As women across Britain prepare to honour suffrage with Processions, the event showcases how symbolic a banner can be
On 10th June, a huge procession and one of the largest public, participatory artworks Edinburgh has ever witnessed will mark the centenary of votes for women. The event is one of four taking place in all the UK capitals, has been commissioned by 14-18 NOW (the cultural programme commemorating the anniversary of WW1) and organised by Artichoke, the same folk that brought us spectacular light festival Lumiere and the much talked about London's Burning.
The crowds for Processions will be made up of women and non-binary people, each wearing a violet, green or white scarf (symbolic of the colours of suffrage). The crowds will then be organised into these three colours as the procession commences, creating a sea of vibrant colour and forming a massive human banner when viewed from above. While on the ground, we should expect hundreds, if not thousands of handmade banners, each expressing the myriad experiences of being a woman today.
'The event is a moving portrait of 21st century women,' says Clare Hunter, community textile artist and founder of NeedleWorks, 'so we want lots of people to take part and share their experiences.' Hunter has been making banners since the 1980s and has compiled a comprehensive toolkit at processions.co.uk on how to make your own.
'The toolkit is something that comes from the heart,' explains Hunter. 'You can use it to share your story or you can make a banner for someone else or a person you admire.' The kit includes instructions on where to buy esoteric banner-making essentials (such as the poly tubing coupler you'll need to connect your poles) and also features rousing quotes from artists and activists that have championed banner-making over the years: 'let us go then, and make banners as required, and let them all be beautiful', reads a Mary Lowndes quote.
Courtesy of the Glasgow Women's Library 'The banners made by the suffragettes were crafted from luscious materials like velvet and were meticulously embroidered,' says Hunter in explaining that this was itself a political strategy as 'the suffragettes were accused of being "too masculine" or "desexed" or "not being women". So they would create these marvellously crafted items that showed off their femininity to try and undermine this message.'
There's no pressure to make an elaborately crafted object today, but the banner remains a potent medium, and with over 30,000 people expected to take part, Processions is another historic moment; a platform for many women's voices to come together and be heard. 'The most important thing is that we have a range of artworks expressing the various achievements and values of women: a social fabric in real terms.'
In addition to the public call out for participants, 100 women artists have been commissioned by Artichoke to support community groups across the UK to produce banners with 17 of these artists working in Scotland. Edinburgh College of Art lecturer and artist Lindy Richardson has been working with women at Cornton Vale prison to create a banner, with inmates working on small sections that will be stitched together into one large work. The result is a moving cacophony of voices: 'my opinion counts, no matter where I am' reads one; 'barred from voting' reads another above a picture of two hands holding onto bars, head slumped behind. Edinburgh College of Art students will carry the banner during Processions.
Glasgow Women's Library workshop with printmaker Helen de Main | Courtesy of the Glasgow Women's Library At Glasgow Women's Library, Helen de Main has run weekly banner-making sessions for library users. 'Haud on a Minute Pal' reads one strip of text; 'We Can, We Will, We Are,' exclaims another. The workshops aren't confined to the central belt however; on Stornoway, the Western Isles Women's Network are working with Chris Hammacott to make a banner; Lizzie McDougall is working with women in Ullapool, leading sessions at An Talla Solais; and Alicia Hendrick is working with women on Mull, through Comar.
Processions is set to be a momentous event, but what happens to the banners afterwards feels no less significant. 'Many of the early 20th century banners have been lost or damaged, maybe some are hiding away in people's attics, but there are very few examples in museums,' says Hunter. 'There were mainly male curators in charge of acquisitions at that time, and these banners weren't considered historically significant.'
There is only one banner in the National Museum of Scotland, dedicated to Men's suffrage, and another by Glasgow Girl Ann Macbeth dedicated to the suffragettes in Holloway jail is exhibited at the Museum of London. While plans for Processions' banners are as yet undecided, they are unlikely to be lost. 'Artichoke have plans to exhibit the 100 banners around the country and hopefully those made by individuals and groups will continue to be seen in local centres for a long time to come' says Hunter. 'In this sense, Processions shows how far we've come, but it's also about how far we have to go and the continuity of women's courage and determination to take part in life.'
Processions, starting from Middle Meadow Walk, Edinburgh, Sat 10 Jun. You can sign up for Processions at processions.co.uk or register on the day. Scarves are provided.