All this week we’re marking this year’s International Women’s Day with a focus on the work of women in the arts in Wales, to coincide with this year’s call to “Embrace Equity”. We continue the week with Emma Schofield’s reflections on the recent Our Voice Network sharing event at the Riverfront in Newport. The Our Voice Network was founded by dancer, choreographer and writer Krystal S. Lowe with the aim of supporting female artists of the Global Majority to begin their career within the arts in Wales.
“Without risk, there is no art. We need risk in order to innovate, to create something new”. Krystal Lowe is introducing the acts which will take part in this year’s Our Voice Network sharing event, she is warm and enthusiastic as she offers some brief context for each of the artists, but there is no mistaking how seriously she takes the responsibility of providing a platform for new voices to develop. The evening is an opportunity to see the work in progress from the recipients of this year’s Our Voice bursaries, founded by Lowe. The scheme aims to support female artists of the Global Majority, hoping to begin a career within the arts in Wales, offering an opportunity to gain funding and mentoring from Lowe herself, but also to make wider connections across the arts sector.
There is genuine warmth in the studio at the Riverfront, that kind of excited hum that comes with the buzz of new work and of ideas being shared. This is, of course, the whole purpose of the sharing event. It’s very much a collaborative event, an opportunity for bursary recipients to perform an excerpt of their work in front of an audience who are encouraged to get involved and become part of a discussion about what they see. Once the performances are completed, there is an opportunity for audience and artists to exchange ideas over a cup of tea and an ample supply of fruit and Welsh cakes. There is an enormous amount of variety in the room, but it really does feel as if everyone’s voice has a space here. I sit next to an accountant who tells me that she was drawn back to the sharing event tonight having been blown away by the energy and talent on display at the previous event in 2022.
The idea of sharing, of putting new work out there and just letting the performance unfold in front of a room full of people, lies at the heart of Lowe’s vision for the Our Voice Sharing event. The aim is to present a piece that is currently unfinished, a work in progress which is personal to each performer and which they have developed themselves. What makes this event different is the fact each piece stands entirely alone, each artist is free to share their work without the weight of expectation. “Some of these pieces might become something more,” Lowe tells me when I chat with her after the performances, “or this might be all that they are. We don’t always need to finish things to learn from them, to grow from them.” The focus is on the artists and the individual processes they undergo in order to create their work; the pieces themselves are just a snapshot of where each artist is within their own movement through that process.
Having said that, the works themselves are impressive, however unfinished they may be. Stephanie Stevens’ performance of the opening scene from her, as yet, untitled one-woman show is a stand-out moment. Stevens has an extraordinary ability to captivate the entire room with her lively exploration of the clash between family, culture and identity, managing to be both funny and achingly sad at the same time.
Karema Ahmed’s performance of her version of Jhene Aiko’s ‘Grateful’ packs a musical punch, offering Ahmed’s own twist on a song that lends itself to vocal experimentation. Ahmed’ is controlled and sure throughout, but you can sense the power in her voice as the song gathers momentum; it’ll be interesting to see whether that power is fully unleashed as Ahmed continues to build her career. Similarly, the story read by Nadia Nur is emotional and poignant. Nur works in a range of different formats including poetry and monologue writing, but the narrative she weaves together is lyrical and feels like it has its own unique rhythm.
The performances are completed by Lowe’s delivery of her on work in progress, a combination of poetry and movement which explores the centrality of hair to our sense of identity. Her work combines vulnerability with movements which are strong and clearly articulated, allowing the languages of poetry and dance to collide and bounce off each other. That collision of ideas and energy is what pulls the evening together. It is obvious how badly we need more opportunities like this, more spaces for artists and audiences to come together to explore their ideas and to try out new work without fear of making mistakes. Lowe is very vocal about the importance of creating a safe space for the artists on the scheme to develop: “things go wrong in performances, we all make mistakes and that’s part of the experience of performing your work. We should embrace that, not be afraid of it.” It’s an empowering concept.
The Our Voice Network bursaries are supported this year by Awen Cultural Trust. You can find out more about the bursary recipients and the work of the scheme here.
Krystal Lowe, Karema Ahmed and Nadia Nur will be performing at the Riverfront Theatre in Newport on Saturday 11th March as part of their annual International Women’s Day celebrations.