View of Helen Cammock’s “Bass Notes and SiteLines”, 2023, Amant, Brooklyn. Photo: new document.
Helen Cammock’s art re-evaluates the role of women in politics around the world. Her Turner Prize-winning film The Long Note (2018) explores the diversity of women’s initiatives in the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland. A recent exhibition, I Will Keep My Soul, at Art and Practice in Los Angeles (and book of the same title) tells the story of Elizabeth Catlett’s statue of Louis Armstrong in New Orleans and the civil rights Archival materials from active groups and musicians are displayed in parallel.. and she movie base notes and sight lineson display at Amanto, Brooklyn until June 18., explores an ethic of care modeled by Kamok’s workshops for women who are at risk of bearing children or who have been separated from their children.
my father was born in cuba where he was happy. Then we found out there was a hurricane. The family, not originally from Cuba, had to leave the country. He was forced to emigrate to Jamaica, where his parents were born. His family lost their sewing business. He won a scholarship and walked barefoot across the mountains to school every day alone in the dark. One day he found a cat with a bad scar on his face. He took it home and sewed his face up. His mother died when he was 12 years old. She was taken to hospital, but he never saw her again. When we were little, he told us: That was the beginning of my understanding of lack of care in a political and historical sense.
When I lived in London, the house was sometimes filled with laughter and always full of conversation. I was happy at school. I learned to play an instrument. I played sports. Then we moved to rural Somerset. We were quite isolated and sometimes left out. We were racially bullied. My father’s mental state deteriorated. At different moments we found our way and made good friends and it was a real shock.
We sat around the dinner table and had a lot of political conversations. My father talked about South Africa, apartheid and the African National Congress. As a teenager, I became a member of an anti-apartheid organization in the Southwest. He talked about Northern Ireland. He showed us the news and we unpacked them. I carried it around. I was a folksinger and then a social worker. I worked in what was called a “play unit” and played with children outside various public housing. I worked at a family center and was responsible for individual sessions, sports groups for parents with mental health issues, and cooking groups for women with learning disabilities and case-holding. Also a domestic violence project against women and children, many of whom had problems with speech delays. A disposable camera was used to create images that captured what they felt and what they wanted to say. Then you can speak your feelings about what the image is doing.
Eventually I went back to school to study photography and film. and developed an art practice. A few years ago, I spoke with the curators of the Serpentine Gallery and asked if they would be interested in working with social workers and medical workers in Barking and Dagenham as part of a radio ballad. So did I, but I felt like the story wasn’t complicated enough. People receiving care needed to participate in that conversation.
I wanted to think about care in a way that wasn’t devalued or weaponized.pause [a London-based program which supports women at risk of or who have been separated from their children] Worked with disfellowshipped women. Although they were of different races, they were mostly working class. Some were placed in foster care. Some had violent relationships. From our conversations, I understand that many of them were experiencing a politically and historically generated lack of social and emotional care.
In the beginning, the women were reluctant to come to our workshops regularly. So I set up a photography studio. People who don’t want to be in the foreground can also work behind the camera. They can work in teams or pairs, or they can work alone. We talked. We have built a series of workshops aimed at expressing through different creative forms. Soon the women started coming regularly. I was filming the entire time. Then we started thinking about music. The women said that music allowed them to get in touch with their emotions without having to go into them, and to share their feelings without words. We started writing songs very slowly, using different games and activities. It made the group even more cohesive and soon the women were arriving at the sessions ahead of me.
By the time I sat down to edit my footage into a movie, the woman had kind of drafted it. Even if she didn’t want her voice to be heard, and even if she didn’t want her face to be seen, she wanted everyone involved to be in the film in some way. She wanted to capture the feeling of what was happening to us. I wanted to clarify my thoughts on having a voice, being able to use my voice, and being heard. We debuted in this movie about a year ago, we played this song, and yet the women keep coming back. They want to finish the work they started. We are currently recording this song and cutting it to a vinyl record.
When you pause, the cycle of care begins. A woman who uses the service will be given 18 months of support. They are then invited to become mentors for other women. They say to each other, “You are worth it.” That’s part of what I wanted to do with this movie. I wanted people to feel like they wanted to be part of it in some way. It’s transformative. A curator who saw the film told me that she never sings. But after she saw the movie, she sang loudly all the way home.