Stephen Iliffe shortlisted for Britain’s top photography event

I’m delighted to share thrilling news that two of my images have been shortlisted for Britain’s most prestigious photography event.

Here follows, text for the UK press release…

Stephen Iliffe’s two portraits of a six-year old deaf child asylum seeker have caught the attention of an elite panel of judges for A Portrait of Britain 2018.

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A Portrait of Britain 2018 is the third annual event run by the British Journal of Photography. As a shortlisted entrant, Stephen’s photos will also feature in a globally-distributed book (with an intro by acclaimed novelist Will Self) published by Hoxton Mini Press, an award-winning independent publisher.

“I’m thrilled to be included in Portrait of Britain 2018,” says Stephen. “My images highlight the plight of deaf child refugees. It’s traumatic for any child to flee their homeland and seek asylum in a distant country with an unfamiliar culture and language. For deaf children, it’s a double whammy as they can lack access to appropriate support.”

“For me the photograph of Lawand – and his brother Rawa – is symbolic,” adds Stephen. “Living in barely-furnished temporary accommodation in Derby, the kids use their imagination to pass the time. As Lawand climbs up his bedroom walls to touch the ceiling, it metaphorically suggests his family’s desperate desire to be granted asylum in Britain now they have a tentative foothold here.”

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Stephen was commissioned by the Audiovisability project to help raise awareness of six-year old deaf boy Lawand Hamadamin’s case.

After a traumatic journey from northern Iraq to UK, Lawand was supported by Deaf Kidz International and referred to Derby’s Royal School for Deaf Children where he learnt to communicate via sign language.

Despite his dramatic progress at Derby School, the UK government planned last year to summarily deport Lawand and his family without even formally considering their asylum request.

Following a public outcry and a campaign supported by Audiovisability, a High Court judge upheld an appeal by Lawand’s family to remain in the UK for the time being to allow their asylum request to be properly considered.

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The boys’ uncertain future and their longing to find a new home that will accept them is also captured in a second image as they gaze out of their window looking across the Derby back streets.

The judging panel includes key industry leaders Caroline Hunter, Picture Editor of The Guardian Weekend Magazine; Olivia Arthur, Magnum Photographer; Martin Usborne, Co-Founder of Hoxton Mini Press; and Simon Bainbridge, Editor at British Journal of Photography.

The final winners for Portrait of Britain 2018 will be announced in August.

The Audiovisability project gratefully acknowledges the financial support of Arts Council England and Decibels.

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Stephen is available for interviews or quotes via: Stiliffe@aol.com or 07535 79631 (text messages only)

Lawand’s full story I have a dream…

Stephen Iliffe www.stepheniliffe.com

Audiovisability: www.audiovisability.com

Deaf Kidz International: www.deafkidzinternational.org

Copies of Portrait of Britain 2018 book can be pre-ordered via: www.thebjpshop.com

 

Back to the future

Oxygene ang LR

From renaissance art to satellite photos, Adam Arbeid’s stunning contemporary marble frescos draw on ancient and modern influences. Review by Stephen Iliffe.

Amidst the bath, towels and toothbrushes of a Victorian-terraced house taking part in Brighton’s 2018 Artists Open Houses, hangs Oxygene (above).

It has an elemental presence: as if a coastal shelf had newly eroded and the fallen rock split to expose multiple layers of sparkling minerals and fossils. As if these textures had been polished into a shimmering artist’s canvas, overpainted with thin washes of oceanic blues and turquoises. A backdrop for what could be a satellite photo of a coral reef or a laboratory slide of tiny amoeba.

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This ambiguity is deliberate. Adam is concerned with both micro and macro perspectives on the universe: “I’m captivated by images observed through various lenses,” says Adam. “From the cosmic vistas of the Hubble telescope to photos taken through microscopes.”

Adam’s frescos seem to blend Google Earth’s topographic contours with surreal postcards from some parallel universe. Yet his visions are dreamily evocative rather than simply illustrative. As I make my way downstairs to the hall, my imagination is teased once more, by Synergy (below).

