Leeds Light Night: Illuminating history of the Suffragette Movement

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This year’s Leeds Light Night looks at important moments in history. Neil Hudson talks to some of those involved

Light Night in Leeds is now into its 14th year and shows no signs of slowing down and this year’s looks set to be more illuminating than ever, especially when it comes to the history of Leeds suffragettes.

Light and sound artist Karen Monid, from The Projection Studio, which last year created the inspiring display on the Civic Hall, has realised a long-held dream.

“I was nine when my mother, Carole, first introduced me to the suffragettes by handing me a copy of the Radio Times, which had a special article about them. She said these were important women I should know about. I think from that point on I have always had an interest in what they achieved. I remember handling some of the original leaflets when I was 16, so this has always been something I wanted to do.”

Karen has worked on arts projects across the world, including many in the UK, not least at the Houses of Parliament, the Millennium Dome and York Minster, where she lit up the roof of the nave. This year she will be using The Leeds Library on Commercial Street as her canvass, creating a light and sound display which aims to recapture the febrile atmosphere which surrounded many of the suffragette gatherings, which by all accounts were clamourous, energetic affairs besot with hecklers and buoyed on a swell of political activism.

The display, A Certain Amount of Courage, will centre on two Leeds figures in particular: Leonora Cohen and Mary Gawthorpe.

“They were both working women from Leeds,” explains Karen, 47. “Mary in particular was one of the great orators of her time and was sent out by the Pankhursts to events across the country. My aim with this project was to look at what they were like as people. It has involved a lot of research, going back to the oral history and so on.

“Being able to work as a digital artist and integrate with the environment in a way which seems meaningful is a wonderful opportunity. It means that someone who comes from outside the city may see something they have not seen before but also, you’re introducing something new to people who may have lived here for a long time and may have walked past the buildings you are projecting onto.”

Karen commissioned Leeds artist Suman Kaur, winner of last year’s BBC Big Painting Challenge, to create two hand-drawn portraits of Mary and Leonora to be used in the piece.

A fiercely militant campaigner, in 1911 Leonora Cohen famously threw a rock at the window of a government building and was arrested and jailed before again being imprisoned in 1913, this time for hurling an iron bar through a showcase at the Tower of London.

Her fellow suffragette Mary Gawthorpe, who features in Abbey House Museum’s current A Woman’s Place? exhibition, was a regular speaker at huge national events, including a rally in London’s Hyde Park in 1908 in front of more than 200,000 people.

Karen says: “Through this piece, we’ll see suffrage history through the eyes and experiences of two women from Leeds. Through their lives and actions we get to know what that period looked like but we also get to know more about them as women, which was really important to me as I want people to connect with them.

“Both Leonora and Mary would have seen themselves as quite ordinary women who became part of something extraordinary and through that, they were able to find strengths and talents they never realised they had. I think we can all take something from that- the things that are sent to challenge us are very often what helps us grow.”

Part of Karen’s research included visiting Leeds City Museum, which hosts an extensive collection of material related to Leonora Cohen’s life.

Their exploits have particular relevance with this year’s Light Night, which begins tomorrow and runs until Friday and has the theme of progress and innovation, with installations exploring important moments in history which have been a catalyst for social change.

This year also marks 100 years since the first women in the UK won the right to vote, and Karen says she believes both the event theme and her piece would resonate with Leonora and Mary.

“Recordings of Leonora paint a clear picture of a very committed and focussed woman who was very determined and if she set her mind to something, you can tell nothing was going to distract her.

“What we know about Mary Gawthorpe reveals a very different personality and I don’t think people realise she was quite the celebrity and a lively, witty orator who had an excellent way with audiences.

“Their stories are still so relevant today- they both saw suffrage as a means to and end and as a way of improving the lot of women and the people they were connected to. I think they would have recognised that what’s happening today is part of a continuing fight for equality.”

A Certain Amount of Courage will be one of more than 60 installations at locations around the city centre during the two-night festival, with other venues including Victoria Leeds, Kirkgate Market, Leeds Town Hall and Leeds Civic Hall.

For more details, visit: lightnightleeds.co.uk or follow @LightNightLeeds on Twitter.

Light Night Leeds 2018 runs on October 4 & 5.

FACTFILE

Fantastic Planet at Victoria Leeds: Australian artists Amanda Parer has created luminous giants, who will be found in Sidney Street, Victoria Gate and the top of Briggate

Forgotten at The Queens Hotel: a huge fire-breathing dragon will bring myth and legend to life when it’s projected across The Queen’s Hotel

Light Night 2018 opening parade: starting and finishing on The Headrow, with neon banners, stirring drums, LED signs and giant illuminated puppets, from 7.30pm