In 2017 a famous artist called Laurence Edwards was commissioned to create an artwork dedicated to the miners’ and their families in Doncaster. This was a well intentioned project set-out by our local Mayor Ros Jones, who’s own family worked in coal mining. Ros put 30K of her own cash into this project. The commission was about creating a traditional statue/memorial to our cultural heritage as mining people. A way for future generations to learn about our history and story.
This type of thing is very close to home for me. In 2007 I wrote my dissertation on mining memorials and social change. I have created two memorial artworks about my heritage which are featured in this blog (Out Of Darkness Light & Pin The Pits). When this commission came up I knew this wasn’t my thing. I spent years studying memorials and the truth is, memorials in the west are more about the process of learning to forget than keeping memories alive. In the Art Of Forgetting David Lowenthal writes: “Objects are the enemy of memory they are what tie it down and lead to forgetfulness”.
Remembering our mining heritage in authentic and meaningful ways has always been important to me along with supporting other artists to reclaim and tell our story (Gary Lyon’s play The Last Seam).
What I have learnt from all this, is that the best way to pay homage to a cultural history is to re-ignite those old traditions. For me, the miners’ and their families were interwoven with fighting for social justice and social change. It’s about picking up those banners, singing the folk songs, films, poetry, plays, the brass band music. All those things help us to step back into our past and inspire us to fight for social justice in the present. After 10 years of austerity in Doncaster we need that more than ever.
For me, the idea of transferring this whole history into materials like stone, marble or bronze is unfathomable. It works for army generals or political leaders. It’s almost impossible to do something decent and represent an entire community and way of life.
What went off.
Initially, I didn’t want to get involved. I was told by someone working closely on this project the Mayor wanted a statue and that was that. During this time, I emailed the commission application to an academic who had also created a miners’ memorial. His reply was: “don’t touch it”. There’s too many people to please”. I had no intention of applying for this project but I was interested in his reply.
After that, I became worried the commission might get picked up by a design consultancy firm that specialises in art for public spaces and we’d end up with something generic. When Laurence Edwards was selected, I was genuinely pleased, this would mean Doncaster would get something world class and unique.
Following the initial research period over social media I saw Laurence meeting ex-miners and their families in Community Centres and Working Mens’ Clubs across the Doncaster area. I thought, nice one, this will have a chance at being authentic and some of the stories told will translate to something credible. At this stage, I was excited and enthusiastic to see what would manifested. I wanted visual poetry and maybe Laurence could do that.
In spring 2018 I was asked to attend a sitting with the artist for the research aspect of the project. Because this is a subject close to my heart, I refused to attend the sitting at first. It is very emotionally draining being interviewed about your life and story. It brings up raw emotions and it can be very unsettling. If people are sharing their story it needs to be done in a sensitive and respectful way, you don’t always know if that will be the case, and the way you have been represented can be edited to fit another agenda.
At Doncaster College in additional to the interview about my personal life, it would be filmed and streamed live. I didn’t really get this at all and felt uneasy about it but it was about the students getting to do something real, with a famous artist, so I went along with it.
Laurence talked to me about the concept behind sculpting the heads of local people and referenced something the artists Rodin did the 1880s ( The Burghers of Calais) He spoke passionately about wanting to do something along those lines for this project. I remember at the time thinking my head should not be involved because I’m not actually an ex-miner and I didn’t work down the pit but I was told that they needed a female younger member of the community. I went along with it.
Laurence interviewed me whilst sculpting my head out of wax and the whole this was streamed online somewhere. I cannot deny Laurence is a lovely bloke and obviously super talented at this sort of art. I was there for an hour then tootled-off back to my life.
In the summer I was invited to see the heads and Laurence’s final design at a pop-up exhibition in our local shopping centre. All the ex-miners’ and their families attended a private view launch night launch, with free drinks and speeches. I got to see my head on display and take a plaster version home as thank you for being part of the project.
Laurence made a speech on the night, which I was moved by. He talked about driving up from the south to spend time at the Stainforth Working Men’s Club. He talked about the people he met , that what he experienced was true community, something he felt lacking in his own life. He said he understood the miners’ pain and what they were fighting for in the strike. I remember thinking. Yes, Lawerence you get it. You understand us.
Now here’s where it started to get weird for me.
On this night of the Doncaster exhibition in our shopping centre, met Laurence’s patron, a bloke called Johnny who represented Laurence in the artworld and had two galleries in Wilshire and Mayfair in London. I remember having a chat with this guy about my work and he gave me his card so I checked everything out on instagram. I can’t remember our conversation in full but there may have been something mentioned about the work being shown in his galleries. I didn’t give it much thought but I remember thinking that was kinda weird given our cultural history and story. What does any of that have to do with this commission? Anyhow, when you meet professional people in the arts with money and resources, you presume that they will go about things in the correct way. He’s a professional white middle-class art man, he knows what he’s doing.
The months go by and I get on with life in Doncaster.