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I tell Adam it makes me think of two things at once: a hippie tie-dye; or my 40th birthday  flying over Iceland’s abstract moonscape of craters and lakes. “I’m excited by how viewers react differently to each picture,” he nods. “They’re open to all kinds of interpretations. Everyone has their unique take on it.”

Weeks of painstaking craft goes into each of these multi-layered works, Adam’s techniques akin to Italian renaissance fresco painters crossed with the random chance aesthetic of the 20th century surrealists.

Adam first builds up a thin veneer-like marble base and then blends in minerals, aggregates, fossils, pigments and inks. This not only gives his works like Transglobal Infusion (below) a wonderfully organic texture, it gives them a natural radiance too. “I like the idea that instead of just squeezing paint out of a tube,” says Adam, “I use colours extracted from earth pigments, glass, granite and metal ores.”

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Adam’s compositions have an extraordinary poetic charge from the way he alchemises their base ingredients: “I like to encourage the various materials to run free, collide, recede, reform into new contours and configurations,” he says. “As an artist, I can choose the moment when I freeze their motion for the final artwork. I call it my aesthetic of “controlled chaos.”

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Now I’m inside the living room where Juice (above) erupts upon the wall like fissures of hot steam. The colours seem to burst from the marble surface, creating a sense that you’re standing on some distant planet inhabited by floating, candy-coloured jellyfish. (Oh, and I loved the surreal juxtaposition of the cat sleeping peacefully on the radiator just below the fresco!)

Adam’s expertise in marble is enhanced by his previous experience as an interior designer and stately home restorer, working on projects such as refurbishing the nearby Brighton Royal Pavilion.

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“The earliest use of employing crushed marble in this way dates back some 4000 years to the Minoan civilization,” says Adam (above). “With the fall of Rome this virtually disappeared until its rediscovery in 16th Century Florence.”

“It takes ages,” he confesses, “but I love this process of crushing, sieving and grading these ancient materials to make the ingredients for new contemporary artworks.”

Autobiographical influences also feature. Adam was inspired to create Jelly Baby (below) by a vivid dream after a ‘plane flight and scuba diving experience.

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Is there a danger in this 21st century that modern art will hurtle into a virtual dystopia where image-making is reduced to mobiles, apps, instant effects? Leaving the viewers with the uneasy feeling that art has become mere software output, where the only means of engagement is clicks and likes?

In this context, it’s a delight to see Brighton’s Artists Open Houses encourage the public to physically engage with local artists. And it’s a joy to witness Adam draw on the ancient craft of marble frescos while innovating cutting-edge new artworks. Someone who is, as it were, going back to the future.

For further information about Adam Arbeid visit his official website.

The 2018 Brighton Artists Open Houses runs until the end of May.

From 23 June to 1 July 2018, Adam will exhibit the Rivermead Gallery, as part of the Chelmsford Arts Festival

From 7 July 2018, Adam will exhibit for a week at the Waterloo Square Gallery.

 

 

 

 

River runs through

A profoundly-moving fabric and glass installation tackles migration, memory and loss. Review by Stephen Iliffe.  OMHiRes1and2.JPEGHI.jpg

“I weave these elaborate textiles,” smiles Omeima Mudawi-Rowlings, “only to watch Mike dissolve them between two layers of hot molten glass until there’s hardly a trace of my work left to see!

Her collaborator Mike Barrett nods: “We call these ‘flying carpet sandwiches’” he laughs. “I heat the glass to 1100 Centigrade and watch Omeima’s handiwork disintegrate into flames.”

So, delicate cottons meet white-hot liquid glass. Why’s that? The answer lies in Omeima’s childhood memories.

Unexpected twists and turns

“I was born hearing but went deaf aged four,” says Omeima. “I grew up by the River Nile in Khartoum, Sudan and then the middle east. I went to school in England. My family has Arabic roots but I’m British too. It’s been a very, very long journey to find myself. Like a river with unexpected twists and turns…”

The latest twist brings us to Brighton’s Fabrica where Omeima and Mike are staging a joint installation. As I walk into the converted-church arts venue, the initial impact of River Runs Through is sensuous yet mysterious.

