A fact known to us all: Leeds is a vibrant, diverse university and city, but not many people are aware of just how many different countries and cultures are represented as part of the student body. World Unite Festival, happening throughout the month of February, provides the perfect opportunity to celebrate the dynamism and beauty of all our different cultures.
Featuring collaborations from a variety of different cultural, faith and welfare societies, the Union is putting on a whole host of events. The aim of the Festival is not only to celebrate cultural differences, but also to facilitate further understanding, respect and compassion for the lives and experiences of others. We may all be students but so many of us go through so many different things, and we may not be aware of how identity, culture and heritage have an impact on our experience of university. Events like this give us an opportunity to really learn about cultures we may have no previous knowledge of, and to understand and empathise with an experience entirely different to our own.
World Unite Festival is also all about highlighting and celebrating the achievements of people around the world that we may not have otherwise known about. One project organised as part of the festival is interested in the stories of empowering women who have been erased from the history books. The ‘Women Warriors’ project, hailing inspiration from Maxine Hong Kingston’s novel The Woman Warrior, aims to inspire students to ‘not be afraid of society’s expectations of women, to follow their dreams, and to achieve their full potential’. As part of the project, illustrations of such powerful women are being created and distributed around campus during World Unite festival. The Gryphon spoke to Claire Marsden, one of the illustrators, about her aims for the project:
Can you explain a bit about the project and what it is?
“[The brief] was to come up with illustrations to represent women who were warriors throughout history, who did something empowering, or something that empowered other women.”
What were some of your favourite stories of the women that you’d heard?
“I liked all of them to be honest! I picked two of them, one of them was a woman who stood for education in Africa, and one was a woman who stood up for the morale of men in war during a battle, which just seemed extremely brave.”
What kind of things did you want to represent with the illustrations?
“With the one about education, it ended up being quite literal, and I wanted it to be quite clean-cut visually, which is kind of what my work is about usually. I came up with a silhouette, using objects inside it to represent what she stood for.
“I wanted the other one to be a lot grittier, to represent war and battle. I went for a bit more of a grungy look, because I like felt that represented it better.”
Were you purposely trying to make them look as different as possible?
“In terms of the overall image, they ended up being a little bit similar, with this silhouette of a face, but in the styles I very much wanted them to come across a bit different.”
How do you think these illustrations fit in with your work as a whole?
“It was much more interesting to do something a bit political which stood for something, rather than designing a logo for a finance company. It was definitely a nice break from what I usually do!”
Did you aim for a cohesive look across both images, or was it your aim to make them completely different from each other?
“In some sense, of how these women actually looked, I wanted that to come across a little bit, but we don’t have any photographs of these women, but in terms of their culture and stuff I wanted that to come across, because I feel like that was a big part of representing who they were.”
How did you navigate representing their culture?
“That was the most difficult part of it to be honest. One woman wore a headscarf, but she also held up a flag, so I wanted to incorporate the flag into the scarf visually. The African woman wore big jewellery on the illustrations of herself, so I ended up going for a symbol that looked like a big earring, and incorporated a necklace into it as well just because that came across quite strong in the illustrations.”
What aims do you have for the project? What kind of audience do you want it to reach?
It’s about uniting people, so I didn’t have a particular audience in mind, I just wanted to create something that looked visually intriguing, and for people to get something from it about these women.”
With the lives, stories and experiences of women of colour being so often excluded from mainstream narratives, projects like ‘Women Warriors’ are much needed. It’s all too easy to go about our daily lives without recognising the roles and contributions made by so many underrepresented women throughout history, and with the success of World Unite Festival here’s hoping we can look forward to more projects like this all year round.
[Images: Kayra Uguz, Claire Marsden]
Image captions (in order from top):
Ahed Tamimi: Journalist. Activist. Native of Nabi Saleh, Palestine, 16 year old Ahed has been resisting illegal occupation since a young child. She became a symbol for the resistance when she was filmed biting a soldier during his attempt at arresting a child. She is back at the centre of international attention after slapping an Israeli soldier. Is facing up to 2 years in a military prison. Art: Kayra Uguz
Nana Asma’u: Princess. Poet. Teacher. A revered figure in Nigeria, Nana is held as an example of education and independence of Muslim women and played a major political role at the time. She is considered to have been the precursor of Feminism in Africa. Art: Clare Marsden
Malalai of Maiwand: During the Battle of Maiwand, in the Second Anglo-Afghan War, Malalai joined the Afghan army as a nurse. When the soldiers began losing morale, she took to the field to shout words of encouragement. Though she died on the field, she remains a symbol in Afghanistan to this day. Art: Clare Marsden