The Steel City’s industrial past was essential to the development of the Sheffield we know today, and made an impact far and wide. But what is Sheffield’s place in the modern world? How has it adapted to the challenges of the 21st century? And what part do women play in this narrative? A new collective of seven Sheffield-based female artists try to answer these questions with their first exhibition: What is the Matter?
Artists Heliya Badakhshan, Gillian Brent, Mandy Gamsu, Seiko Kinoshita, Kate Langrish-Smith, Clee Claire Lee and Sarah Villeneau form the Material Voice collective. Each working with different materials and ideas, they’ve together brought intriguing new perspectives and creative responses to the wealth of collections and stories already on display in Kelham Island Museum. Look for the signs marked ‘MV’ as you explore the museum this September and you’ll find their sculptural works alongside, on top of and amongst the machinery, tools and items that inspired them.
The starting point is the Crossley Gas Engine. Here, Heliya Badakhshan uses the lubricant oil from the machine to create reflections and make colours shine. Both the engine and the artist offer the other something new, and the resulting work beautifully contrasts the movement of the machinery with the stillness of the art. Elsewhere in the museum Seiko Kinoshita also plays with materials and the aesthetics of machinery, remaking the components of a lathe out of paper, separating their sculptural form from their industrial purpose.
Installed in the Die Sinking Workshop, Gillian Brent has created giant knife blanks made out of contemporary materials. Mass production brought new challenges to Sheffield’s metal workers in the 19th and 20th century, and this sculpture makes a connection between these issues and the conditions of low-paid workers elsewhere in the world today. Brent also explores the pressures on maintaining a balance between work and private life. Positioning 200 table knives around the museum’s recreation of a 1916 house, she symbolises ideas about work still being present even in our free time, as well as raising questions around who benefits the most from the fruits of this labour.
A strong theme in the exhibition is the often-undervalued role that women played in the creation of Sheffield as an industrial powerhouse. Clee Claire Lee takes inspiration from her personal connection to the steel industry through her family history. Her striking steel wire sculpture, hanging in Tom Parkin’s workshop, considers the invisible, unpaid labour of the women who looked after the home and family, ultimately raising the next generation of steel workers. Sarah Villeneau’s interactive work, meanwhile, invites visitors to put their ears to a series of listening tubes to imagine the sounds of the factory floor and its noisy, dirty environment. Her motivation for this delicate ceramic piece was the visceral experience of the ‘Munitionettes’, the women who kept the steel foundries operating during the world wars, on wages lower than the men’s, all while keeping up with their duties at home.
Surprising narratives from the city’s manufacturing history appear in various pieces. Mandy Gamsu, for instance, makes reference to the vast range of products that were once made in Sheffield in her work – drawing directly on the story of 65 different styles of asparagus dish being produced in the city at one time. Up on the first floor, the Charlesworth Gallery hosts Kate Langrish-Smith’s exploration into how Sheffield’s metalworking firms adapted to changes in industrial processes and globalisation. One company changed its line of business from silver-plating to snuff tobacco, and the artist uses this story as the basis for a curious collection of ceramic forms inspired by the shapes of snuff grinders.
Anyone familiar with Kelham Island Museum will know that it tells the story of Sheffield’s industrial growth in some depth. What is the Matter? shows that there is, nevertheless, room for new perspectives on this story. The personal interpretations of the museum’s collections by each member of Material Voice have together created an exhibition that illuminates ideas around workers’ rights, women, and Sheffield’s place in an ever-changing world. By bringing in these contemporary artists, different stories are revealed – and even the most regular visitor to the museum may be prompted to look at familiar things in new ways.
If, after visiting the exhibition, you are inspired to try your hand at some of the techniques used by the Material Voice collective, sign up for one of their workshops – details below.