Gentle Arabic music tints the atmosphere – violin and flute. A looped video projection of the River Nile flickers on the walls. And then three exhibits – linked by multi-coloured fibre-glass strings that rise and fall like the cables on a suspension bridge.

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As with all good audio-visual installations, one first has to stop, listen and stare. It tickles your curiosity but doesn’t instantly offer its secrets on plate.

A little context helps: The first exhibit (below left) by Omeima turns out to be a laminated panel that seals multiple layers of opaque and transparent fabrics. A rich fusion of east-west colours and textures. The warm violets and earthy browns of her Sudanese childhood, the cooler shades of England’s south coast. Under soft light falling from the Victorian church’s skylights, Islam’s embossed golden crescent shines out. “I’m deaf, a woman, British, a Muslim,” explains Omeima. “All these different identities link together here.”

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Beneath this panel, another fabric (below) flows like river of liquid blues and greens, encrusted in foam-specked greys. The Nile, as it were, tumbling to the wooden floorboards, decked with fishing lines and weights.

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The second exhibit (below) is a rectangular grid of Mike’s glass tiles. As I walk around it, the tiles dance and shimmer with Omeima’s delicate brushstrokes as she experimented with pigments and dyes worked onto the glass in various states of cooling back to its solid state.

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For such a bald exhibit, Omeima’s story gives it a powerful emotional undercurrent. It echoes her Sudanese pilgrimage last year as part of research and development for the project.  “When I arrived, the old Khartoum seemed to have disappeared. I couldn’t recognise it… New roads, new buildings. Favourite places seemed to have disappeared. Everything’s moved, there’s roads everywhere. New junctions, new bridges.

“But when I was on the boat on the Nile, that’s still the same…  Lots of people walking past the river. Families, friends, neighbours, picnics… The most massive orange sunset on the water which feels so close, that’s the same. It’s a very powerful thing to know that has not changed. The tiles celebrate Nile as an eternal presence, a permanent life force”

“After your return from Khartoum, we began talking about what you’ve learned from your travels,” says Mike to Omeima during a Q&A session hosted by Fabrica’s director Liz Whitehead. “We discussed how we could feed all this into our fabric n’ glass mash ups”.

Destroy and create

The third exhibit is perhaps the most ground-breaking one. If Mike is destroyer to Omeima’s creator, the effect is sublime. As the glass slowly cools, Mike deftly shapes it into surging waves that melt the fabrics into inky blotches of sky blue, indigo, crimsons, sandy browns. Or colours evaporate leaving barely perceptible imprints – like a fossil of a sea anemone with only a shape or texture to indicate where it used to exist.

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The result is an utterly gorgeous series of wave-like slabs of glass (above) that ooze with subtle inky colours. The glass still and frozen, yet full of movement – roaring and twisting currents. I could almost ‘hear’ the Nile, almost place my hand inside and feel the water through my fingers.

Throughout the project, Mike plays a vital and empathetic role in uncorking Omeima’s emotions: “Glass was the right material,” he says, “because it reflects and mimics the quality of water. And when it traps the fabrics within it, it also captures Omeima’s memories too.”

Sweeping up the ashes

“We had to experiment a lot,” says Omeima, “and try out different temperatures and materials and processes. There was a lot of trial and error. But the wonderful thing about the hot glass is how the fabric catches fire and when we swept up the ashes, they made me feel as if I was wiping away old Khartoum. It had disappeared but still left traces behind in my memories.”

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As with any installation, how much you get out of it, as a visitor, is proportionate to how much you put in. I noticed a few puzzled-looking folk ambling in off the local shopping street and 15 seconds later heading for the exit. But mostly, people lingered to savour the experience, ask Omeima and Mike questions, take mobile shots.

