Marking Refugee Week
Christina McGregor, Keeper of Collections at the Crafts Council, looks at Clare Twomey's 'Humanity is in our Hands' project for Refugee Week.
When asked to select a collection object to mark Refugee Week it was this recent acquisition - a porcelain spoon directly inspired by the experiences of Nisad Jakupović - Bosnian War refugee and concentration camp survivor - that stood out. Surprisingly (for a contemporary collection perhaps) the Crafts Council's Collections include a number objects associated, either through subject or maker, with themes of remembrance, war, persecution and migration.
This spoon, one of two thousand, was made by artist Clare Twomey as part of her Humanity is in Our Hands project, a direct result of participation in the Holocaust Memorial Trust's 2015 Keep the Memory Alive initiative. Clare was one of nine British artists brought together by the Trust with holocaust and genocide survivors inviting them to explore the survivors stories through their artistic practice. Clare met with Nisad to hear his story first hand - she notes their similarity in age and upbringing, both within supportive families and much loved, and also the differences. "Nisad grew up in Bosnia and I grew up in the UK", she says, "In 1992 Nisad was the person I was reading about in the headlines. He was one side of the Bosnian War, the genocide, and I was watching on the news." Their conversation encompassed themes of oppression and humanity - Nisad experienced communities turning on one another not least by former school friend and close neighbour turned guard - and his belief in humanity and the power of human solidarity. His great hope in particular is that his children will not witness the same atrocities.
As a result of this meeting Clare developed Humanity is in our Hands and the creation of two thousand porcelain spoons. The connection with Nisad lies in the one material 'keepsake' he retained from this period. Whilst detained in the concentration camp he and others carved themselves wooden spoons using only a piece of broken glass and salvaged wood. Clare was struck not only by the physical simplicity and beauty of Nisad's spoon but also the inherent connections with 'nurturing, feeding and caring for each other'. Nisad's spoon is thus the inspiration for the physical manifestation of Clare's work and also its conceptual basis.
Clare works in large-scale, usually site-specific ceramic installations - occasionally transient - often involving the audience's participation. For this project Clare spent 12 hours, 7am to 7pm, on Westminster Bridge on Holocaust Memorial Day, 27th January 2015, handing out invitations to passersby to contribute their thoughts on humanity with examples from their own communities.
A year on Clare returned to Westminster Bridge, to gift her artwork in the form of two thousand unglazed porcelain spoons inscribed with these thoughts to new passersby. Each recipient becoming a custodian of a beautiful, yet fragile object which requires care and protection in order to survive – a simple yet powerful metaphor for our collective and individual responsibility pertaining to humanity and its fragility. In Clare's words 'In this work Humanity is in our Hands, I make a work for the next generation to hand on, our thoughts of humanity at its best, not at its worst.'
As a maker Clare's practice has gone from strength to strength in recent years - her impressive catalogue of thought-provoking commissions delivered through work that is firmly placed in historical and social contexts made her work a desirable addition to the Crafts Council Collections. I was particularly keen on acquiring a spoon for the Collections to ensure that her practice is represented (in a form that presents few storage and collections care challenges - unlike her larger-scale works...) and also to add the body of work within the CollectionS that speaks - positively - to the themes of war, migration and refuge.
Because of this Annabelle Campbell, Head of Exhibitions & Collections, and myself found ourselves pre-dawn on a mild but windy Westminster Bridge on January 27th looking for an encounter with Clare Twomey - our effort was rewarded as Annabelle received a spoon from Clare which she later that day gifted to the Collection.
For me our spoon, inscribed with the words 'If humanity is in our hands it needs care', has a resonance that vibrates way beyond its delicate inscription, simplicity of form and sheer beauty.
Yet writing this during the very week the UK will vote to leave or remain within the EU - a debate in which the issues of immigration, migration, sovereignty and nationality have dominated it's hard not to feel the relevance of Nisad's story is as yet, sadly, undiminished.
Christina McGregor is Keeper of Crafts Council Collections
On 3 February 1993, on request from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Nisad Jakupović arrived in the UK to start a new life with no knowledge of the English language. In 1995 he married the daughter of another concentration camp survivor and had two children. From 1998 to 2001 he studied civil engineering at Kingston University in London. Today Nisad works as a civil engineer, and is a published Bosnian-language poet.