- Enam Gbewonyo
- God’s House Tower
- ‘a space’ arts
- Arts Council England
As part of Arts&Heritage’s Meeting Point programme, a unique new artwork by acclaimed British-Ghanaian textile and performance artist, Enam Gbewonyo, explored the history of one of Southampton’s most important monuments: God’s House Tower.
Gardez L’Eau drew on themes of trade, travel, colonialism and piracy; and used materials from God’s House Tower’s past to create a sculpture that ran through the entirety of the building.
The knitted artwork, which began on the roof of God’s House Tower, was made from three different materials; each one significant to the building’s history.
“Because of God’s House Tower’s location near the The Solent, I was inspired by how the sea brought war, trade, and settlers to the city of Southampton, and how people of all different walks of life have passed through the building during its history.
The sculpture symbolises the captivity and enslavement of people imprisoned in God’s House Tower, but also reflects on themes of community and unison. These two contrasting narratives reflect the experiences of people that came to God’s House Tower over the centuries.” – Enam Gbewonyo
In addition to the sculpture, Enam also developed an accompanying performance that took place on Saturday 16 July. An ode to the people of Southampton, the performance referenced traditional Morris dance, Aurresku – a traditional Basque dance – and the Masquerade dance of St. Kitts in honour of each country’s connection to Southampton and God’s House Tower. A film of the performance was also added to the exhibition.
Mia Delve, Creative Programme Manager at Southampton-based visual arts organisation ‘a space’ arts – the custodians and operators of God’s House Tower – said:
“We are excited to be working with Enam and bringing this new and unique commission to Southampton. A lot of Enam’s work tackles issues around identity, racism and colonialism, and I think that’s why God’s House Tower had such an impact on her creative approach for this project, and in turn why the project aligns with the ‘a space’ arts values and ethos, and resonates so strongly with us.
Enam is using this incredible and storied building as a portal to transport people through its history. The work also acts to draw the outside in, highlighting the importance of the sea in carrying war, wealth, and refuge to Southampton.”
A soundscape by Southampton-based Spanish sound artist and producer, Anihma, acted as an accompaniment to the artwork and performance. Featuring traditional English folk music, Basque music, and calypso music, it nodded to the city’s connections to Spain and the Caribbean.
Gardez L’Eau was on display at God’s House Tower, Southampton, from Friday 17 June – Sunday 14 August 2022.
A&H commissioned the filmmaker Pascal Vossen to work with Enam Gbewonyo on a ‘making of film’ for Gardez L’Eau, capturing the artist’s process.
God’s House Tower was constructed over several hundred years and has held many different uses over that time. The oldest part of the building – originally known as God’s House Gate – was built in 1189 and named due to its proximity to the nearby God’s House Hospital. The original gate was built to give access to the Platform Quay and was used to guard the town from attack by sea.
In 1338 Southampton was raided by the French and – with no defensive walls to protect the town – Southampton was pillaged. The invaders rampaged through the streets setting fire to houses and pillaging the cellars which stored valuable wine and wool. The townspeople faced the wrath of King Edward III, who gave orders to enclose Southampton with walls as a defence against further attack, which the townspeople had to pay for. Strategically positioned at the southeastern corner of the walls and as a lookout point across the Solent, the Tower at God’s House was built in 1400 to house gunpowder and cannons. GHT remained an important defensive structure for the next 300 years.
By the 17th century, with attack from the sea no longer an immediate threat, the Tower was no longer needed for defence and the building began to fall into disrepair. In 1760 plans for a prison at God’s House Tower were drawn up and God’s House Gaol held three prisons in one building: the Bridewell, the Felons’ prison and the Debtors’ gaol.
By the Victorian era, the population of the prison as well as the population of the town had soared and the prisoners were moved from God’s House Gaol in 1855. Part of the building was used as a temporary mortuary until the Southampton Harbour Board rented the premises in 1876 for use as a large warehouse.
In the 1960s the building was converted into the city’s archeology museum and Brutalist concrete staircases and parquet floors were installed. The museum closed in 2011 and in 2019, after a painstaking four-year restoration project, GHT re-opened as Southampton’s new arts and heritage venue.
GHT is a truly unique heritage site with a fascinating and colourful history. The heritage is alive in its walls and in the stories of the people who lived and worked here: stories that blur the lines between fact and fiction, documented histories and hearsay.
God’s House Tower is looked after by the visual arts organisation, ‘a space’ arts.
‘a space’ arts is a visual arts organisation that supports artists and inspires audiences through exhibitions, studio spaces, professional development and by culturally reanimating lost spaces with arts and heritage.
Established in 2000, by artists for artists, ‘a space’ arts is a visual arts organisation that leads on a range of artist development projects, including The Arches and Tower House studios, God’s House Tower, the RIPE programme, along with delivering a bespoke range of Artist Resources.