I enjoyed my hour walking around the exhibits. Seeing how the colours and reflections changed as the sun played hide and seek with the clouds outside. In the same way that a river’s surface appearance is continually evolving with the ambient weather.

Like all great artworks, the power of River Runs Through is both specific and universal. Yes, it tells Omeima’s story, but it’s also a river that runs through our own lives too: the past and present: the river of time, of memory, migration and loss. A process of transforming that loss into something new and unique. Something lost, something gained. We can all relate to that.

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Ultimately, Omeima and Mike have created something special here. As Liz Whitehead (below left) reflects: “When artists work alone, they have a singular vision. ‘I know what I want and how to achieve it’. When two artists combine, each has to be open to new processes, new outputs, to experiment, make mistakes, accept chance elements and intermittent failures on the road to success.”

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In doing so, the best artist collaborations (be it Lennon/McCartney or whoever) alchemise something unique that neither artist on their own could realise. And that is the extraordinary achievement of River Runs Through.

Long may this river flow…

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All text and photographs by Stephen Iliffe (except third image by Mike Barrett).

For further details, visit www.omeima.arts.com and www.mikebarrettglass.com

 

Two logos FINAL

Instagram – reality or illusion?

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Is Instagram a reality or an illusion? Does it feed or kill human creativity? Harmless pastime or serious addiction?

Three urgent questions tackled by art photographers Natalie Christensen and Jim Eyre in their first joint exhibition alteredstates/alteredscapes.

Like many of us in the 21st century, Natalie (above left) and Jim (right) – who live 5,000 miles apart in New Mexico, USA and London, UK – initially made contact via social media. Both share a fascination with street scenes reduced to starkly beautiful abstractions of shape, line, colour and light.

From there, Instagram’s algorithms for matching ‘users’ with like-minded profiles, hashtags, followers and – you know the score – connected the dots.

Over time, the pair began to swop messages in cyberspace;  likes, comments and ideas for collaborating together.

For alteredstates/alteredscapes – Natalie and Jim selected elements of each other’s work and collaged them into single images.

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The above example blends Natalie’s fascination at faded 1950s Americana with Jim’s love for the nondescript corners of Lewisham. A empty swimming pool, deliciously pink concrete, a sun lounger. An unruly burst of weeds, a road cone and steps leading to nowhere. An ominous shadow cast by an object outside the picture frame.

Despite its superficially banal content, there’s a hidden psychodrama at play here – poised between nothing’s-going-on and something-dramatic-lies-around-the-corner. As if blending Jim’s original training as an architect with Natalie’s part-time day job as a psychotherapist.

During the exhibition’s Q&A session, I speculated which individual elements in the image came from New Mexico or London? Half of my guesses were wrong. Which just goes to show how playfully Natalie and Jim tease our senses, challenge our assumptions about what’s what?

The image can be read on so many levels and it’s available to view in cyberspace 24/7 wherever you are in the world – by logging into Instagram, of course. That oft-maligned platform where people show off their haircuts, cleavages, ice creams, while advertisers prospect for your likes.

“Yeah, I admit, Instagram is… let’s use that word… an addiction”, confesses Natalie, with a knowing smile. “But Jim and I want to use it, not abuse it. We’re asking questions about what is real and what isn’t. It’s kinda surreal to be collaborating from half way across the world via mobile phones and laptops, so that naturally leads to surreal images too.”

“Sometimes people may think we’re cheating when we Photoshop stuff,” adds Jim. “But we’re challenging people to think about what we see, who we engage with. And,  Instagram is a just app. Is any of it real anyway?”

As with any philosophical line of enquiry, some dilemmas arise: “Do Natalie and I stay true to our original intention – to share and create meaningful art?” quips Jim. “Or do we allow it to get interrupted by a never-ending dopamine rush in the quest for the most “likes”?

In this context, it was inspiring to see Natalie and Jim’s Instagram work occupy a public space at Peckham Levels – a new arts, shopping and eating venue hosted in a former multi-story car park.

I loved how the architectural content of their floor-to-ceiling-sized prints merged seamlessly into the building’s own structures of concrete walls, walkways and ramps.

