Leanne O'Connor, Hands of Sisterhood, installation view at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery

Artist Leanne O’Connor undertook a Whitworth Wallis Residency in 2018 at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery. She spent a month exploring the stained glass and metalwork collections of the museum’s industrial galleries, as well as items in the museum collection centre and local archives services. Her new exhibition, on display until 1 June 2020, uses The Story of Dante and Beatrice by Florence Camm, a 3-part stained glass panel held in the museum’s collection, as its jumping off point, within a series of newly made sculptures in steel and glass. Anneka French finds out more.


Leanne O’Connor, Florence?, installation view at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery. Image: David Rowan


Tell me a bit about your starting points?

I have made a fragment, a digital print on glass titled Florence? which was taken from the story of Dante and Beatrice, a 3-part stained glass panel made in 1912 by Florence Camm and the Camms of Smethwick. I linked up with a historian called Elaine Williams who theorised that this particular fragment was actually Florence herself. It was a weird exchange between looking at historical photographs of Florence’s life and looking back into the image. How it’s constructed is important because it doesn’t play to the Edwardian rhetoric of everyone looking off or out away from the central image. I thought that there could be something quite feminist about the work, especially if Florence did include herself looking straight out towards us in a pivotal work that was going to be internationally shown at the International Craft Exhibition in Turin. Florence had quite a sheltered life in terms of her output because she was just making for the family really. The figure of Beatrice was always shown as docile and shrouded by other women which goes against the original text. Florence and her contemporaries reframed this story in a way that I haven’t seen before. A defiance is well-captured.

How has this research come through into your work?

I thought it could be something quite excellent to have a fragment of a face of a maker maybe in the Birmingham School of Art room in Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery (BM&AG). The team very kindly said we show the work as an intervention in the gallery.

And this is the first time there has been a contemporary work in that room?

As far as I am aware, this is the only contemporary work exhibited in the Birmingham School gallery, yes. And this work represents both a historic and contemporary maker at the same time. I considered solidarity and sisterhood over generations. There have been some really beautiful and haunting works I’ve seen around women makers who are tied into activism. These straddle art and craft and I enjoy those borders of production. I like that this piece captivates the room and that it is outside of a frame. It is a sort of a devotion to Florence.

Leanne O’Connor, Hands of Sisterhood, installation view at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery. Image: David Rowan


How many works are in the industrial galleries?

There are 3 downstairs and 2 upstairs. The central panel that I have been looking at is a transparency reproduction and the original is currently in the Oklahoma Museum as part of a big Pre-Raphaelite exhibition that’s happening in North America. It is on loan from BM&AG. There was a fading reproduction on show but my works nearby are hands pointing towards this and the team at the museum were able to refresh the reproduction. It’s been nice that interacting with collections can re-invigorate the display.

Tell me more about your research?

I’ve been working with the Community and History Archives Service (CHAS) in Smethwick, Sandwell. They have a massive collection of photographs that Florence took of the community of Smethwick that would pose for her ecclesiastical designs. The company certainly didn’t have a hierarchy of models that the central Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood had. For example, there is a picture of a beggar from the panel which is in the archive, as well as a man called Albert Fell who was their glazer or leader. It was bonkers but I was installing this work and his great granddaughter came here with her husband. They were talking to the technician and they said that’s my great granddad with the feather. We’re going to be meeting up soon to talk about everything.

Leanne O’Connor, Hands of Sisterhood, installation view at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery. Image: David Rowan

Tell me more about your works Hands of a Sisterhood?

I made these 5 wee sculptures and had been doing research with CHAS prior to applying for this residency. I had seen the beautiful, big ecclesiastical works that Florence had produced. I felt like it was important to pay homage to women makers who worked within trades that must have been extremely difficult for them. CHAS have all of her familial collection, the photo albums that she built herself, her collected drawings, photographs and the boards she mounted things on such as shoeboxes, I found beautiful. I found some photographs she took of her sisters’ hands and I wanted to create signposts from Smethwick that would point back to existing work. I’ve been thinking about survival tactics for ageing work. The different heights of the poles that support the hands are the different ages her sisters were when they died. The bases are a map of Smethwick and the twist crops up in Oldbury fencing. I’ve not seen this design anywhere else and the hands are her sisters’.

What impact has the residency and exhibition had on your work?

These are the most heavily constructed works I’ve ever done. I saw this residency as a massive testing ground for what I could do, for what historical processes I could learn about and what materials I could discover. Negotiating form has been really difficult for me. There are things I would do differently if I were to make them again so it’s been really great in terms of making me think about how I want to make. It’s given me an appreciation that I don’t just work in steel, that I shouldn’t box myself in. The print on glass, Florence?, is the piece that resonates the most for me. Interdisciplinary ways of working are something I am going to embrace a wee bit more.

Whitworth Wallis Artist in Residence: Leanne O’Connor is on display at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery until 1 June 2020.

Artist Leanne O’Connor undertook a Whitworth Wallis Residency in 2018 at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery. Her new exhibition, a result of research conducted during that residency, is on display until 1 June 2020. We found out more.

Lipi bread, made by the Popa family

Liz Hingley speaks with Anneka French about her current touring exhibition and publication, both titled Home Made in Smethwick. A commission by Multistory, the project was developed between 2014 and 2016 and includes portraits and still lives taken in the homes, social spaces and work places of residents of Smethwick, a town in Sandwell which borders Birmingham.


