After launching with a sprawling 100-day festival in 2019, Yorkshire Sculpture International (YSI) has been working to cement Yorkshire as the home of sculpture in the UK. The organisation is a unique partnership between four major institutions across Leeds and Wakefield: Henry Moore Institute, Leeds Art Gallery, The Hepworth Wakefield and Yorkshire Sculpture Park. This year, a new Summer Programme similarly positioned sculpture in the spotlight across and beyond the four venues. YSI Producer Jane Bhoyroo is quick to point out that the 2021 Summer Programme was not conceived as a festival but as a new format which developed naturally from both the team’s research into the international field and through the more locally embedded Sculpture Network. Shezad Dawood and Ariel René Jackson’s collaborative, internationally focused, video-based commissions sat alongside those of four Yorkshire-based, early-career artists: Akeelah Bertram, Nwando Ebizie, Ashley Holmes and Claye Bowler. All commissions connected to sculpture through different mediums, exploring object making alongside performance, video, technology and sound. Engagement is core to YSI’s activity and this summer was no different with a busy programme of sculpture making and developing community partnerships in Leeds and Wakefield.
Each part of YSI’s name refers to a key component of its programming and ethos: Yorkshire is both the home and heart of the organisation – team members have a genuine passion for the sculptural heritage of the region – and its promising future as a hub for contemporary art/sculpture in the UK (strengthened further by initiatives like the Sculpture Network which supports the career development of early-career artists working within the region); Sculpture, understood in its most expanded sense (for example, Dawood’s ‘Concert from Bangladesh’, which utilises AR technology and video games engines to build virtual 3D monuments and landscapes); and International, connecting the talent of Yorkshire to the wider world, ensuring that the sector remains vibrant, relevant and informed. The international element is present this year in the new film-based co-commission with Women & Their Work and the Texas-based Jackson, a vital young artist exploring the intersection of film, sculpture and performance. The work is still in development and will be screened in 2022; a recent trailer shows interviews with local residents juxtaposed with shots of the artist holding a black weather balloon, set against the Austin landscape.
The Sculpture Network is a key part of the ongoing programme of education, engagement and development that keeps YSI rooted in the hard Pennine ground of West Yorkshire. It provided time, space and support for professional development, which is often hard to come by in the early years of building a practice. Throughout the pandemic lockdown of 2020/21, the Network acted as a vital support network, fostering professional and peer-led development for over twenty artists. Bhoyroo explains how the Summer Programme helped to protect the Network in the wake of the pandemic, and set the groundwork for the new commissions:
‘We’d built up a lot of momentum with the 2019 festival, and to keep that going we felt it was really important to maintain a presence for YSI in the intervening years between festivals. It’s no surprise that 2020 was a really challenging year for us all, but we did find it was an opportunity to connect with talented artists across Yorkshire through the Sculpture Network, building on the success of our Associate Artist programme in 2019. The conversations we had last year through the Sculpture Network were really pivotal for us, and in many ways led to the planning for the Summer Programme.’
By offering practice-relevant workshops, visiting artist speakers and opportunities to connect to other makers in the region, the Network provided a vital thread throughout the difficulties of 2020. Bhoyroo expressed how much the team valued being able to spend time with artists to develop their practices and expects that the cohort will continue to stay in touch and support each other. A number of them have already gone on to produce and show work in the area, including James Thompson’s commission Spatial Drifts (17 July – 16 October 2021) at Leeds Art Gallery (read our recent review), James Clarkson’s solo show K-House (27 July – 21 August 2021) at Bloc in Sheffield and Jill McKnight’s residency and solo show Everything is Still Floating (29 July – 4 September 2021) at The Art House in Wakefield. In addition to having her own solo show Undergrowth (9 September – 4 October) at Blank in Leeds, Julia McKinlay has launched a new artist-led exhibition space called Threshold in her front garden, offering emerging artists an opportunity to show sculpture in the public realm, which, even when small in scale, can be a big learning curve for young artists.
The Network even provided answers when the YSI steering committee were looking for an artist that could be responsive to the present moment, allowing the work of Nwando Ebizie to stand out. Her commission at The Hepworth Wakefield, ‘The Garden of Circular Paths’, acted as an aural tour of the exhibition Barbara Hepworth: Art & Life. It puts Ebizie directly into the space left by Hepworth by connecting the body to the environment and surroundings whilst reaching out towards something more intangible. Through the sound, spoken word and field recordings of the tour, Ebizie directs you to ground yourself within the space, to interact with the sculptures in a different light, to view them from a different angle, to dance through the gallery and ‘take up volume’. The work is delicately layered, a responsive artwork that invites viewers to listen deeply yet still be acutely aware of their physical surroundings.
As part of the commission launch Ebizie engaged science communicator Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock, who sees artists and scientists as explorers of matter, material and space, both their disciplines dedicated to observing the universe. During their discussions, Ebizie and Aderin-Pocock touched on the production of sculpture as a ritual, connecting the inner (of a being or of a material) to the outer. This idea struck a chord with both of their practices: that the audience is not just a passive viewer but a participant with true and tangible connections to the work and the environment around them.
