Submitted by: Jo Bounds
Waltham Forest’s arts scene boasts a new exhibition at the world renowned William Morris Gallery on Forest Road.
Once on the brink of closure, vociferous support from the local community led to a £5m makeover and the former Morris family home reopening in 2012.
Now the gallery has invited Waltham Forest residents to become part of its art. The gallery’s latest exhibition, The William Morris Family Album, is the result of a collaboration with Turner Prize nominee and east London resident Yinka Shonibare MBE.
Designed to reflect the current diversity of the area and celebrate costume and textiles, the artist has recreated three photographs of the Morris family from the gallery’s archive.
Featuring 12 local people wearing Victorian outfits, the sitters, aged from five to 60, all responded to a request by the gallery to turn up and be photographed, before seeing if they fitted with the artist’s vision.
“We had a ‘family day’ at the gallery where we invited people from the local area to come and have their photograph taken,” says Shonibare.
“The criteria was that they had to be from the Walthamstow area. The turn out was very good – about 100 people came. I then chose the sitters from their photographs. I wanted a range of ethnicity so I chose them for diversity.”
The exhibition links William Morris’s belief in equality with Shonibare’s interest in the Victorian age and placing history in a new light.
“William Morris was a socialist and believed in equality,” says Shonibare.
“I felt that by inviting local people to recreate his family album we would be doing something in the spirit of William Morris’ character.”
“The population of the Walthamstow area in the 19th century was very different from now,” he adds.
“William Morris himself was against the alienation created by the Victorian industrial period and he very much wanted to return to the idea of societies and communities.”
One of Shonibare’s subjects was Anne-Lise Johnsen from Highams Park, a volunteer at the gallery, who posed as Morris’s sister Isabella, replicating a photo taken when she was in her 60s.
“The whole process was really interesting – as soon as I saw the photo of Isabella, a picture of my own grandmother flashed into my mind,” says Johnsen.
“I wore a bustle and a corset, which I had to be fitted for, and laced into. I couldn’t breathe, but I had a lovely figure! Then the photo was taken at Yinka’s studio.”
Zainub Chohan, a 27-year-old project manager from Leytonstone, posed as Morris’s youngest sister Alice.
“I was dressed in an olive green jacket and skirt – I felt like I was in a period drama – it was great fun. But what I really like about the exhibition is that it uses local people. It includes the community.”
Johnsen adds that it’s set to draw Arts & Crafts aficionados to Waltham Forest from further afield, too.
“People come from all over the world to visit the William Morris gallery, especially Canada and America, as William Morris is so big over there.
“The exhibition is great because it’s so representative of the area – it gives everyone even more reason to come to the gallery and Waltham Forest.”
Yinka Shonibare: The William Morris Family Album runs until 7 June 2015, visit wmgallery.org.uk.