Image: Laura Cummins
As I catch my first sunny glimpse of Armley Mills, tucked beneath a viaduct overlooking the river Aire, I know it will be an afternoon of discovery. With exhibits ranging from a visiting Steam Punk fair to an in-house 1920s cinema, this hidden gem is well worth a visit. And get your skates on, because ‘My Case, My Journey’ closes on the 30th May.
Launched on International Women’s Day, ‘My Case, My Journey’ has a captivating backstory. Fuelled by Together Women, a vibrant Leeds-based charity, nine Leeds University students volunteered to run workshops with Polish, Syrian, Indian and Swahili women across Leeds. Inspired by the fascinating stories and cultural objects that these women brought to workshops, the exhibition swiftly took shape. It is a bright, beautiful, immensely powerful display of artefacts interwoven with snippets of reported storytelling.
The theme for International Women’s Day 2015 was Making Things Happen. This theme holds particular significance for Charlotte Gray, one of the student volunteers. For Charlotte, the highlight of their journey was when the Swahili group announced their manifesto for a movement called ‘Swahili Women In Power.’ ‘We were very conscious not to speak for the women’, she tells the Gryphon. ‘All the objects were brought in by the group members themselves, and our workshops and discussions were completely open. The whole creative process was about enabling the women to express themselves. It was so inspiring how they threw themselves into making it happen.’
This ethos of freedom and openness leaps out as I wonder through the displays. The exhibition hones in on sensory experiences as a means to channel the women’s memories. Raffia pockets of cloves swing gently from the ceiling, filling the Mill Space with their scent. An accompanying note carefully informs visitors that this particular blend is Leeds-grown. Cloves from Zanzibar have a unique scent that is especially meaningful to the Swahili women. One woman describes shopping in the Leeds City Market as both comforting and upsetting. For her, the smell of fish evokes memories of chatting to friendly market sellers in Zanzibar. Another woman shares an anecdote centred around taste, displaying a mould used to make novelty sweets for tourists in Kerala, India.
The stories are strikingly immediate and relatable. A Polish woman shares a funny, moving list of English words for body parts, which she prepared for a visit to the midwife during her first months in Leeds. My favourite exhibit features poems written by Loujean, a young poet living in Leeds. She describes her experiences of the Syrian war with technical brilliance and mesmerising wisdom. Loujean’s poems are displayed in Arabic and English, side-by-side. She talks about her creative struggles of translation, her ambition to study journalism, and the freedom she finds when travelling. She also hopes to take part in Leeds poetry events. As a result of the exhibition, LUU Spoken Word society has invited her to their future poetry events. For me, this proves the great power of storytelling – ‘My Case, My Journey’ is truly Making Things Happen.
‘The loveliest thing is to be free and to express what you want.’ This quote from Lougean sums up why creative ventures like ‘My Case, My Journey’ are so important. So make sure to visit Armley Mills before the 30th May, to share the experiences that so many women have put great love and courage into expressing freely.