Exhibition Review: We Are Warriors at the Arnolfini

Becky Armstrong reviews the ‘We Are Warriors’, an exhibition at the Arnolfini marking 100 years of women’s suffrage.

Perhaps my initial reaction to entering the space that hosts the ‘We Are Warriors’ installation, was a sense of being unnerved. A dark room, filled with lights – some hanging in strings from the ceiling, others scattered across the floor, all of which carve out a curving path to walk through the room. Meanwhile, a sound loop plays for ten minutes or so. The loop consists of a fusion of different women’s voices, all merging fluidly in unison to form a single soundtrack which shifts from gentle to chaotic as harsher animalistic noises disrupt the initially softer murmurings, before filtering back down to stillness with a lullaby.  The combination of the lights which fracture the space and create a sense of depth alongside the audio loop is profound and at times, overwhelming in its effect.

The piece, which was commission by Bristol Women’s Voice and received funding from Government Equalities Office and Arts Council England, was executed by Helen Cole who worked alongside 130 women aged between 8 and 85 in conjunction with Breathing Fire Theatre Company and In Between Time. These women’s voices were recorded in individual sessions, as well as group workshops which took place in Schools, Social Groups, Prisons, Women’s Institutes and Wellbeing Groups from across Bristol. In these sessions the women involved discussed intersectionality, class, the gender pay gap, domestic violence and the future for equality; a recurring theme of these discussions that arose was the notion of being silenced – something which ‘We Are Warriors’ explores. The workshops then gave the participants a list of words and phrases, the following are a few examples: ‘Downtrodden (sometimes), Independent, In control’, ‘Amazing, Empowering, Strong’, ‘Brave, Fearful, Overwhelming’ and ‘It’s nice to be a woman but it’s in to have a man take power’, from which the women were asked to create audio responses which focused on the emotive power of sound rather than necessarily specific words. The consequent effect is striking and voices a powerful and diverse essence of womanhood which refuses to be silenced.

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I think then the reason that ‘We Are Warriors’ left me feeling unnerved, is that women’s voices in all their unconstrained complexity are something that we rarely get to hear. So often women are silenced or their voices are restricted and filtered and so what we hear is not the reality of their experience but a censorship. In allowing women an open space to express themselves freely, ‘We Are Warriors’ provides a vital platform for us to look into diverse and realistic experiences of womanhood, as well as to explore what it means to have a voice. In response to the project, Helen Cole has said, ‘Silencing effects all women. Think where our energy could be directed if all our voices had the simple freedom of being heard. We Are Warriors encourages women to roar and shout, to fill the room with their noise. It has been a privilege to hear their voices sing.’

‘We Are Warriors’ has been installed in the Arnolfini and visitors are encouraged to add their own lights, either for themselves or the women in their lives. The installation is open until the 16th of December.

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Images Courtesy of Becky Armstrong/ Bristol Women’s Voice. 

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