The feminist photographer Franki Raffles arrived in Govan in 1989, a year after the Norwegian Kvaerner group bought out the Govan shipyards from the British state. Govan, and its Pearce Institute, founded in 1906 from mercantile profit, provides not only an exhibition space for Home Economics but is also the show’s subject and context.
One photograph on display shows an office space from the local Kvaerner shipyard, the curator Kirsteen Macdonald tells me, with a desk calendar in view which marks the year Raffles arrived. Another shows a seamstress standing in profile in the workshop of the now-defunct Kenda Knitwear, which was situated in a building parallel to the institute and is still inhabited by remnant sewing machines.
The Pearce Institute marked a significant juncture in Raffles’ career. In the summer of 1989 she travelled to Russia, Georgia and Ukraine to picture Women Workers in the USSR. The resulting photographs were exhibited in Govan a year later in 1990, forming part of the programme of events celebrating Glasgow’s successful bid for European City of Culture. The downstairs gallery where Raffles’s photographs were first shown is currently in use as a food bank which has served the local community since the advent of the pandemic.
Visitors to Home Economics can expect an exercise in self-reflection, with a locational identity that centres on Govan and, in particular, the architecture of the immediate environment—a billiard room. The warm acoustics facilitated by the high ceilings and wood panelling of the billiard room evokes a visual, as well as audible, echo. The viewer, moving around this space, is called upon to listen.
Part of her recent two year long project Surplus (a presentation of objects, photographs and a 35mm film), the audio track from Margaret Salmon’s film Icarus (After Amelia) overspills and reverberates throughout the space. The sound connects with Raffles’photographs, positioned at the other end of the room, in a context that is both live and accumulative. Both Raffles’ and Salmon’s work navigate the same people of the workplace (call-centre operators, receptionists, butchers, seamstresses, mothers) bookended by the thirty-years between them. Watching Icarus, viewers are reminded of the Raffles photographs: a mindful extension of the process by which Salmon’s ideas percolate, before being realised within the collective.
Ideas of polyphony coalesce in Home Economics not only as conversation, poetry and song (courtesy a jovial performance of The Pawn Shop by the Govan Allsorts Choir, itself an ode to the economic precarity that casts a long shadow over Govan’s recent history. Icarus is also attentive to audible traffic—the natural consequence of the workplace, where nothing can be quantified as static. Indeed, Raffles’ photographs of Govan’s industries hint at all kinds of dialogue at play within the frame. Women are frequently pictured ‘on the line’, mid-conversation, negotiating with peers, muttering to themselves as they work or to the camera—such was the photographer’s natural rapport with those she pictured.
Indeed, Raffles’ approach regularly incorporated a narrative of ‘oral’ text. Images from Women Workers in the USSR are thoroughly captioned, offering a point-of-encounter which allows viewers to ‘listen in’, if only by virtue of reading an excerpt of conversation. Her final project, Lot’s Wife, was undertaken in Israel at the collapse of the USSR and remained unfinished at her death in 1996. But several cassette tapes recorded while working on Lot’s Wife survive—recorded conversations between Raffles, her interpreter and Russian immigrants.
Another of Raffles’ projects, To Let You Understand, testified to the job precarity experienced by women in Scotland—a continuation of which can be observed from the Govan photographs on display here. The women profiled, though occupying a range of working conditions, are understood on the grounds of their gender, to mutually perform an exercise in ‘being both’: bridging the duality between the emotional labour of home building and the necessity to have paid employment. They display an economy brokered by generosity of favours, voluntary hours and time given in kind.
Salmon’s Icarus restores some insight to how the means in which Raffles may have become acquainted with the nuanced infrastructure of community—honing in on an implicitly female sociality, one often maligned as ‘gossip’. The film possesses a sincerity activated by the rich, albeit brief, tapestry of accents: Amelia Earhart is introduced to us by her voice alone, while the film does not profile, rather is prefaced by, the achievements of the famous aviator. Her inimitable voice, like the dials of her aircraft, is figured as an important instrument in breaking new ground. Born into the age of radio, Earhart’s presence on the airwaves afforded a new critical consciousness, centred on the listener.
Among the gallery of voices suffused in Icarus is that of writer Maria Fusco, who weaponises her brogue as a directive. Her register evokes a ‘telling’—part-scolding, part-directive—that one maternal supervisor gives to a daughterly apprentice on how to work fabric, piece-by-piece, together; a fickle process where two edges don’t quite meet. The employment contract—the thing that binds them—is also given voice, revealing the body politic of the factory: ‘no-one under twenty-five.’ A few syllables on, machines supersede human contact and ‘wear bare’ the hands that worked them. Fusco’s rolling R’s startle the gallery, imitating the birr of the mechanical needle-and-thread. Unaware, the seamstress portrayed in Salmon’s film score labours on.
Rachel Boyd graduates from the University of St Andrews’ MLitt in History of Photography this year. Along with Dr Catherine Spencer and Weitian Liu, she is currently curating a series of Raffles’ images for inclusion in the Glasgow Women’s Library exhibition Life Support: Forms of Care in Art and Activism, August 2021
Home Economics, The Pearce Institute, Glasgow, 11-27 June 2021