The Lie of the Land is a new body of work from Joanne Coates, set within the North East of England.
Over the past 12 months Joanne has collaborated with twelve women who identify as working class / low income, living in rural areas in the North East. Through conversations, walks, photography and written reflections, their shared interactions reveal personal images free of the romanticism so often associated with contemporary rural England and address the erasure of contemporary working-class histories and culture in the British countryside.
Dean Pape: You are currently exhibiting at the Jerwood Space, having been awarded the Jerwood/Photoworks Award (alongside Heather Agyepong), could you tell us a little about the work you have created, The Lie of the Land?
Joanne Coates: The Lie of the Land explores the social history of the land, narrating a story of gender and class that has long been forgotten, or never told. The series breaks stereotypes around class in the North East of England. The work is both personal and political in nature. I collaborated with 12 women who identify as working class / low income living in rural areas in the North East of England. The work is made up of portraits, landscapes, and small detailed still-lifes of objects. The work addresses pastoral myths about the contemporary countryside.
Making this work and displaying it in a way that the separate stories function to weave and intersect together into a narrative around class was an act of protest against the systemic damage done to these communities. In an act of rebellion, confrontation, an intimate lived experience perspective combining togetherness, solidarity and community.
DP: Your identity and values are so interwoven into your practice.
How important is it to you be embedded in and reflective of the communities you represent?
JC: It’s really important for me to speak with, listen to and make work with communities. Everyone’s approach is different but I would describe my own as a slow and gentle way of working. It’s the only way I really know how to work.
DP: What was the response to the work by those photographed?
JC: I can’t really answer this question. Instead, I texted one of the women involved to ask her, “I enjoyed seeing myself in the gallery in London. It made me think, before I would have only said I was low income. Seeing everyone’s photos together had an impact. I felt the community I belonged to was shown with strength and dignity. It made me proud of the work I’ve done and do. Talking to Jo made me think about issues though, and I feel those issues are still in our community. I worry about the future of the place.”
There’s also a video of the making of the work and behind the scenes elements with two of the women, Kim and Sarah which might help to answer this question: https://jerwoodarts.org/exhibitionsandevents/writing-and-media/artist-film-joanne-coates/
DP: The award gave you the opportunity to expand your practice, incorporating sound, film, and installation elements. Could you talk a bit about that, why was it important and do you think you will continue to utilise these other mediums in your projects?
JC: In The Lie of the Land I explore and ask questions around the social history of the land, and class in terms of this rural space. A space that is tied with the industrial revolution, but also with a pastoral vision. The Jerwood / Photoworks award has a focus on step change, in that way it is unique. It was one of the reasons I applied for it, knowing this was something I wanted in my own practice. I’m not someone who has been able to afford to do a masters. I’ve always had to juggle multiple types of work and commissions to get by. The award really gave me the opportunity and time to experiment with my practice. I’ve never had a space to focus on my work. Most photographers or artists don’t, it’s not uncommon. With this work I was given something really special, time and freedom to make. I have been using sound as a tool in my work since 2017. I also feel it’s a natural progression in terms of my journey as an artist. What will come next, the form and function depends heavily on the project itself. I am interested in using sound and installation to tackle some of the issues I’m interested in. I’m increasingly interested in adding autobiographical elements and fusing political / personal.
DP: Are there plans to show The Lie of the Land in the North East region?
JC: A small selection of the images in a different format, involving mapping, is going to be shown at the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art in December 2022. The exhibition is also going to be touring across the UK in 2023.
DP: You were recently nominated for Newcomer of the Year in the North East Culture Awards for your project Daughters of the Soil, congratulations! Can you tell us a little about that project and how it came about?
JC: Let me take you back to the start. It all began in 2019 with an application for artist in residence with Berwick Visual Arts (now The Maltings) and Newcastle University’s Centre for Rural Economy. The topic…Women in Agriculture. The reason I felt compelled to apply was I had already begun making work around women in farming in 2014. On a personal level I was connected to the work. Graduating as a working class woman who grew up and lives in a rural area and trying to make it work as a full time artist is tough. I started milking cows to get by, my partner is also a farmer – I was already deeply connected through my own personal history. Long story short – I applied and got the residency. For me (cheesy, I know) it has been life changing.