George Vasey, freelance curator & writer based in Saltburn-by-the-Sea, responds to ‘Gardez L’Eau’, a Meeting Point commission by artist Enam Gbewonyo that was exhibited at God’s House Tower, Southampton.
Plotting a Thread…
Knitting has many associations and is most often metaphorically aligned to acts of maintenance, recuperation and healing. We knit to clothe and to fix, to conceal and warm our bodies, pass the time and engage our hands. These processes are repetitive and mechanic, modest and incremental choreographies. Textiles is of the body and for the body, a somatic memory held deep within our muscles.
The British Ghanaian artist Enam Gbewonyo uses textiles to tell stories about bodies and histories. The artist’s biography elides personal and ancestral connections to fabric. Before embarking on a career as an artist, Gbewonyo studied textiles design and worked in fashion. A formative moment for her was visiting Ghana and being introduced to weaving histories, encountering working looms and seeing the artisans’ skills up close. Gbewonyo’s research and broadening awareness of her ancestral history led her practice towards the symbolic and material power of fabric; working across performance, sculpture and wall mounted works. She belongs to a rich lineage of artists such as Senga Nengudi, Shiela Hicks, Lenore Tawney, Faith Ringgold and Louise Bourgeois who have expanded the vast potential fabric to comment on the body and identity. The vibrant quilts of Gee Bends, made by African American women in rural Alabama, are another touchstone.
Gbewonyo’s practice combines embroidery, weaving, knitting and print across a broad array of materials. The series Nude Me/ Under the Skin (2016 to present) is characteristic, incorporating nylon tights that are variously knitted, braided, woven, appliqued, burned, cut and tied. Fabric becomes flesh that is variously tarnished and intimate, the subject of violence as well as tenderness. The series reveals the racism of hosiery, an industry — like many others — that naturalises the beauty ideal of white skin and subjugation of Black womanhood.
Gbewonyo’s new installation Gardez L’Eau, for God’s House Tower in Southampton takes the form of a monumental series of knitted works that snakes through the building, hanging from girders and draped onto the floor. The sinewy forms made in fabric and metal soften the imposing architecture, echoing the lapping waves outside.
The installation is made with materials significant to the building’s layered histories including: wool which was pillaged from the King by invading French troops. Rope which was picked by the female prisoners to source oakum. The metal wire signifies the metal of the prisoner’s chains and the chains of a ship’s anchor that are fashioned into symbolic keyhole gun ports that connect the building to the sea. The predominate colour of the dyed wool is pastel blue and ivory which mimics the colour of sea foam lapping at the Southampton shoreline and the clouds above it, connecting the ocean and sky. The wool is embroidered with words such as ‘windrush, passage, living and crumbling’ taken from dialogue in Collecting God’s House Tower’s Stories film, eliding personal and collective memories.
The installation was partially made at the artist’s studio and during a residency in the gallery and workshops involving local knitters, artists and students. The strenuous labour required to produce the installation involved repetitive cutting and lugging metal around that took a toll on the artist’s hands and back. Reflecting on the physical exertion that the work required, Gbewonyo likens looping the rope around the building’s beams to working on a ship’s sail. God’s House Tower has had many uses during its history and the artist’s extensive research led her to explore the site’s former history as a prison. Gbewonyo parallels the harsh labour enforced on the women prisoners with the duress that she voluntarily endures; the artist enacting a kindred physicality that embodies an empathy with their plight.
The symbolism of the metal chain — used to create the sinewy forms — is multivalent, recalling ship’s anchors as well as the history of enslavement. Chains recall captivity and, also in more benevolent contexts, connate community and belonging. They are apt metaphors for God’s House Tower’s complex histories which has historically hosted these disparate and competing realities.
The installation appears throughout the building connecting physically and conceptually to the building’s multi-use histories. The sculpture snakes up to the long since deinstalled timeball on the roof. This connected Southampton to Greenwich Mean Time enabling ships to synchronise their chronometers. Gbewonyo’s newly imagined timeball charts the stories of the sea as a site of passage, surfacing the histories of enslaved people thrown overboard at sea and those held in captivity as well as others seeking a new life or fleeing war. The installation animates the location, directing us to hidden and marginalised histories.
The work is accompanied by a sound piece made in collaboration with Southampton based sound artist and producer Anihma. The work incorporates elements of English Folk, Basque and Caribbean instrumentation alongside excerpts of a Deborah Gearing poem, dialogue from the Collecting God’s House Towers Stories film and the sound of water.
