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Forming a feminist trail through Folkestone’s female artists

The social, cultural, and physical importance of women artists in the small English town

The contemporary cultural landscape of Great Britain is as wide-ranging and diverse as the people who populate the small island. From the quirky Brummy neighbourhood of Digbeth, to the recent arty renaissance of Margate, to the world-famous Edinburgh Fringe Festival; Britain is in many ways a land filled with music makers and the dreamers of dreams – if we are to quote from poet Arthur O’Shaughnessy, that is.

Even then, when we think of art, performance, and culture we inevitably and singularly think of London with its commercialised West End and Southbank. Now, I am not here to knock either of those places, however, we do seem to forget that there is an entire land of creativity out there that exists in the tucked-away alleys of town centres and the rented rooms of community hubs.

That is why I want to bring attention to the small town of Folkestone, with its famous Folkestone Triennial project and the town’s permanent Folkestone Artworks. By taking a female-orientated focus, I want to emphasise the work of the contemporary female artists whose work appears in the Folkestone Artworks, reminding and enforcing the position that female artists hold in contemporary art and their importance to the social, cultural, and physical landscape of Folkestone.

Located on the English Channel, less than twenty-three miles from France, and with proximity to Dover’s ferry port and the Channel Tunnel, the town of Folkestone has often been one you simply pass through on the way to somewhere else. However, in recent years the once-faded fishing port and harbour has reinvented itself as a destination for the creative industries, independent shops, and restaurants. Today the town is awash with site-specific art installations and sculptures as part of the Folkestone Artworks, which makes the town the UK’s largest outdoor exhibition of contemporary art.

The positioning of the Artworks in and around the town includes the harbour, the beaches, and coastal parks. They are ‘refreshed’ every three years by the Folkestone Triennial project and a lot of the work that has been presented during the Triennial’s remains in the town afterwards, contributing to – and continuing – the expansion of the Folkestone Artworks.

The ever-changing exhibition is currently comprised of 74 artworks by 46 artists, 19 of whom are female artists, including works by Diane Dever, Jyll Bradley, and Lubaina Himid. The most famous female artist who has contributed to the Folkestone Artworks is Yoko Ono, the Japanese-American artist and activist has contributed two works entitled SKYLADDER 2014 and EARTH PEACE 2014. SKYLADDER 2014 is an instructional work while EARTH PEACE 2014 a multi-modal endeavour, which appeared across many locations in the town during the 2014 Triennial, including posters, stickers, and billboards, with three manifestations currently remaining in the town. These are: a flag flown on International Peace Day, an inscribed stone, and a morse code message beamed out into the English Channel.

Of the actual Artworks in Folkestone, it could be argued that the most famous is that of Cornelia Parker’s Folkestone Mermaid. Situated at the end of The Stade, overlooking the Sunny Sands beach, the Mermaid is a now-famous feature of Folkestone. It has become a cultural touchstone, with residents and visitors taking photos of – and with – the Mermaid for social media. The Mermaid was created to be a Folkestone version of the Little Mermaid sculpture that sits in the middle of Copenhagen harbour. Interestingly, Parker believed that all women over the age of 18 should be allowed to model for the Mermaid and so an open submission process was created. The Mermaid was eventually found in the form of Georgina Baker, a mother of two and a born and bred Folkestonian. In contrast to the Copenhagen Mermaid, Parker’s is reminiscent of the real women of Folkestone.

Ruth Ewan’s We Could Have Been Anything We Wanted To Be is another work from the Folkestone Artworks that leaves people scratching their heads. One remaining clock out of ten reads decimal time whereby each day is made up of 10 hours, each hour 100 minutes, and each minute 100 seconds. Ewan was inspired by the time period in 1793 when the new Republic of France abandoned Gregorian time in favour of a decimal system. Least to say, this method did not stick. The work explores concepts of revolutionary time, leaving us to ponder how time and society can be drastically re-imagined.

As timely as it is tragic, Paloma Varga Weisz’s Rug People is a five-headed sculpture, huddled together with a body wrapped in blankets and cardboard. Found on the disused railway tracks of the old Harbour Station the sculpture feels lost and abandoned. Its imagery is more heartbreaking given the station’s history as the final stop for soldiers heading to the battlefields of the First World War. This is then coupled with Folkestone’s frontline positioning during the refugee crisis and current Brexit divisions.

As we approach the end of 2019, the Folkestone Triennial 2020 is just on the horizon. Folkestone’s Artworks will – yet again – transform and develop, bringing in new artists and artworks to radically change how the town is explored. Whilst there are already four designated walking routes for the Artworks, I challenge you to also explore works by women artists, so you can re-orientate your understanding of female-occupied space, artwork, and creativity.

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