Guest-blogger Dr Lee Karen Stow offers insight into what inspires her work for the exhibition Poppies: Women, War, Peace opening at the University of Hull on July 15
Poppies: Women, War, Peace grew organically from documentary photographic work which began in 2007 with women trying to rebuild lives in post-civil war Sierra Leone, West Africa. Women who had shown great strength, resilience and optimism despite having lived through one of the most brutal wars in recent history.
Then a conversation with highly-respected Dr Nick Evans of the Remember Me Project and WISE, who noticed I was photographing poppies in the fields around my home in East Yorkshire, led me to the largely-unknown fact that in 1918 American volunteer war secretary, Moïna Belle Michael, conceived of the red poppy flower as a symbol of remembrance.
I was astonished because each November she is forgotten. As are Moïna’s decades of campaigning work to raise funds for returning veterans and their families. Around the same time French woman Madame Anna E Guérin encouraged war widows to hand make red poppies to sell to raise funds for orphans in France. In 1921 Anna introduced the idea to England where it was taken up by the (Royal) British Legion. The rest is history.
Each year thousands of women suffer as a result of war, their stories lost behind the bigger stories from the battlefields. Poppies: Women, War, Peace therefore, initially concerned with Moïna and Anna, grew to combine photographic portraits of largely forgotten women affected by or involved in war, from the First World War to conflicts of today, with images of the common cornflower poppy (Papaver rhoeas) growing in its natural environment.
I use the poppy as a metaphor for women affected by war because, despite its delicate appearance, the poppy grows and survives where everything else has been destroyed. It generates new life when its seed, often dormant for years, is exposed to light following great trauma and upheaval. The flower reminds me of the spirit and resilience of women who have gone through hell and yet somehow find the will to carry on.
Women I have met, and continue to meet, in my work as a photojournalist. Women from the First World War (anecdotal), the Second World War, Holocaust survivors, A-bomb survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and conflicts in Sierra Leone, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Guatemala, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. Also women peace campaigners, from the Cold War and Greenham Common to the anti-nuclear weapons protestors today. Twice I have visited the great-nieces of Moïna Belle Michael in Georgia, US, who have shared Moïna’s memories and personal letters, and an original 100-year-old silk poppy.
Now I photograph other colours of the family Papaveraceae – orange, yellow, pink, blue, black and burgundy poppies – to represent women worldwide, of all nationalities and faiths, caught up in conflict. Also the white poppy, growing wild in fields in Yorkshire. In the 1930s women bereaved by war immortalised the white poppy in silk as a symbol of peace and an end to war. This symbol too, has become politicised and misunderstood.
Poppies: Women, War, Peace is ongoing, evolving with new imagery and will tour internationally to the University of Georgia Special Collections Library in the US in 2018. It is far larger than I anticipated. Each turn brings another nation, another conflict to try to understand. I will be in Vietnam this autumn to meet women from the liberation wars, and in Cambodia to document the stories of female survivors of the Khmer Rouge era, and so on, and so on.
However this is not an attempt to cover every conflict, how could I? This is not a shopping list. The reality is that war is a never-ending maze for those who dare to enter. My research, initially inspired by the women of Sierra Leone and Moïna Belle Michael’s vision, grows as women and their stories enter into my own awakening of the cost and aftermath of war and conflict. I wasn’t aware for instance, of my own mother’s childhood during the four year blitz of Hull during the Second World War. How she hid in terror beneath the kitchen table as bombs rained down, emerging into daylight to see broken homes and broken lives. ‘You never told me,’ I said. ‘You never asked,’ she replied. I began to ask more.
Dr Lee Karen Stow
Dr Lee Karen Stow is Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Hull’s Wilberforce Institute for the study of Slavery and Emancipation. In December 2015 she visited Sierra Leone as a Research Assistant on the Remember Me Diaspora case study directed by Dr Nicholas Evans. For more information on Lee’s award winning photography see: http://www.leekarenstow.com/. She can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org.
Poppies: Women, War, Peace (#poppieswomen) was funded by Arts Council England from 2012 to 2014. The exhibition launched at the University of Cambridge in 2014. The exhibition ran at the Museum of Liverpool from July 2015 to June 2016 attracting over half a million visitors. Twenty images were shown at the UN Headquarters in New York in November 2015 to coincide with the anniversary of Resolution 1325 women in conflict and as peacemakers. Smaller localised bodies of work resulted in exhibitions at the Ropewalk in 2014, I Remember at Hull Central Library 2014 and Winifred’s War at Hull Central Library 2015.
The exhibition will open at University of Hull’s Brynmor Jones exhibition space on Friday 15 July, for Summer 2016 before heading to York Army Museum for Autumn 2016. A new, re-configured Poppies: Women, War, Peace will tour to the University of Georgia in the US for 2018.
A public events programme has been developed to accompany the exhibition during its time at the University of Hull, with a series of talks including an opportunity to meet the artist Lee Karen Stow on Thursday 28 July, at which she will present some of her new work for 2018.
Full details about the exhibition and events programme, including opening times can be found here: http://www.culturenet.co.uk/blog/lee-karen-stows-poppies-women-war-peace/