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As shoppers and families strolled past (including those who’d never normally set foot inside an art gallery), I was struck how often they’d pause to take a closer look, and occasionally take selfies in front of them. Who knows, maybe some of these ended up on Instagram too?

During a photowalk after the Q&A, I decided to have a little fun with this myself and took a few candid shots with passersby blending into the images (above). Art into life into art, as it were.

For me, a key lesson from altered states/alteredscapes is that Natalie and Jim are showing it is possible to strike a balance, to be artful and well-liked too (Natalie has 33,000+ Instagram followers). To inhabit cyberspace while physically interacting with people. And that’s a humanising message for all of us art photographers and Instagrammers alike.

Natalie Christensen at nataliechristensenphoto.com

Jim Eyre at germaine.co.uk 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Echoes from the Bird Cage

Stephen Iliffe reviews Echoes from the Bird Cage, Evelyn Glennie – Platform Theatre, Kings Cross 

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For most, London’s Kings Cross station is a brief stop on the way to somewhere else. Trains and commuters enter and exit as if in a manic 24-hour time lapse film.

Yet across five square miles, the wider Kings Cross district is a rich tapestry of the old industrial revolutions and postmodernist architecture. And, if you have time to wander the side streets, piazzas, gardens, canal towpath, to stop and stare, you’ll discover hidden oases of calm, a soul, even.

As a street photographer, I’ve documented the area for many years (selected images  appear here).

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So, I was intrigued to hear that composer and jazz pianist Jill Jarman also intuits this soul. The result is Echoes from The Bird Cage. A six-part impression of Kings Cross that aims to capture – as Jill writes in her programme notes – energy, colour, light and sound, dancing up and around a vertical landscape, relentless movement, combined with quiet and beautiful spaces.

To add to my delight, Echoes is a collaboration with a long-time heroine of mine, the percussionist Evelyn Glennie. Over three decades, I’ve followed Evelyn’s journey from  orchestras, drums and xylophone to the wilder shores of free improv – beating, brushing, scraping sounds from household or junkyard objects.

And better still, Echoes got its world premiere at the Platform Theatre, ten minutes’ walk from the back of the station.

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As the spotlight falls on the stage, the eye is drawn to Evelyn’s landscape of percussive instruments and found objects. After a lingering silence, Evelyn appears, slowly walking around the instruments, ear cocked to each one. As if in the act of listening to the Kings Cross streets and their ambient sounds. For Evelyn, active listening has always been a crucial element of her composition and improvisation process.

The music begins softly as The Spaces In-Between evokes pre-dawn stillness. Evelyn’s humming waterphones and brushed gongs reverberate softly until Jill makes her entrance, along with cellist Brian O’Kane, and we’re led into gentle strings and jazzy piano strokes. The city is slowly awakening.

As if on schedule, the tick-tocking rhythms of In Motion steadily up the ante before erupting into a commuter rush of hyperactive drums, horns and strings.

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One is struck by how familiar instruments are making unfamiliar sounds. Outside The Box is an almost gamelan-like percussive workout; Evelyn picks out a bass clarinet and (without blowing into the mouthpiece) taps the keys with her palms to create bracing non-standard rhythms. These are echoed by Jill who nips over to the back of her grand piano to strum and then tap the strings – John Cage-style – with mallets. Brian drops his bow to ambidextrously explore the Cello strings, while Paul Booth on clarinet and Ian East on tenor sax likewise contribute to the polyrhythmic speed rush.

Walk the Kings Cross side streets, the crowds soon disappear and the roar fades to an ambient hum that intermingles machine, man, nature. Likewise, Echoes From The Bird Cage starts as an abstracted tone poem of sounds bouncing to and fro off buildings at different times of day. Gradually the intensity climbs as the individual contributions of the ensemble players overlay each other into mesmeric patterns, until we slow fade back into silence.

