Tell us about your role on the project

I’ve been commissioned by the Josef Herman Art Foundation Cymru to create a new participatory artwork which explores Josef Herman’s archive and his legacy in the town of Ystradgynlais where he lived and worked in the 1940s and 50s.

Pen wash sketch of two figures sitting, resting on each other's shoulder

Josef Herman
Two Young Miners (Notes from a Welsh Diary) 1945
© The estate of Josef Herman
Image released under Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported)

How would you describe your practice as an artist?

My practice is always drawn, in some way, to exploring our relationship to the political. This happens in different ways – with different media and processes – and it often manifests with a slant on the performative or the conversational. But no matter the media – text, video, installation, public realm encounter - I’m interested in the nuance of what creates our sense of affiliation, the relationship of wider political frameworks upon the personal, the daily.

I’ve recently created a new piece of work for the Iraqi Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. Titled It’s a long way back (Chilcot/Part I), it’s a three channel video work based on Tony Blair’s testimonial to the Chilcot (Iraq) Inquiry. I often work with people, inviting them to respond to a stimulus, or existing material I’m interested in. This piece invited Cardiff residents to respond in various ways to footage from Tony Blair’s 189 minute morning session of the Inquiry in 2010. I consider his ‘text’ – giving justifications for our invasion of Iraq – to be one of the most significant documents of our recent history.

I also develop projects with other organisations and communities. Last year, I worked with Artes Mundi on a regeneration project that saw me developing different kinds of interventions with a group of young people in the Rhondda Valleys. I work a lot with text, so we explored at length ways in which they felt empowered to use language, or explore words in different ways. They came up with a series of statements that we installed in the form of enormous placards, in key sites in the town where they lived. Crucially, these ‘community portraits’ required the involvement of local people, and it’s these spaces – in which communities come to create art together, that interests me.

What attracted you to working with the Mining Josef Herman project with the Foundation?

I was drawn to the challenge of bringing to life the work of an artist that some may feel is stuck in the past. Herman’s a traditional fine artist in the proper sense – ! – his work is from another era, what does that mean for us today? So the challenge of finding new ways of opening up that body of work drew me. What’s been amazing of course is seeing just how much his work resonates.

There’s a contradiction in his work. The paintings and the archive sketches, they can be hard, harsh, unforgiving in many ways. But then there’s always a tenderness as well. And what you can’t ignore is this overwhelming sense of his love for people, for working people. He’s overwhelmingly on the side of ordinary people. 

It’s quite unique to be working on a project that focuses on an artist that’s so significant to a particular place. I’ve heard stories from people in Ystradgynlais who remember Herman, who sat in his studio watching him paint when they were children, or chatted to him in the street. Working in the context of the Josef Herman Art Foundation Cymru means sustaining and celebrating that legacy. And it’s a hugely rich legacy to keep opening out for people.

Can you tell us a little bit about your research for the project so far?

My research has led to me visiting various groups…from crochet groups to choral groups or older people’s luncheon clubs. I’ve visited chapels, food banks, and youth clubs, to meet different people and find out what their connection is to Herman. I also had a wonderful time visiting the Tate Archive and seeing Herman’s sketches first hand. And of course, being a text junky, I’m hugely drawn to Herman’s writings – his journals and diaries – which I think provide an incredible way into the sketches contained in the online archives.

One of the things I’ve found, and been surprised by perhaps, is just how relevant Herman feels, as a voice, in 2015. His concerns would not be out of place in Austerity Britain today. So much of his work was about trying to capture the harshness of life, its struggles, its impacts upon communities, upon a man, a woman. Sadly, in reading many of his texts – especially when he’s talking about poverty, inequality, social injustice – his words from 60 years ago resonate as if they could have been written today.

What impact has the recently digitised Herman archive collection had on this process?

The archive helps you see these subjects in relation to each other. You see the number of times in his images there are groups of people, but somehow always looking disconnected, together yet disparate. The numbers of sketches about miners, miners seated, miners underground, a miner with his hands in his pockets. It’s a treasure trove really, to be able to see so much of Herman’s work in one place, and understand the relationship of the different subjects to each other.

What are your plans for the project from here on in?

The project has led me to working with two choirsCor Y Gyrlais a very renowned male voice choir from Cwmtwrch, and a much younger school choir at a local comprehensive in Cwmtawe. It’s been really interesting to approach and explore the Herman archive through language, through words – our own words as well as his texts and writings. We’ve ended up exploring some of these texts musically and vocally, so my aim is that the two choirs, who will come together at the end of the project, can somehow gain a different insight into Herman, through a vocal exploration of his visual output. In exploring an artist’s paintings and sketches – their visual output – the result can often be another kind of visual output. So I’m hoping people will feel that working with sound, with music, with text – that this provides a fresh way into his images, images that are often disquieting, and un-gentle. I think language can open up the world of the image, and I’m hoping that’s what this project will have offered.

We’re familiar with the old adage that ‘a picture speaks a thousand words’…but I’d like to venture that a picture gives rise to a thousand words, and these words have qualities of their own. As we look at a painting or a sketch, what are the textures of language, the qualities of words, that open up for us? If we had to describe in detail a painting or a picture, to someone who couldn’t see it, no one single description would ever be the same. What would yours be?

Rabab Ghazoul will be working with Cwmtawe Community School B# Choir and Cor Y Gyrlais Male Voice Choir to explore specially written vocal scores based on Herman’s work in an event titled There Then Comes A Chaos of Things on Sunday 12 July 2015. The event consists of an open public rehearsal from 14.00–17.00 with an informal presentation at 18.00 at The Welfare Ystradgynlais.