Sylvia’s Sisters: Manchester Met celebrates International Women’s Day

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By Pierangelly Del Rio

Manchester Metropolitan University celebrated International Women’s Day with ‘Sylvia’s Sisters’, an event that aimed to highlight current arts and social practice of women working across art, fashion, architecture and writing.

Throughout the day several free activities were hosted across the Manchester Met All Saint’s campus, inviting the public to engage and learn more about women and their work at the university.

The title was homage to Manchester born Sylvia Pankhusrt, an artist, social activist and prominent figure of the Suffragette movement. Pankhurst studied at Manchester Art School, Manchester Met, from 1898 to 1903.

During her life, Pankhurst organised major rallies, marches and demonstrations all over Britain divulging the Women’s Social and Political Union work, while also trying to persuade the government to give women the right to vote. She designed flags and banners to sell and decorated halls and meeting rooms. Her public talks allegedly attracted over 16,000 spectators.

In Manchester Met’s Geoffrey Manton atrium, students and staff rendered tribute to Pankhurst artistic side by showcasing clothing of their own invention. Dr Priscilla Chan, Senior Lecturer in Fashion Business, spoke to attendees about her creation, an exquisite purple top made by employing Chinese knotting. Dr Chan explained her innovative approach to this textile art technique, using knotting to create a traditional Chinese costume, then incorporating floral art techniques. The process of making the costume took a long time as it was made by hand.

Later in the day, an activism pop-up library started to operated. Led by history students, the library showcased the work of prominent feminist writers such as Simon De Beauvoir, Naomi Alderman and Malala Yousafzai. Attendees were encouraged to take a look at the texts, enquire about their authors and share their own feminist readings.

Meanwhile, the library organised a drop-un session titled ‘Discovery Day: Writing and Women’. Education and Engagement Officer for Special Collections Louise Koch, spoke to Humanity Hallows about the session. She said,

“It’s a selection of material from special collections looking at writing that has been done writing by women, for women or by women in the last 200 years. Is not by any means all pro-women or pro-suffragette; some of it is anti. It’s about reflecting about different ideas and opinions about women.”

The material was organised chronologically and placed on several tables. Attendees were invited to discover and read the texts, having into consideration some of them were extremely delicate due to their age. Many of the oldest titles were moral guides which aimed to instruct women on how to behave, for example: Female instructor: being a sure and complete guide to every acquirement essential in forming a pleasing companions, a respectable mother, or a useful member of society (1823) and Home: book for young ladies (1853). Others, such as Votes for Catherine, Susan and me (1910), conveyed a clear messaged against the Suffragette movement. In the picturesque fable, the main character and her friend join the Suffragette march, then end up in jail and finally, promise the male authorities to stop marching for votes.

Over at the John Dalton building, a fine arts, photography and craft exhibition took place. Several photographs from the Portrait Youth exhibition were on display, along pieces by several students and staff members. Catherine Peal, MA student in Design Illustration, was present and talked about her creation, ‘Beauty for Ashes: Sojouner Truth’. The project was inspired by Sojouner Truth, an African-American abolitionists and women’s rights activist, best known for her speech “Ain’t I a woman?” Catherine’s work involves embroidery and the making of paper beads. For the former, Catherine asked attendees to make beads using copies of the transcription of Sojouner’s speech and her signature. Then, they would paint them using colour, which represented political meanings for her father’s tribe in Ghana. Catherine spoke to Humanity Hallows about her work:

“I was thinking how does a woman who has been a slave, who has been whipped and treated poorly. How does she overcome that pain to give a speech that is not filled with poison? But a speech that can actually help us move forward. I was inspired by her life and I thought she was an ideal person to focus on forgotten stories and bring her back.”

Despite the fact that speech dates back to 1851, Sojouner’s words, as noted by attendees, still resonate with the reality many women, especially women of colour live nowadays; being unable to control their bodies and treated like lesser beings solely for their race.

Another artist present at the exhibition was Beverly Irving, MA illustration student, whose piece ‘Daughter and Father: a conversation’ conveyed ideas about gender roles. Two faces, made out of clay, were placed in front of each other, seemingly having a conversation. Beverly’s experiences with her family and her own femininity inspired the sculpture’s creation.

Sylvia’s Sisters concluded with a screening of the documentary She Draws: She Builds at the Business School.

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