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The world music-infused Global Chant is a 360-degree experience; marbles rattled in steel pans, a clarinet and flute play from within the audience, eastern sounds and modes drift around our heads like exotic perfume. The ensemble breaks out into chants and handclaps.  Kings Cross has been enriched by waves of immigration from Europe, Africa and Asia. The mood is joyous and celebratory.

Finally, the haunting Echoes Past nods backwards via a series of fleeting vignettes that evoke heavy industries, disease, world wars, poverty, debauchery.

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For all the visual associations I’ve cited here, Echoes From The Bird Cage isn’t simply picture music. It sets out the physical and emotional terrain of Kings Cross while allowing space for listeners to insert their imaginations into the weft and weave of the music.

During the post-show Q&A, Evelyn clarified that Echoes is a work-in-progress. It will evolve over future performances until, hopefully, getting a wider CD release. This makes sense due to the evolutionary dynamic at the heart of Jill’s and Evelyn’s collaboration. Evelyn respectfully working within the composer’s tightly structured score, Jill allowing space for Evelyn’s wild card improvisations.

KXXXmasterThis aligns perfectly with the ever-changing topography of Kings Cross – a pragmatic trade-off between the infrastructural visions of city and transport planners on one side and quixotic movements of commuters, workers and residents on the other.

In 2018, new questions arise: Kings Cross seems set for another new phase; aspiring to be London’s new creative quarter. Kaleidoscopic, dynamic, emotive. Echoes From The Bird Cage is a bold and beautiful anthem for that future.

All text and images by Stephen Iliffe. Except, concert photo © Martin Collins.  

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The Unheard World

Stephen Iliffe reviews Audiovisability’s stunning project to pull centuries-old classical music norms into new 21st century shapes.   

Some cynics say classical music is little more than a museum for dead composers, that it has exhausted its capacity for new ideas.

Refusing this stereotype are Audiovisability’s British Syrian composer Waseem Kotoub and flautist Ruth Montgomery. Their latest project The Unheard World tackles urgent middle east themes – home, displacement and migration – as war continues to tear traditional societies apart.

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The initial concept was premiered last August at the 2017 Edinburgh Fringe Festival with Waseem’s Stories of Syria for solo piano. Performed at Stockbridge Church (above), the vaulted roof filled with swelling chords that blend sweet nostalgia with terrorism’s dark shadows.

Waseem’s skill lies in marshalling a huge dynamic range; he can playfully reel off mid-tempo folk dances; or pummel the keys into a maelstrom of dense harmonics; or brush them with the lightness of a dragonfly on the breeze.

Across five movements – Dawn, Dance, Pain, Hope, Damascus Rose – Waseem unfurls a psychological profile of his homeland, a tightrope-tension between innocence and fear, sorrow and hope for a better future. It was mesmerising 20-minute performance that left me wanting more.

And there was more to come: At the close, Waseem shared news of his commission by Audiovisability to rewrite Stories of Syria for a chamber ensemble. The result to be performed with synchronised live action painting, sign language and captions.

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This was an intriguing prospect: Audiovisability is the brainchild of deaf flautist Ruth Montgomery (above). An ‘audio visual’ collective whose latest iteration blends Arabic and British cultures into dazzling multimedia events.

Four months later, 400 miles south, I’m at Brighton’s Fabrica to join a sell-out audience to see Stories of Syria emerge butterfly-like from its chrysalis.

To begin with, Dawn’s taut weave of dreamy folk nostalgia and sublimated war marches gains added dynamic from the interplay of Ruth’s melodic flute runs and a colouristic string section of violin (Thomas Leate), viola (Helen Sanders-Hewett) and cello (James Greenfield). The Arab-west fusion comes alive with Rihab Azar’s oud (an eastern version of the lute) and Jamal Al-Sakka’s supple percussives on Mazhar (frame drum) and Riq (similar to a tambourine).

