'We are the granddaughters of the witches you weren’t able to burn.'

An art project on two narrow boats hitched together on a canal in northern England is celebrating co-dependency - countering both the racial divide and the massive cuts to women’s services.

Rahila Gupta
12 December 2016

The wall hanging seen through the window of the boat, Selina Cooper. Photo: Rahila Gupta

I am going to visit Idle Women, an art project based on two narrow boats hitched together somewhere on the canals of Lancashire. When my train tickets arrive, stating destination, Burnley, my heart skips a beat. Why? Partly because my poor grasp of geography does not allow me to make the connection between the grimy reputation of Burnley with a romantic sojourn on the canals and partly the fear aroused by Burnley’s reputation for nurturing UKIP and the segregation of communities by race. I am about to discover that the art project aims to bridge the distance between these polarities.

When I get there I find the boats are actually moored in Nelson, in a predominantly working-class Asian area of sloping, narrow streets with terraced houses, at the bottom of which appears to be a small park. As you turn into the park and walk down the muddy path, you come to the canal, totally invisible from the road, like a child’s magic world at the bottom of the garden. Nelson is one of the many small towns near Burnley, nestling in the shadow of the Pendle hills, infamous for its burning of witches in the 1600s which, according to Sylvia Federici, ‘was a turning point in women‘s lives; it was the equivalent of the historic defeat … the cause of the downfall of the matriarchal world. For the witch-hunt destroyed a whole world of female practices, collective relations, and systems of knowledge that had been the foundation of women's power in pre-capitalist Europe, and the condition for their resistance in the struggle against feudalism.’ This too is connected with the art project, witches being a preoccupation of Karen Mirza’s, currently artist-in-residence on one of the boats, who has designed a wall hanging with the words, ‘We are the granddaughters of the witches you weren’t able to burn.’

Cis O’Boyle and Rachel Anderson, the two artists who set up Idle Women felt, ‘a real sickness and exhaustion from working in the capitalist centre of the art world in London. The drive to produce products which were bigger and more ambitious and more expensive was about an artist’s ego.’ Rachel wanted to redress the inequality between artists and participants. She describes the last project she worked on at Artangel, a cooking project with 80-year-old men, a theatre piece where the chef was an actor from East Enders. The designer used Farrow and Ball paint at £35 per tin to paint a piece of plywood and the people taking part lived on that kind of money in a whole week. ‘I thought I could work from within to change that, to hijack that, but found myself heading for a breakdown. At the same time, Cis and I observed an increased loss of women’s spaces including vital services like refuges.  We felt frustrated about women’s representation in the arts, the lack of BME or lesbian women in the workforce, management, galleries and collections. We kept saying it was their fault. But who are they? Aren’t we they, so what can we do about it? We came up with the idea of a canal boat because we wanted autonomy over space and a space we could afford.’

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Cis O’Boyle and Rachel Anderson, founders of the Idle Women project.

I wondered about the name they had given the project, a name whose irony could be lost on misogynists. Its origins are indeed misogynist and the art project is trying to reclaim the words. When the men went to war during WWII and the canals were still a major form of transportation of coal, arms and ammunition, it was women who ran the canals and moved all the goods which entailed heavy labour. As Inland Waterway managed the canals, the women were given IW badges so that they could get access to secure spaces. They were immediately nicknamed Idle Women by the men. The project wanted to forefront this bit of forgotten history.

Almost as soon as the boats were ready and the project was due to launch in September 2015, the central government announced budget cuts of 95 per cent to Lancashire county council! In that time, 45 libraries out of 73 have closed. Women’s health centres, services and refuges have disappeared. ‘We can see the first layer of it and the fallout is going to continue for a long time. From here I feel London is a totally different country,’ Rachel recalls from her time ensconced in London privilege. When they were moored in Church, on the edge of Accrington, so named because there’s a huge church there, even the church is boarded up. There are no shops. There is a very high unemployment rate. ‘But this area is rich in beauty, in friendliness and generosity. This was an area which was thriving during the Industrial revolution. Accrington had 12 picture houses at its height. The architecture shows you the beauty. Today, there are no public toilets; they’re doing refuse collection once a fortnight. When the Asian community arrived in the 70s and work was abundant, in social memory that was a very positive time. But what’s happened since is total segregation. Near the canal, Church is white.  Across the main road, lives the Asian community but they don’t mingle – it’s really surprising.’

These are the divides that the art project is navigating. They work with women at Humraaz, a South Asian women’s refuge and with Lancashire Women’s Aid which is meant for all women but in practice serves mostly white working-class women. They hold social events and invite women from both communities. ‘The first one we held was quite funny – at this end of the boat we had white and Asian teenagers, here white working-class women and there you had older Asian women – the boat was segregated like it’s out on the streets.’ In time, friendships were made across the racial divide but Rachel is hesitant to make too bold a claim about the permanence of the change they have brought about.

At Humraaz, they run an all day, once weekly workshop where they might experiment with herbal tea-making to talk about stress or shadow puppetry to tell stories or walk along the towpath and stop to do a sketch. They have an associate programme in which artists are commissioned to do a specific piece of work within a less specified timeframe so, for example, Candice Purwen is documenting their work for a graphic novel she is working on. The art centre houses the artist-in-residence for three months at a time giving female artists, who have a social practice not a studio based artist like a painter, a paid supportive opportunity.  They have had Mojisola Adebayo, the theatre maker and Martina Mullaney, photographer and writer, and currently Karen Mirza.

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A drawing from Candice Purwin’s graphic novel documenting the project.

Karen is interested in intuition and exploring less celebrated types of knowledge. The Audre Lord quote, ‘As women we have come to distrust the deepest power that rises from non-rational knowledge’ is the guiding principle of her residency. She says that Pendle as ‘the historical site of the papist rebellions, working class labour struggles (industrial revolution & slavery) and the 1612 witch trial’ dovetailed neatly with her growing interest, ‘into women's bodies as sites of resistance. I started to do research into Victorian mediumship through a class lens, working-class women and the parlour games of the elite/beneficiaries of Empire. This led me to Helen Duncan who was the last woman to be tried by the British state as a witch in 1944 under the 1735 witchcraft act. I came to Nelson to try to open up conversations to go deep into the roots of the practices of misogyny and patriarchy on a very local/geopolitical axis.’ To her disappointment, she found the figure of the witch popping up everywhere ‘as commodified tourist insignia’ rather than being used to discuss ‘rebel subjectivity and a dissenting spirit’.


The figure of the witch etched into the glass of a railway ticket office. Credit: Karen Mirza

At the very least, Idle Women want to provide a respite of a women-only space, even for an hour, knowing ‘we can’t escape patriarchy: we are either colluding with it or resisting it or being shattered by it.’ Through their outreach work with women who are intensely creative but would probably believe that ‘art’ is not for them, Idle Women want the work to be mutually beneficial. In an age of individualism, the project refreshingly aims to celebrate co-dependency, as represented by the metaphor of the two boats. The motorboat tows the art centre around: neither boat serves a useful purpose without the other.

Rahila Gupta is an associate artist with Idle Women and is writing an epic poem, The Rubáiyát of Rojava.


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