In December 2019 and I start to see the occasional post pop-up on insta about the heads and realise they are being shown in various places linked to the galleries. I start to process what this means and it feels weird.
The heads are being exhibited at the two galleries celebrating a new technique Laurences has developed whilst interviewing people and sculpting their heads lives. The project now has this new counter narrative which has become about the artist and his skills. Fair play, the man is good at what he does. I see online a copy of a catalog called “The Doncaster Heads”.
The whole project makes me feel really uneasy. It’s such a strange and outdated way to make art to me. Could you imagine this kind of approach for the proposed Grenfell memorial? Sculpting the heads of the surviving local community, then putting them for up for sale in a gallery in Mayfair for a shit load of cash? WFT.
A week before the London exhibition, I received a copy of the catalogue in the post called “The Doncaster Heads”. There I was, head No. 23 Rachel Horne Denaby & Cadeby Main Collieries. The pits where my dad and grandfathers worked right back to the 1890s. They were socialists what would they make of this?
At this point I couldn’t tell if this work was for sale but I had a feeling it was, as earlier in the year, I received a message on Facebook asking if I would like to buy my head cast in bronze for a £450 deposit at a discounted rate of £1950.
Who put a price on my head? At the time I thought this was quite inappropriate.
Did Laurence listen to my story? Does he want me to take out a loan to by my head?
Art is about personal taste, as I have said before the whole idea of sculpting my head feels weird and old school. I thought perhaps money from the sale of the heads would be going back into the production costs of the memorial. I’ve yet to see evidence of this. Spacehive (a fundraising platform) shows all the local people and organisation that have all put in their own money to fund this commission that totals £131,354.
After seeing a few posts on insta, I emailed Laurence to find out what was going on with the heads. I had this idea of maybe attending something down south and doing some of my spoken word poetry to bring my head to life. I now realise, Laurence and the gallery had other plans and that the private view was the next day.
Reading the email from Laurence I discovered our local college had organised a coach to London to see the exhibition bringing a bunch of the ex-miners to the Mayfair gallery. At this stage I was keen to find out, did anyone know that their head would be for sale when they arrived?
Every art person knows, a private views is about selling art to puntas or as Laurence puts it “friends of the gallery”.
Here’s a little artworld equation :
Private View + buying art = banking system for rich people.
I have spent the last few days trying to process this deeply. If the money from the sales of our heads is needed for the memorial, I would still think that the whole thing is weird and wrong but at least, I could see, Johnny the gallery man was being kind, getting his rich pals to help pay for our northern statue. I have yet to find evidence that this is the case.
Now the whole thing reaches a new level of weird…
The miners and students landed like a northern storm at 5pm and were given champagne and a tour of the gallery. The “Gallery Friends” would arrive a 6pm to meet The Doncaster Heads.
Was this some weird, fucked-up, petting zoo experience, a chance for the rich, to meet the poor people of the north? Like, talk to the real thing before you buy the decapitated head version in bronze? Please tell me I am wrong. This also means that there are more heads out there? One for the memorial statue in Doncaster and one for sale? Who will buy my bronze head? Over insta I found out the price of each head is £2895. The Gallery had 42 sale, that’s over £100K for our heads and I am left feeling: WTF is this middle-class art-world experience about? How can I make it stop? Is this a form of cultural appropriation? If feels totally wrong.
Just for my own reference:
Cultural appropriation at times is also phrased cultural misappropriation, is the adoption of elements of one culture by members of another culture. This can be controversial when members of a dominant culture appropriate from disadvantaged minority cultures.
Oh, Laurence, why couldn’t you just give us a statue and leave it there? What has Mayfair and Johnny the gallery man got to do with this, unless it is about selling our heads in a tokenstic way to rich people? One of the ex-miners I spoke too, who attended said he feels everything I do, but enjoyed the chance to speak to the rich people at the gallery and share the story of how things are for us in the North.
So what’s gone wrong with piece. (It’s just my opinion).
Laurence called his final piece “The Listening Miner”. Sadly, I think he has basically put himself in this artwork. I wish in a way he didn’t have to do all the engagement stuff with the College because it’s led him in a different direction. Maybe the head thing could have worked. My head shouldn’t be messed up with this. When you see all the heads on display in Mayfair, you can see we are good commodities for selling Laurence’s skills in bronze.
The Listening Mining is a weird portrait of Laurence hearing our stories and sculpting our faces “The Doncaster Heads” (we’ve even got a hashtag). We are decapitated, voiceless, placed in rectangular tombs of limestone rock. It’s erie. Many people in Doncaster thought the concepts looked like the Faceless Men in Games Of Thrones in season 3.
That was not the kinda visual poetry I was hoping for.
If Laurence and the gallery man actually listened to our culture and story they would understand the last place my dead grandad would want his granddaughters head to be, would be in Mayfair? This is not the right context for our story. This is your middle class culture, your way of making art, and your banking system for rich people.
Please can you kindly leave us out of that.
Laurence and Johnny I want my head.