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Another innovation: live captions on a big screen (above) track the music’s evolving themes and moods. ‘Unstable’ – ‘Remember peace?’ – ‘A sudden unexpected shift’ – ‘Thick tension’. It’s a pleasing touch, like whispered asides to the audience. Additional cues flag up the ensemble’s techniques: ‘The flute returns to the original melody’ – ‘The oud reminds us of the march’. Scripted by Eloise Garland, the balance was spot on; not fussily detailed or overly prescriptive, empowering the audience to insert their own imaginations into the music.

Pushing the envelope further: on a slightly-raised stage just behind the ensemble, stands artist Rachel Gadsden with buckets of acrylic paint and five blank canvases – one for each movement.

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As Rachel’s paintings (above) evolve in real time to the music , they mind-map Stories of Syria’s physical and emotional impact. Using an abstract expressionist palette of daubed whites, splashed crimsons, bleeding turquoise. Applied with brushes and sticks or by fingertips, knuckles and palms. Improvised strokes that might evoke a throbbing heart or delicate flower, a torn limb or spilt wine.

It’s a perfect marriage with Waseem’s music which itself is never simply ‘picture music’ but takes us on a psychic journey from trauma to hope.

In the west, we’re often guilty of holding a two-dimensional view of Syria – framed by 24/7 media images of Kalashnikov-waving terrorists and concrete ruins. The 2nd movement ‘Dance’ reminds us it was not always so. Adapting the classical Rondo form (= ‘circle’), it nods to the Syrian Dabkeh tradition of dancing in circles). There’s a communal spirit as the ensemble plays in unison while allowing generous space for each individual musician to take turns in driving the melody forwards. A one-for-all, all-for-one Syria before factional divide-and-rule tore it apart.

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Audiovisability throws us another gambit: deaf actress Nadia Nadarajah (above with James Greenfield on cello) steps up to unfurl her British Sign Language (BSL) and ‘conduct’ and ‘interpret’ the music, using a deft mix of BSL storytelling and improvised gestures that signal the music’s repetition, rhythm, rhyme, alliteration, and metre.

This is something of a ‘research and development’ technique that has huge potential. As an experienced actress, Nadia is supersensitive to the role of facial expression and body language in theatre. Far from being just an interpreter, she dramatises Stories of Syria’s narrative and brings an added pulse to the music too.

As ‘Dance’ ends, an eerie silence falls. Then, one of the evening’s key moments;  James’ cello opens ‘Pain’ with a long-held cathartic moan, wringing every drop of emotion from his bow. A caption evokes ‘Mothers who have lost their children’. Rachel drags crimson-streaked fingers down the canvas, like a prisoner in solitary confinement gripping the cell walls. Nadia’s existential body language connects to all of us whatever language we speak or sign.

It’s a harrowing moment that stops the audience in its collective tracks – musicians, artist, BSL signer, captions, audience, all fused together in a universal cry of pain.

Over the next three minutes, ‘Pain’ leads us on a slow, hypnotic funereal march through a limbo of mourning strings and heartbeat rhythms from Helen’s plucked viola and Jamal’s gently finger-tapped heartbeat rhythms. During this passage, I recall the poet John Donne’s famous line on hearing a funeral bell: ‘Ask not to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee’, reminding us that all of us in the west are diminished by this war and the suffering it causes.

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The tempo gathers once more with the 4th movement’s tentatively upbeat ‘Hope’ until Rihab’s solo tango (above) for oud introduces ‘Damascus Rose’. As Ruth’s flute takes its cue from a famous Syrian folk tune, to evoke a flower’s petals opening to a brighter future, James’s cello interjects a note of caution, reminding us that for many Syrians ‘home’ is a place of love and pride with an underlying sorrow that never entirely leaves.

After the interval, the ensemble returns to tackle a second theme – ‘migration’. In the three-movement ‘Belonging’, Waseem alludes to the life story of deaf textile artist Omeima Mudawi-Rowlings. It’s a sublime evocation; Omeima’s Sudanese-Arabic childhood beside the river Nile, her sudden deafness aged four by meningitis, and subsequent migration to deaf school in London.

