Commissioning acclaimed artist Indre Serpytyte to research and make new work in response to the history of women and conflict in Birmingham has been inspiring.
Both world wars radically altered the conception of the domestic and its associated realms of decoration and display, especially in terms of gender and labour. With women being drafted into industrial labour, such as working in munitions factories and men sent to fight in war, the ways in which the home was occupied, used, maintained and thought of shifted dramatically.
Throughout the war, the home became a place of waiting and loss, repositories of memory, as well as objects and artefacts sent home from family and friends involved in the war abroad. Domestic objects acquired uncanny significances, reminders of death as much as domestic order, figuring absences as they haunted shelves and mantelpieces. No more is this more unsettlingly the case than in the vases made from spent ammunition casings, many of which were decorated with ornaments depicting flowers or commemorative inscriptions and imagery.
Mostly women had made the original ammunition casings which were sent over for the use in battle, and which were then returned by those who had used them, though now bearing the marks of domesticity from the sites associated with home. But this home to which these vases were sent and which they reference in the manner of their ornamentation and their shapes was now a very different one; not least because many of the women who were often the recipients of these vases were often working long shifts and sometimes rehoused by the factories that had created the casings. The vases were, then, both a memory of a conception of a home no longer there, sometimes quite literally, and the very things which had so unsettled that notion and, in fact, had destroyed its physical fabric abroad.
The GRAIN project with Indre will use these vases as a way to explore the complex relationship between domesticity, ornament, labour, class, gender, war and trauma that these vases contain and gather. Through various forms of display, which we are currently considering, the project will explore the forms of material culture that emerge at this historically specific moment while also thinking about conflict and material culture more generally. Exploring the vases’ forms and ornamental inscriptions, the project will consider these objects and their decoration in terms of the bodily and psycho-social relations they established. The work will explore the objects and materials of war, while thinking about what stories are told in the manner of their display and contextual re-positioning.