For his commission, fellow Sculpture Network artist Claye Bowler produced the deeply personal work ‘Measured Transition 2016-2021’. Bowler’s work also touches on the ritualistic but in relation to a trans person’s experience of applying for and undergoing top surgery, where the act of growing and then removing his hair becomes symbolic. The work took place across two acts, the first an in-person performance at Leeds Art Gallery, which was then documented and screened at the University of Leeds Pyramid Theatre, with an accompanying conversation. Developed in partnership with Henry Moore Institute, the work is a highly personal portrayal of gender transition, successful in its ability to make you feel simultaneously immersed and tense from the experience. A video of Bowler cutting away his hair using a scalpel is overlaid with voices, often obscuring and overwhelming one another, reading aloud the gender clinics’ procedural questions that Bowler was repeatedly asked during the process. Repetitive and intrusive, they wear you down throughout the delivery, their pervasive nature undermining any sense of privacy.
Bowler’s simple narrative, cutting away the hair that grew over the period of time he waited for top surgery, from the first visit to the gender clinic, imbues the work with a clear and honest message. By removing this visible signifier of passing time, and of femininity (in a traditional sense), the artist is able to take back control of his body and his identity. Unlike the biblical Samson, who loses his power when his hair is cut, Bowler gains power by achieving ownership over his personal narrative. In this way the artist uses his body as a site for sculpture, as seen in earlier works such as ‘Fine I’ll Do It Myself Then’ (2020) where the breasts of a plaster cast of his chest are systematically chipped away.
Ashley Holmes, who worked as an artist on YSI’s engagement programme in 2019, was commissioned to produce a new installation at Leeds Art Gallery. Situated in the sculpture galleries, ‘Distend’ uses the earthquake and landslides that struck Port Royal, Jamaica, in 1692 as a starting point for exploring submerged landscapes and Afrodiasporic aural traditions. The two sculptures have a luminous, ethereal quality to them, whilst light and sound are woven together to create an immersive landscape. The sculptures have a heavy presence in the room, covered in what looks like aquatic plant life, submerged under tendrils and dense textures. Influenced by the deconstructive styles of dub music and the intricate layers of science fiction narratives, the sculptures are visibly strapped and strung together, plaster pieces and textile coming together to create eerie assemblages of underwater wreckage.
Underwater narratives are a key part of the story in many African diasporic lineages, and Holmes’ work calls to mind the Liverpool Biennial 2021 installation ‘Life and Death by Water’ by musician Lamin Fofana, which also employed lighting, layered sound and objects to revisit the Zong Massacre of 1781. There are also parallels with Tau Lewis here, particularly her work ‘The Coral Reef Preservation Society’, a large-scale quilted textile of an underwater scene (displayed as part of an installation at The Hepworth for YSI 2019), where fish and disembodied faces interacted in unusual ways. Lewis’ work spoke of water as geography, especially Black geography, and how it can cause the erosion of specific narratives or histories.
Akeelah Bertram’s work offered an exciting view of sculpture that thoroughly dissects the relationship between visual arts and technology. For her commission in the Bothy Gallery at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Bertram created an immersive, interactive environment that functioned as a kind of map of the African diaspora. ‘Return’ is a work inspired by trips taken to Ghana, Ethiopia, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, and the USA, where the artist met and spoke with members of the African diaspora about ways they could potentially connect to sites of their own heritage, even if they are not physically able to visit them. In the first room, laser cut wooden maps adorned the wall, areas cut out to highlight where Black African enslaved people were removed from and taken to, the vast gaps in the African maps and the multitude of new locations demonstrating the spread of the diaspora leading up to the present day. A second room housed a sensor that, when someone stood in front of it, created a ‘points cloud’ of their body, turning it into data that visitors were then able to freeze, move and manipulate. The final room was also interactive, with a ‘light wall’ made of LED strips and plywood responding to the movement of visitors, creating an ever-changing map of body movements. ‘Return’ showed how sculpture can be an evolving project, changing and adapting as new learning and inputs are discovered, added and processed.
Noticeable throughout the programme is YSI’s commitment to inclusivity without simply virtue signaling: from Ebizie’s work, which speaks to and about neurodiversity; to Dawood’s film connecting to the Bangladeshi community; to Bertram’s explorations of the lived experience of the African diaspora; to Bowler’s insights into gender transition; and Holmes’ multi-disciplinary research into submerged histories and sound. The programme gives a platform and voice to artists that are under-represented within the cultural sector, with the artists allowed not only to take up space, but given the freedom to represent their own experiences, histories and diverse practices.
Even though the programme has felt somewhat disparate without the narrative arc of a festival to thread events and exhibitions together, it has been successful in its ability to engage both artists and the public through thoughtful programming. Hopefully future iterations will be as inclusive as this one, working with diverse and distinctive artists and organisations, and providing a supportive framework. Already on the horizon for YSI is a 2022 Sculpture Network to further support local artists and a 2024 festival.
Yorkshire Sculpture International’s 2021 Summer Programme took place across Leeds and Wakefield 10 July – 19 September. Ashley Holmes’ ‘Distend’ is at Leeds Art Gallery until 31 October and Nwando Ebizie’s ‘The Garden of Circular Paths’ at The Hepworth until 27 February 2022.
Abi Mitchell is a cultural producer and writer based in West Yorkshire and Liverpool.
This review is supported by Yorkshire Sculpture International.