How can public art help to change perceptions of locations? Or our view of the world? Laura Green, Digital Manager for our UK Arts team caught up with multi-disciplinary artist Afrah Shafiq ahead of her new artwork st.itch, on display in Leeds, UK, in November 2023.
Made in partnership with the British Council as part of our UK/India Season and showcased for LEEDS 2023: Year of Culture, this is the first time Shafiq has exhibited in the UK.
‘Although domestic labour is such a universal idea, and definitely relatable to people in many geographies and contexts, to show this work for a UK audience feels especially exciting. I think there are a lot of references in the work to moments and characters that the audience here will be especially familiar with, which definitely makes for a richer engagement.’
st.itch is the outcome of a research residency which started in 2017 with the Liverpool Biennial. During her residency there, Shafiq made a series of visits to archives in the North – including Manchester Central Library, the Whitworth, the Working Class Movement Library, Gawthorpe Hall Textile Collection, the Glasgow Women’s Library and many other cultural venues. By looking through these collections, Shafiq was able to piece together a picture of women’s inner lives in Britain – looking at their life within the home, their role in the workforce, their writings, their creative endeavours, and their resistance.
‘In essence st.itch is made up of not only the images from these archives, but also the stories and impressions I encountered within them.’
After a period of research, came a lengthy phase of conceptualising. There was a real sense that women often lived in code, and a need to de-code this inner life.
From there Shafiq began the processes of developing a new artistic code - through painstakingly making a ‘digital patchwork’ by putting together over a thousand images of women performing repetitive domestic work that came together to form a QR code. Within the code is a four-channel animation video piece that is made through animating and bringing to life different samplers, embroideries and other visual material found in the archives. Embedded within the patchwork are 25 scannable QR codes that each lead to a digital hanky, a moment or a fragment of one woman’s inner thought. Shafiq also worked with a talented music composer Arnold Misquitta who wrote the original score for the piece.
The artwork is not only a digital reimaging of invisible manual work, but a subversion of everyday narratives about women. To name just one - it really looks at women’s domestic labour (and leisure) outside of this “unskilled” activity that it is so often perceived as. It draws out the connections that sewing, knitting, weaving and other crafts have to mathematics, complex formulas, the binary system and code. The way in which the mind processes tasks within the household is building a programme. The ways in which the body becomes a machine. It speculates where the cognitive mind could travel to while someone is undertaking a seemingly banal activity such as cutting vegetables.
You might be travelling to or from work, or thinking about jobs you have to do at home. This artwork invites you to think through the part of us that escapes tasks and responsibilities, the small pockets of freedom that a meandering mind provides.
‘I think having meaningful art in the public space is such an important thing. To allow the possibility for a larger number of people, a more diverse kind of people, to have this encounter with art is really important.’
Art has the potential to make people think and feel in ways that they might not have experienced. Or to help them make better sense of themselves and the world around them. To make them feel alive. Through its universal narratives st.itch enables audiences from around the world to unravel their thinking.