What did a residency mean for me and my practice? It’s a story many artists know well. Juggling jobs to make a living, trying to squeeze in more time for your practice, grabbing hours here and there. After the residency I was offered a show at The Gymnasium Gallery in Berwick-upon-Tweed, the work also toured to Vane Gallery in Gateshead.
Women make up 15% of the farming industry in the UK and their contribution is significant but often overlooked, with underlying barriers such as access to land, class, motherhood, and lack of clear leadership roles assisting this.
Despite playing a central role in agricultural progress throughout history, documentation of female farmworkers is slim. Daughters of the Soil aims to redress this and create a powerful portrait of the role women play in contemporary farming practices.
DP: Having visited Northumberland throughout my childhood, it’s inspiring to learn about the under-represented rural communities outside of the harbour towns and ‘beauty spots’. Are you intending to continue this exploration and if so in which ways?
JC: This is something I’ve always explored. I first began looking at rural representation in my final project of my BA degree show in 2015, Liznojan. I looked at trauma, class and whose history gets told with a walk across the North of England. It has continued on as a thread throughout my practice. The projects I’m working on at the moment have this thread running through, whether that’s work with fishermen and coastal communities along the Yorkshire coast, working around mapping and land, or continuing work on The Lie of the Land. I grew up in the countryside, which I felt I had to leave – when there’s nowhere you can afford to live, how do you stay? When I was studying, my work came back to the countryside and rural space. It’s that personal history and feeling that that story, of working classes and rurality, hasn’t been told. Now I live in the countryside again and it’s seen as somewhere to move to, to be creative, but if you’re working class and from here, you can’t afford that lifestyle. I found that duality interesting, the complexities of class in the countryside.
That was one element, the way the land looks and the way we perceive the countryside as beautiful, a place for the middle class. David Cameron did this when he pushed the pastoral vision of the countryside, but that’s not the reality. Also, the power structures of the land. Some places I photographed are owned by the wealthiest people in the UK, and at one point it would have been a feudal system. Two of the Dales I’ve worked across still have that, with tenant farmers and villages owned entirely by one person, but people don’t think that exists anymore. This erasure of the working class rural experience doesn’t make sense to me – so many of the jobs are labouring work.
DP: You were very curatorially involved in the presentation of the work in the exhibitions at Berwick Gymnasium and Vane Gallery – could you talk about that process, differences in how the work was presented and what you want audiences from each space to take from it?
JC: Curation is an important part of the work. I can’t imagine making work and not being involved in curating it as a solo exhibition. It works as an extension of my practice. I am interested in issues of accessibility, creating a reading room, a dimmed quiet space, considering who the work is viewed and who it can be viewed by.
I start by working on plans, sometimes build very rough models, but look at everything from specific colours, to installations, to sound levels, and how this impacts the show. I feel the work should be viewed as an installation in each of the places. How curation can convey the messages of the work. In my practice it doesn’t stop with a print. Different exhibitions may have different aims, or be more experimental. I wanted to redress the lack of documentation of female farmworkers, who have played a central role in agricultural progress throughout history, with captivating portraits of women’s role in farming. I was interested in underlying barriers such as access to land, class, motherhood, and lack of clear leadership roles. These were always on my mind when curating. I also had James Lowther from The Maltings to bounce ideas off, to discuss my ideas at each step and act as an honest voice in the process. Which is really vital!
DP: The self-published book for Daughters of the Soil has sold out of its first edition. What do you think the photo-book format can do in terms of communicating the work and having an impact?
JC: Whilst making the book I was conscious of affordability. This influenced the size of the book.
The book can share the collaboration between artist and academic. It share outside visions. One was that it needed to be affordable for the communities the women live in. Each woman was given a copy of the book themselves. The budget for the project only allowed this to be a small scale book. Again background comes into this, I’m not someone who could afford thousands towards a publication. I did get a grant to make the book, but it was a small amount. I worked with designers Sail Creative for both the book and exhibition design.
The book format enabled an insight into the work, an insight into how I worked with the women, an insight of the women, with their perspectives. The book is cyclic and follows different stages of womanhood.
Books offer the space to do this and share these ideas.