade in soft painterly colours. Rather, it offers something more dramatic and unsettling. At certain times of year, everyday objects are lit as though they are sculptures.
When Yorkshire Sculpture International (YSI) launched in 2019, with support from Arts Council England through the National Lottery funded Ambition for Excellence grant, it engaged four partner venues, all vital centres for sculpture in the region: Henry Moore Institute, Leeds Art Gallery, The Hepworth Wakefield and Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Working collaboratively, YSI developed a vision for the festival with teams at each venue.
Yorkshire was the natural home for such an ambitious sculptural project. YSI Producer Jane Bhoyroo explains: ‘It’s critical to go back to Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore where they began their study of sculpture – the landscape was so important in the development of their work’. Famously, it’s also where Damien Hirst, who showed several works at YSI’s inaugural festival in 2019, spent his formative years at art school. Yorkshire is very much a ‘making county’, Bhoyroo says, ‘It’s got that relationship with mining, engineering and physical creation’.
The aim of the YSI project, according to Bhoyroo, is to build something based on a shared vision:
I think it’s really sort of unique to have such a collaborative project between leading art institutions dedicated to sculpture. It’s rare that you have four major institutions coming together to really work collaboratively to share ideas: across curation, across artists we’re interested in, and how we can work together to engage communities.
Through extensive education and community engagement projects, YSI is keen to listen. Throughout 2019, five sculptors from the region were supported by the Associate Artist programme, which saw each artist paired with a partner gallery and supported with funding, mentoring, and guidance from leading artists, curators and writers. This nurturing spirit continues in the current programme; for the last year YSI has been running the Sculpture Network, an initiative with twenty-two Yorkshire-based artists working in sculpture, offering care and support in a particularly challenging time. The team also speaks regularly to community groups in Leeds and Wakefield, and hosts the YSI Assembly, a sounding board of people in the region working within and outside the art world, who can challenge thinking and help the organisation broaden access to sculpture and remove barriers to participation.
2019’s YSI festival saw artists hosted across the four venues and working in the public realm respond to Phyllida Barlow’s assertion that ‘sculpture is the most anthropological of the art forms’. The next full festival is planned for 2024, but between 10 July and 19 September 2021 they are presenting a new programme of commissions, talks and collaborative projects. The commissioned artists, Akeelah Bertram, Claye Bowler, Nwando Ebizie, Ashley Holmes, Ariel René Jackson and Shezad Dawood will be working in partnership with the four core venues and presenting work in the galleries, online and beyond the gallery walls.
The Summer programme begins with Leeds-based artist Akeelah Bertram’s sculptural installation ‘Return’ at The Bothy Gallery in Yorkshire Sculpture Park (10 July – 1 August, at the weekends). Bertram’s immersive environment, using light sculpture and vibrations, explores the lived experiences of the African diaspora. Bertram will also appear in conversation with artist and activist Season Butler.
A further immersive installation ‘Distend’ is being developed by Sheffield-based Ashley Holmes, in partnership with Leeds Art Gallery, and opens on 24 July. It builds on his interest in sonic fiction, dub and ‘versioning’, and sound as a place of cultural memory, drawing on the earthquake and landslides that struck Port Royal, Jamaica in 1692. The work reimagines submerged landscapes and makes connections between Afrodiasporic aural traditions and nature. An in-person ‘open deck’ event will also take place on 11 September.
Later in the summer, Huddersfield-based Claye Bowler will present a new work in partnership with Henry Moore Institute that explores the erasure and concealment of queer and trans narratives. Bowler’s work concludes a five-year durational performance around the subject of top surgery, ‘Measured Transition 2016–2021’, which began with Bowler shaving his head after going to his GP to ask to be referred to a gender identity clinic. The growth of his hair since the first appointment forms a visual marker of the wait to get surgery within UK healthcare. His performance will be filmed and screened in Leeds in September, alongside an in-conversation event exploring his practice.
Todmorden’s Nwando Ebizie is working on an aural installation for The Hepworth Wakefield, ‘The Garden of Circular Paths’, about the life and work of Barbara Hepworth. Ebizie’s work will be experienced through headphones as viewers move through the Hepworth retrospective. Opening on 21 August it brings together sound works incorporating new composition and field recordings from around Yorkshire and Hepworth’s home in St Ives. “An event is also planned where Ebizie will discuss the themes of the work, and her practice as a Yorkshire-based Afrofuturist.”
Ariel René Jackson, based in Austin, Texas, is developing ‘A Welcoming Place’ in partnership with Women & Their Work in Austin, Texas. The work uses a meteorological aesthetic as an allegory for oral narratives and features conversations with six Black and Brown Austin residents, highlighting their relationships to the city. The conversations will be presented in a video work incorporating visuals of Austin and an animation made from archival film footage about ‘the weather balloon’. As a lead-in to the presentation of the final work in January 2022 in the US, Jackson will screen a trailer as part of an artist’s talk in in conversation with the artist Betelhem Makonnen online on 5 August.
Finally, Shezad Dawood will present ‘Concert from Bangladesh’, to mark the 50th anniversary of Bangladesh’s independence. Dawood updates and expands on George Harrison and Ravi Shankar’s 1971 Concert for Bangladesh, this time bringing Bangladeshi musicians and producers to the forefront. The musical programme, spanning Baul singing to Dhaka hip hop, will form a new mixed reality digital work that will screen at YSP on 1 August, and on 18 September in Leeds at City Varieties Music Hall.
The programme is entirely artist led, rather than themed. Bhoyroo explains that in the absence of a formal theme, the team were excited to see ‘a feeling about the experience of the body, the experience of being in landscape, and cultural memory’ begin to emerge: ‘There’s obviously a strong sense of sculpture and performance, sculpture and sound, very experiential… and there are many different narratives’.
It’s clear that YSI is working within an expansive definition of sculpture; the artists are unified by a strong sculptural element in their work but the commissions will move beyond the traditional category to include performance, film, sound and installation. Many artists are working with performance and film this year, says Bhoyroo, ‘they’re all taking a sculptural approach to their practice, but they wouldn’t necessarily always be defined as sculptors’.
At the heart of YSI is the intention to be more than a festival. Even outside of the designated festival cycle, the team will be collaboratively working with its Sculpture Network partners to support artists in Yorkshire. Further investment, engagement and support is planned to develop not only artists as individuals but also as a network, to spark new collaborations and conversations. Offering this sort of support has been a particular priority for the team following the uncertainty of the last year. Bhoyroo explains,
The sculpture network has led to the commissioning programme this year, because we asked ourselves what the artists wanted, how we could help them… We’ve done a lot of open calls, but for the commissions this summer we drew upon our expertise and knowledge. And having talked to many artists during the last year, we thought about who would really benefit from this opportunity… Many of them haven’t had the institutional opportunity before to reach so many different audiences. Each artist was at a pivotal stage in their career, where an intervention would be crucial.
While these interventions are often spoken of by institutions in terms of individual success and career progression, the aspiration at YSI is very much informed by the spirit of collaboration and partnership under which the whole project was conceived. As Bhoyroo notes, ‘ideally, the project will inspire more creative people to move to the area, to feel they are supported to make work here’. We’re strongest when we build collectively and supportively, rather than simply replicating the career ladders and structures of the commercial art world. Partnerships present an opportunity to grow something that will not only inspire artists and audiences to engage with an expanded view of sculpture, but also situate Yorkshire, with its big skies and unnerving twilights, as the place where that happens.
YSI’s Summer Programme runs 10 July – 19 September 2021 across Leeds and Wakefield.
Tessa Norton is a writer based in West Yorkshire and London.