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In the aisle, three of Omeima’s translucent textile panels (above) hang on display, backlit with spotlights until they glow like African sunshine in Brighton’s wintry darkness.  One could pass a whole evening scanning the details. Each panel a micro-world in itself. Intricate patterns and lines resemble Arabic script or audiogram charts, musical notation or childhood memories. A visual narrative that amplifies Waseem’s music (and vice versa).

In another technological twist, the accompanying photography and textile exhibition enabled visitors to use Signly’s new mobile phone app to display on-screen BSL translations of the exhibit captions.

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The Unheard World ends on a third theme – displacement – reminding us of the ongoing cost of Syrian war; the trauma experienced by over three million of asylum seekers and refugees. This is bought to vivid life by a video short by deaf film-maker Ramon Woolfe of his 11-year old daughter Layla’s BSL poem – soundtracked by Rihab’s plaintive oud solo. Through her native sign language, Layla’s gives a voice to the dreams of a six-year old deaf asylum seeker Lawand Hamadamin. He’s currently safe and being temporarily schooled at Derby’s Royal School for the Deaf. Yet his family still await a high court judgement on their application to remain in the UK.

From an audio-visual perspective, The Unheard World is a lot to take in. Yet it consistently hits the spot for me, and judging by the rapturous applause, for the wider audience too (a mixture of Brighton’s general public and deaf community members). With thoughtful staging, Audiovisability empowers us to enjoy music on different levels. You can choose as and when to switch focus between musicians, painting, captions or BSL, each a standalone element while adding value to the overall performance.

Ask a random stranger in the street about “classical music” or “music and deaf people” and you’ll likely get some fumbling response about “posh music” and “shame that some can’t hear music”. Audiovisability not only challenges these tired assumptions, it alchemises a whole new way of enjoying music.

This project is surely only just beginning and deserves a far wider audience.


The Unheard World is funded by Arts Council England, Arab British Centre and Decibels / Sobell Foundation 

All text and photographs by Stephen Iliffe. Except top image by Tim Gadsen. 

 

Giving deaf refugees a voice

Everyone has an opinion about refugees.

But what about refugees themselves? Shouldn’t they have a voice too?  What of their experiences, hopes and fears?

This week, Audiovisability releases The Unheard World – a unique British Sign Language (BSL) video about six-year-old deaf asylum seeker Lawand Hamadamin.

It features a heart-wrenching poem by 11-year old British deaf girl Layla Fitzgerald-Woolfe of Lawand’s traumatic journey from Iraq to the infamous Dunkirk refugee camp in France.

After six weeks in makeshift tents and waterlogged fields with only scraps of food to live on, Lawand and his family were rescued by Deaf Kidz International volunteers and bought into the UK.

Lawand now lives temporarily in Derby, so he can attend the Royal School for Deaf Children and – crucially – acquire the language skills he desperately needs to express himself. By finding a new home in Derby’s deaf community, Lawand has made dramatic progress.

However, the family’s relief didn’t last long: the Hamadamins were given blunt notice by the Home Office that they are to be deported to Germany.

The decision makes no human sense: Lawand’s education would go back to square one. German and German Sign Language are completely different to English and British Sign Language (BSL). At a stroke, a year’s progress would be wiped out.

At the eleventh hour, a judge suspended Lawand’s deportation until the High Court considers their case to remain.

Last summer, Lawand was befriended by Layla Fitzgerald-Woolfe who spent a day conversing with him in BSL about his experiences. The result is unique: a British deaf child using BSL poetry to give a voice to an Iraqi deaf child. Telling his story, as he told it to her.

The video soundtrack was composed by deaf flautist Ruth Montgomery who uses minor keys and Arabic tones to express the BSL rhythms and to capture the story’s evolving moods. The music is performed by Syrian oud player, Rihab Azar.

To complete a deaf-led project, Stephen Iliffe’s photographs form a subtle backdrop to Layla’s sign language.

Do share the video, and also encourage your friends to sign the 38 Degrees petition that calls on the authorities to grant Lawand and his family permission to remain in the UK.

Thank you!