This is the first of three interviews with artists commissioned by Arts&Heritage as part of their artist-led research programme Meeting Point. Arts&Heritage is a national agency that forges connections between artists, communities, historic sites & museums; its Meeting Point programme explores the tangible and intangible heritage of museums and collections through collaborations between artists, participants and heritage partners.
The A&H Meeting Point Commissions for 2023 partnered The Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) with Liz Gre; National Trust & YHA with Luke Fowler, and Museum X – a project creating Britain’s first museum celebrating Black British history, art and culture - with Vanley Burke & Gary Steward.
In this first feature, Liz Gre is interviewed by writer Amah-Rose Abrams. The text charts the processes behind Gre’s collaboration with the RSC and women from Syria, Palestine, Sudan and Kurdistan. The resulting artwork is on view as part of the RSC’s exhibition The Play’s the Thing, open until April 2024.
Artist, performer and composer Liz Gre has been looking at William Shakespeare’s first folio through the lens of the stories of women refugees from Syria, Palestine, Sudan and Kurdistan living in Stratford-upon-Avon. In celebration of the folio’s 400-year anniversary Gre is taking this collection of the great playwright’s comedies, tragedies and history plays dated from 1623 as a starting point, working with a group of women to create a new work collaboratively, commissioned by Arts&Heritage and the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC). The film ثلاثة خيوط ذهبية (Three Gold Threads), the result of a series of workshops with the women, is currently on view in the exhibition The Play’s The Thing at the RSC in Stratford-Upon-Avon.
Through working with organisations such as Tate, The Union for Contemporary Art, The Omaha Symphony and 100 Years |100 Women Archive, Gre has learned that they work best by intuitively taking a different approach for each project they lead. Whether they are working with paintings, community workshops or in a traditional musical process, Gre always applies their unique way of working, emphasising the voice and a deep trust in the creative process.
“When I’m thinking about, for example, making a live performance in a gallery space in response to painting, [the creative process] can really influence how I approach what I’m taking in. It also influences the role I see myself in because I can put on a lot of different hats as a composer and as a performer. These require different forms of me,” Gre explains. “When it came to this particular piece, I was thinking about being open to the stories, removing myself from a place of control and seeing myself as an extended vessel.”
As Gre listened to these women’s stories of migration and the lived experience of being a refugee, they were able to empower them to weave these into the threads that would become the focal point of the film. Gre puts the women’s narratives front and centre. This process was inspired by the physical folio itself, notes made by its former owners, its marble overlays and the pictures it contains. Placing the women’s hands and voices prominently evokes the human body.
“Those little things really connected with my thinking around the human body, the women and their stories. I was thinking about how our identities are often facsimiles of our experiences and how our clothing, our outward appearance, is marbled. These overlays help envelop our vessel as a protector of story,” Gre explains.
The aim of the workshops was to create a collectively written story using the folio as a beginning point, a creative journey which was uncharted and unplanned, intending to, “dive into the process of writing and narrative, weaving together all of our experiences and imaginations.”
Gre is often inspired by literature and uses their favourite pieces of writing to accompany their creative process. Two of their favourite authors are poet, feminist and philosopher Audre Lorde and science fiction icon Octavia Butler whose book Wild Seed (1980) was a particular inspiration in this work.
“Oftentimes, I will use literature to help orient myself,” says Gre. “That is what I am always trying to do when I’m working alongside and within communities. I wanted to find a common language for the project. This then became the spoken elements of the composition and we developed what I’m now calling, and we’ll call forever, the seeds of the archive.”
These seeds were the questions that the group asked each other upon making the composition that can be heard in Three Gold Threads. In coming up with these questions collectively the group could offer each other an intimacy and joint purpose.
This collaborative way of working is key to Gre’s practice. They seek to disrupt the hierarchy of the artist-led workshop processes without sacrificing the quality of the art that is made in this process. In melding the role of artist, performer and creative leader Gre creates truly moving works that speak to a truth in their creation and response.
“I sometimes have an existential crisis with my identity because I never proclaim that I am turning non-professional artists into artists. I maintain that I am the artist in this process. However, the process requires me to be a researcher and as a researcher, I’m inviting members of the community into the process as experts,” Gre explains.
ثلاثة خيوط ذهبية (Three Gold Threads) is part of the RSC’s exhibition The Play’s The Thing, on display until April 2024, which seeks to show unseen sides of the history of theatre making and connect with people who might not usually engage with Shakespeare.
A film documenting the making of the work by filmmaker Pascal Vossen is available to view here.