The installation is completed by a solo performance captured in a 16mm connecting each element of the work. In the film Gbewonyo is dressed in her own costume evoking Victorian dress. The dancing is informed by Morris dance, Aurresku (a traditional Basque dance) and masquerade as she brings different parts of the building to life. We see her switching between jumping on the spot to more acrobatic type displays; moving between solemnity and joyfulness. At times her body multiples, doubling up. She begins to scream. The film move in closely to her face. At other points it moves out of focus.
From limbo to the tarantella, the emancipatory roots of dance often start out in folk histories rooted in trauma. If we hold memory in our bodies, dance can offer brief respite, a moment of catharsis. Gbewonyo’s choreography is part celebration and psychic channelling; bringing multitude of stories together within God’s House Tower and Southampton — histories of incarceration and transport, migration and exchange. If fabric is for the body and of it; Gbewonyo uses her own body as a portal for these histories.
If the Walls Could Speak…
God’s House Tower was originally built in the 13th century as a gatehouse and refuge for travellers. It was soon fortified following a French invasion and fell into disrepair as Southampton’s fortunes declined in the 16th and 17th century. It became a prison housing typically female inmates as young as 13 with many of them put in dire conditions for petty crimes. Gbewonyo’s research directed her to Mary Rowsell who was tried for the murder of her baby. Rowsell was not convicted but the artist talked to the historian Deborah Gearing about the likelihood that Roswell suffered with post partum depression, a condition that would not have been recognized at the time. Further research led the artist to other inmates such as John Geagon who sold his plantation in Saint Kitts to fund a comfortable life in debtor’s jail. It seems captivity weighed more heavily on some than others; the building’s history a nexus for inequity and privileges born from the slave trade.
After its use as a prison the building became a morgue and storage facility until the 20th century when it housed an archeology museum. It now operates as a multi-use arts and heritage site programmed by ‘a space arts’ with a temporary exhibition programme and permanent galleries telling the history of the site. It is a complex and messy site, providing Gbewonyo with a resonant context. The artist was particularly drawn to episodes throughout Southampton’s history that catalysed her interest in the commission’s development. In 1937 it was the site of 4,000 Basque child refugees arriving from the Spanish Civil War, many of whom settled in Southampton. From the 1940s onwards Southampton docks saw the arrival of communities from the Caribbean as part of the Windrush generation.
While Southampton was a smaller port than London, Bristol and Liverpool it has a significant naval and shipbuilding history. The boats built here transported the raw materials and enslaved people of the British Empire from the Caribbean and Africa to sugar and cotton plantations. Many public figures in Southampton owned plantations and profited from slavery. God’s House is a site that connects histories of globalisation, trade, travel and colonialism through the sea. At once looking outwards and inwards to the rest of England. It is a space that has offered hope to some and violence to others.
Beware of the Water…
The French title of the work Gardez L’Eau loosely translates as “beware of the water”. The French title evokes the story of Huguenots and influence of French communities in Southampton. The saying is historically synonymous with the emptying of chamber pots from tenements onto the street below and was shouted as an advanced warning.
Gardez L’Eau is a surfacing of the sea as a space of passage and possibility; a place of encounters and lives upended and cut short. Looking at Gbewonyo’s work we’re reminded that the histories of globalisation are not new; they were set in motion hundreds of years ago as the sea became a conduit between continents; (often forcibly) transporting people, plants, food and animals as well as diseases that wiped out communities. The world we now inhabit is shaped profoundly by these incursions across oceans hundreds of years ago.
Gbewonyo’s commission focuses on Southampton’s long and entangled histories as a port and threshold between Britain and the rest of the world. She looks backwards to move forwards. When I look at her work I think about the generations of communities arriving on these shores; homes left behind and new homes yet to be made. I think about how home is a somatic memory held in the mind and our muscles as much as a physical space to be inhabited. I think about the trauma of exile and dislocation.
From spinning a yarn to plot threads, the language of storytelling is permeated by the symbolism of fabric. Text and textile share the same latin origin, texture which means to weave. Fabric is embedded with memories that speak up and await curious ears. Gbewonyo weaves personal and collective memories into narratives that resonant and point a way forward. She understands that the stories we tell ourselves about the past are crucial to the world we want to inhabit in the future.
– co-written by by George Vasey and Enam Gbewonyo, 2022
Enam Gbewonyo is a textile and performance artist whose practice investigates identity, womanhood, and humanity while advocating the healing benefits of craft. Her performances seek to deliver the collective consciousness to a positive place of awareness by creating live spaces of healing. By using craft as her portal she pushes us to face the truth of a dark past and the emotions it brings forth. Thus bringing us to a point of spiritual awareness both of self and humanity. Gbewonyo is also a curator and founder of the Black British Female Artist (BBFA) Collective – a platform that supports emerging black women artists and advocates for inclusivity.
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