Mariana Popa, Onana Popa, Elizabeth Popa. Sile Popa, Diana Popa, Vanessa Popa

How did the commission for Multistory come about?

Exploring and celebrating the ever-evolving ethnic diversity of cities is an ongoing inspiration for my work. When I was a child growing up in the West Midlands, our Yemeni neighbours often bought over fresh malawah bread; I also have strong memories of scrumptious Caribbean rice and peas eaten at the houses of Barbadian friends.

I was based in Shanghai at the time Multistory commissioned me as part of their Black Country Stories series and I jumped at the opportunity to begin a project which would reconnect me with my West Midlands roots. Multistory had already been working with Martin Parr for four years in Black Country as well as with other photographers I highly respect, such as Mark Power and David Goldblatt, and we wanted to further explore the richness of Smethwick, a small town in the Sandwell, in the Black Country, that is one of the most culturally diverse areas in the UK.

My practice and perspectives developed significantly during the three years I lived in China creating the work Shanghai Sacred whilst spending the summers producing Home Made in Smethwick in the UK. Living between two very diverse locations gave me an understanding and compassion for those who carry their sense of home from place to place.

It has been a personal and surprising journey of discovery and I am only just beginning to reflect on and appreciate this experience.


Lipi bread, made by the Popa family

Smethwick has a rich and significant social and political history within the West Midlands and beyond. What specifically drew you to Smethwick?

Smethwick emerged as an industrial centre during the nineteenth century. Rows and rows of tightly packed terraced houses were planted on the surrounding farmland to accommodate the factory workers arriving on masse from the countryside. Since then, these modest houses have become the spaces of new beginnings and have been continually adapted and personalised to suit myriad lifestyles and home-styles. From the 1950 onwards, the paths leading to these homes have extended further and further across the globe.

I was interested to capture how the traditional Victorian terraced houses have been transformed to suit cultures and tastes from around the world.  On my initial wanderings, I found Smethwick’s densely populated streets surprisingly quiet. Only a rich mix of smells seeping out from behind closed doors filled the silent air. Naturally, when resources to make a home in a new environment are limited, food comes before wallpaper or even beds. The taste of home feeds both the body and the mind.


Dennis Holmes

Many of the photographs are based in people’s homes. How did you begin and build up relationships with the sitters of your portraits? What was this process like?

I was initially drawn to photography by the opportunity it offers to have uniquely intimate experiences with strangers whom I would not otherwise have the opportunity to meet. Like all relationships, these particular exchanges are built on trust and are intuitive so therefore hard to articulate in words. I want to portray people rather than subjects.

Posing the simple question, ‘What is your favourite recipe?’ from door to door, I was welcomed into homes to join the preparation of personal dishes rich with meaning and memory. Conversation flowed over the kneading of family-size naans; it continued over the harvesting of herbs grown from seeds stuffed into suitcases; and while waiting for blueberry crumble to bake with a cup of Pakistani pink tea. Cooking and eating together drew out remarkable life stories and revealed the complex journeys that have brought people from 130 different countries (and sometimes from just down the street) to their Smethwick home.

All those I met contributed to this celebration of the social heritage and culinary richness of Smethwick today. With the aim of capturing the essence of a community, I have been the lucky guest at their table and passenger on their journey.


There is a sense of intimacy and generosity within the work. In what ways does your project explore a sense of family and community?

My photographs are developed through collaboration. I seek opinions on how people wish to be represented and allow them to intervene in positioning themselves. The majority of my time is spent engaging through observation and conversation. After developing an understanding of my subjects and their contexts, I then see the moment to capture.

Using digital camera equipment enabled me to share the results and offer people copies of their images quickly and easily; this was crucial in building trust and sustaining relationships. Returning these photographs led me to engage in further discussion with the individuals. People’s quotes are an integral part of the Home Made in Smethwick book.

Ayeman Ferdos, Hashim Abdullah, Zagham Ali, Shakil Ahmed, Dawud Raza

How do the portraits, still lives and recipes that you collected intersect with one another?

Rather than a cookbook, this collection of portraits and recipes reveals how food can act as a bridge from one continent to another; from one generation to the next; and from one house to its neighbour. The tastes of home are never left behind; they accompany people through their lives. They cement relationships and are passed on and transformed by new generations and new contexts. With this series I hope to celebrate the social heritage and culinary richness of Smethwick today and so reveal another perspective on the migration experience.

In the book the recipes are printed on greaseproof-like transparent paper and inserted over the portraits, opening as doors into the intimate space of peoples front rooms.


How does being an anthropologist feed into your photography?

Photography gives me an insight into people’s intimate stories and experiences. It also enables me to reflect on my own perspectives and feelings about life.  I trained as a photographer and then studied anthropology; my work brings these two interests together. I tend to immerse myself in long-term projects that require in-depth research. This led me to begin collaborating with academics to develop the visual side of their research into society. I enjoy the challenge of finding ways to communicate complex issues through imagery and aim to continue producing work which bridges art photography and social research. It is an exciting intermediate space of constant discovery.


What are your hopes for the legacy of the project?

The UK is in a crucial time of social assessment and reflection and it is vital that we build a bigger more empathetic picture of ourselves. I hope that this work can become part of this dialogue and remain as an active historic document of Smethwick reveals today.


Home Made in Smethwick is currently on display at Blackheath Library. Hingley’s publication can be purchased here.

An interview with artist and anthropologist Liz Hingley about her photographic series Home Made in Smethwick, now a publication and touring exhibition commissioned by Multistory.