Artists’ archive reminds town of sugar heritage

Publication: The Times.    
October 2014

Absent Voices

A west of Scotland community is set to receive an unusual gift from a group of artists, musicians and filmmakers.

Greenock is to be given a ‘living archive’ of songs, visual art, music, poetry and glasswork from the artists’ group Absent Voices. The project was set up by glass artist Alec Galloway to explore the town’s  300-year-old sugar industry, which closed in the late 1990s. Galloway’s family has deep connections with the town’s sugar industry, long associated with brand Tate & Lyle.

Absent Voices brings together a number of creative workers including the film-maker Alastair Cook, singer-songwriter Yvonne Lyon and painter Anne Mckay.

The archive will be donated to the town’s McLean Museum and Art Gallery, following an exhibition there next month.

Sugar and shipbuilding dominated the industrial landscape of Inverclyde for centuries but in recent decades these traditional industries have been in decline. Absent Voices has attracted funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund and signals a major shift toward creative and cultural investment in the area.

Inverclyde Council are backing the initiative Inverclyde Place Partnership which is tasked with attracting inward investment through creative industries. The George Wyllie Foundation, set up in 2012 after the death of the popular artist, who lived in Gourock, aims to set up a permanent museum in the area. Creative Scotland, the publicly–funded body that supports the arts in Scotland, has also invested in the area.

Absent Voices has focussed on the Sugar Sheds at Greenock’s James Watt dock. The vast complex of A-listed Victorian refineries and warehouses, sited near the Titan crane, has not been used for sugar manufacturing since the 1960s.

The artists, many of whom live in the area, have worked in different ways but with a focus on community engagement and the creation of long-term social benefits.

Yvonne Lyon and Anne Mckay worked with pupils at Whinhill Primary where they led classes in song-writing and painting. Both artists used the physical presence of the sheds as a starting point for exploring history and heritage through creativity.

“The pupils, who initially viewed the sheds as an eyesore, had little recognition of their own human creative potential,” says Lyon. “ We worked with the children over a period of weeks creating a series of fictional characters. The characters then appeared in song and paint. This was truly inspiring for the children and for us.”

Lyon also led adult song writing classes in the town, with similarly inspiring results. “The project has in a very real sense helped to give the children and adults of Greenock a voice that has been unheard until now,” she adds.

Alastair Cook combines photographic imagery, spoken verse and music in an experimental medium he calls Filmpoem. Cook invited the poets  John Glenday, Jane McKie, Brian Johnstone, Sheree Mack, Gérard Rudolf and Vicki Feaver to compose work relating to the sugar sheds. Cook provided them with archival photographs and documents and encouraged them to visit the area.

McKie’s poem, Revenant, has been combined with blurred, semi-abstract photography and evocative clarsach music. The poem has resonances from the past and present

“Here come the guisers / looking for sweeties/ None to be found/ Save the eye of sugar/ Oozing dark rum/ The fingers of sugar/ Dusting ankle and legs/ The spent heart of sugar/ Syrupy in warehouse drains…”

Sheree Mack’s ‘Every Memory’ links sugar to its  Caribbean origins and the slave trade. “Here I stand on cobbles running into dark sheds/ sheds once alive with raw energy/ I wonder what it looked like to the white man/ leaning over the ship’s rail with a silence in his eyes /and a canker upon his tongue/ after the taste of black skin.”

Alec Galloway’s glass and collage explores his familial connections to the industry as well as wider historical perspectives.

He says, “Absent Voices has been an incredibly emotional experience as well as a hugely rewarding one creatively and the group are already planning phase two into next year.”