The Feminist Archive North

The Feminist Archive North is housed in Special Collections in The Brotherton Library at The University of Leeds, which has been host to the collection since 2001. The Archive is a registered charity and is run entirely by volunteers, some of whom have been active in the Women’s Liberation Movement since the 1970’s and 1980’s when the archive was founded. Some of the material in the archive has, therefore, come from the personal collections of women who have played key roles in direct action, policy making and public events like Reclaim The Night. The archive contains organisational papers, records of conferences, pamphlets, journals, newsletters, dissertations, oral history interviews, audio tapes, films, posters, badges, press cuttings, tee-shirts and banners and other objects.

Poster by Helen Clarke 
This image is one of the ten posters produced as part of the residency

 

The women work one day a week in the archive and are dedicated to the task of preserving and sharing material from the archive. They have some short-term help in tasks such as digitising oral histories-previously held on audio tape, photographing the extensive collection of posters, and other dedicated tasks.

The volunteers regularly speak about the collection and their work at public engagement events at museums, in education around the region, and in other community and heritage settings. One of my first impressions on starting the placement is that much of the heritage and treasures of the archive is actually held in the women’s bodies: in their recollections of the movement; in their knowledge and unique first-person experience of the history of the objects held, which are only partially documented otherwise.

As an artist’s residency, my artwork responds to the material held on Reclaim the Night.  In 1977, women walked in Leeds to take back their space, challenging the response to male violence, which was to effectively impose a curfew on women. A wave of activism followed in London and other cities, as women walked to Reclaim the Night.

I initially proposed to produce artwork for a small publication, but as the residency progressed, this developed into a set of posters. A publication would be likely to reach only those people who were already interested in the archive or the women’s movement, (or in artists responses to archives), whereas a set of posters in public space would reach those audiences, but also the wider public in Leeds/London.

Looking at the posters in the FAN collection has influenced the aesthetic of the work that I have produced which mimics the DIY look of artworks and informational material produced in the 70’s and 80’s, which were often handmade, collaged, photocopied, hand typed or painted, and prepared at low cost, to easily and inexpensively promote events such as Reclaim the Night processions, fundraisers, consciousness-raising work and other services relevant to women.

I began by photographing type-written accounts of the Reclaim the Night walks, and proceedings in court that followed. I then selected extracts of text which were interesting because of their (sometimes controversial) subject matter; that they were poetically or otherwise evocative of the period; or for the aesthetic appeal of the words (handwritten interjections, personal reflections by the writer, mistakes etc.). These fragments were then put into Photoshop and combined with images of the walks from Leeds and London. The images came from press cuttings, which form part of the archival material held. The technique of collage used in the artwork intentionally replicates the process of research in the archive and the process of orientating the reader in relation to historical events.

At the end of the placement, I have produced a set ten posters, one set has been donated to FAN to be held in the archive as an example of how the material has been used to generate a creative response.  Volunteers at the archive commented on the success of the artwork in representing the voice of the archive, which was taken on as the exhibition title. The placement has provided an invaluable insight into the collection and its management, as well as contributing to my PhD research topic.

The posters were displayed as part of the Feminist Methodologies conference at Leeds Beckett University in July 2018, where they were positively received. Plans to show the work at other venues, to produce a zine or other publication, and to have the posters displayed along the route of the Reclaim the Night walk will continue beyond the placement.

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