Three young people have reflected on their experience taking part in ‘Represent’: a paid commission for 15 young people to reinterpret Leeds’ industrial heritage and its colonial links…
Iliham: It’s not very often that I get a chance to attend programmes that educate me on the forgotten and hidden history of people of colour whist simultaneously giving me the space to explore my creativity. So when I first found out about Represent, I was sure I wanted to participate. I didn’t know what to expect as I walked into Armley Mills Leeds Industrial Museum, a building I had subconsciously learnt to ignore prior to this day because truthfully, I was never interested in what it had to offer, nor did I ever think that it held so much significance. But in the four days I attended, we discovered so many forgotten narratives, asked relevant questions and shared the emotional burden of uncovering some painful yet nevertheless important truths.
On the first day, we had a tour of the museum and learnt about the different machinery, their uses and where they were made. Prior to the tour, I didn’t know that the raw materials for the machinery were actually imported from places like Bangladesh and other British colonies.
Fatima: I learnt how Africans contributed to Leeds and the Industrial Revolution through the slave trade and colonialism. I learnt that companies like Hudson’s provided tipping wagons to Angola, Sierra Leone and South Africa to mine minerals such as diamonds and gold. Also, how centuries ago, people like the Earl of Harewood made his fortune through the slave trade, had 47 plantations and owned thousands of slaves.
There were no records of people of colour while they worked in Leeds at the machinery. This shows the white people who were in charge at the time didn’t care about people of colour or how their conditions were.
Weza: I had the opportunity to learn about things I never knew. For example Leeds acquired a lot of money due to companies like Hudson’s. They were able to manufacture, export wagons and trains across the world for the British Empire. Black workers specifically, in South Africa and Angola had to work with the wagons to mine gold and earned 1/9 of the profit white workers made. They suffered from terrible conditions like overpopulation which often caused death. I didn’t know this before and now knowing this is helpful in understanding how much of an impact the British Empire had around the world but also the significance of Leeds’ establishment within trade.
F: On the second day I learnt about the role of the curator and who chooses which object will be in a museum. It is an important job as it is the curator who decides how the history of the object will be placed and told.
I: There are a lot of colonial links with the museum that are not displayed, this supported our discussion about the role of the curator. We realised that the curators shape the narrative and therefore it’s imperative that we diversify the workers in museums in order to gain more opportunities to tell those stories. We also attended a session about unconscious bias with Khadijah Ibrahiim which was all about challenging our preconceived judgements about others and how bias influences how we treat people.
W: I started to understand what it means to live in a society where stories have been constructed to fit the norms. Not everything you hear is true and it was a crucial lesson to learn. It was great to put everything we learnt into practice; to create ideas to showcase them in creative and unique ways.
F: On the last two days, different groups came up with ideas and created proposals on how we can use different forms of art to tell a story about the neglected histories about people of colour. These stories about what they went through while working for white British people are not being shared.
I: We all came up with different ideas from creating workshops for young people to having a space where people can visit and learn about history through music, dance and poetry.
W: One of the main things I have learnt is that we shouldn’t compartmentalise history, we should see history as a whole, including the hidden narratives. Stories must be told to understand the world we live in today and as young people we must immerse ourselves into history so that those untold narratives can be heard.
F: The most important thing to pass on that I learnt while doing this project was how Africans contributed to Leeds and Leeds would not be how it is today if it were not for those Africans. Also, how there is not any representation of Africans in Leeds, there is only one sculpture which is degrading as it shows an African lifting a bale which show Africans in negative way.
I: I learnt a lot about black history. It inspired me to never take anything at face value but instead to look beyond what is written in books or taught in school. And as I’m writing this, a quote from Maya Angelou comes to mind which I think sums up what I took from this experience: “Tell the truth, to yourself first, and to the children. Don’t deny the past and know that the charge on you is to make this country more than it is today”.
W: It is also crucial to pressure people whether it is an industry in film, dance, science, trade etc… We need to pressure, question and demand change within these different industries. However, the most important thing that I wanted to pass on is that we have to be the change. Individuals, young people have to be the change within society. No one can tell us what to do or what we choose to be because only we have the power to choose. Represent energised, reminded and empowered me to choose change.
Thank you to the authors Weza Mendes, Fatima Bibi and Ilhiam Negash for sharing their experiences with us.
A film of the project is now live on Youtube: click here to view.
Over half term in October 2020 fifteen young people were commissioned to spend four days developing interpretations of the industrial heritage of Leeds. They were asked to produce innovative ideas for uncovering the city’s industrial past and links to colonialism, and ways to engage future audiences with this heritage. Participants undertook a training program that included sessions on unconscious bias, curating and archive research. Final ideas were presented to industry professionals for consideration for future development.
All photos were taken by Ashley Karrell (2020).