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Featured artists: Zillah Bowes, Daniel Crawshaw, Kate Green, Rowena Harris, Antony Lyons, Isa Suarez, and Eustace Tickell
Midlands Arts Centre and Elan Links present Watershed, a group exhibition exploring the relationship between Birmingham and Elan Valley, Wales; two communities linked by water.
The group show includes work by six resident artists who have reflected upon an area in mid-Wales on the edge of the Cambrian mountains, which has been the source of Birmingham’s water for nearly 120 years.
In the late 19th century, unsafe water led to widespread disease in the growing industrial city of Birmingham. An Act of Parliament was passed, enabling the compulsory purchase of the Elan Valley by the Birmingham Corporation Water Department. A series of man-made lakes were created on the land by damming the Elan and Claerwen rivers, and over 100 occupants of the Elan Valley were forced to move. The reservoirs have supplied Birmingham with clean water since 1904.
Watershed presents artistic responses to this controversial change to Welsh land, the connections between these two distinctive landscapes, and the part that people play in nature’s balance.
The featured artists took part in a unique residency programme led by Elan Links, including work by artist Rowena Harris made in spring 2023 during their residency with Elan Links and MAC.
The exhibition spans across mediums, including photography, sound, film and painting. It gathers material from the Elan Links archive, including a book of etchings from the lead engineer of the dam construction Eustace Tickell, who was moved to capture the valley before it was flooded. Importantly, the exhibition is presented in both English and Welsh languages, suggesting some of the cultural differences between these two locations.
Zillah Bowes presents four moon-lit portraits and landscape photographs from her Green Dark series, commissioned by ffotogallery. Green Dark has won several awards including the 1894 British Journal of Photography award and the Museum of Wales Purchase prize.
Daniel Crawshaw’s work Enclave, is an oil painting developed from his Ghost Notes series, which explores the divisions between land and water in Elan Valley.
Antony Lyons’ Gathering Grounds is a series of macro photographs that respond to themes of water catchment, deep time and the microcosmos of Elan Valley. His second presented work, Pipe Dreams, is a sound composition by Lyons and Birmingham-based artist Nikki Sheth, accompanied by video footage from Lyons and archival footage from the Rhayader community. It imagines 2-way flows of sonic ambiences along the pipeline linking Elan to Birmingham.
Kate Green, who is a curator of this exhibition as well as an exhibiting artist, presents her collection of work Watershed Line. Green walked across the Elan Valley Estate, documenting the concrete posts which mark the watershed line as she went. A collection of these photographs will be presented alongside songs written by Green during her residency.
Isa Suarez’s Forest Voices is a sound composition, which uses underwater and overtones of stream recordings made in the valley to give a voice to land workers and ecologists working in Elan.
Rowena Harris, current artist-in-residence, showcases a video essay and audio trail, which explores the water and energy management system at Elan Valley in relation to bodies with fatigue.
Watershed is jointly produced by MAC and Elan Links. Elan Links is a Heritage Lottery Funded scheme which aims to secure the unique heritage of Elan Valley. Elan Links are running several workshops and events in Birmingham in 2023, and will bring charity groups from Birmingham to Elan for overnight activity breaks, where they can find out about the source of their water and explore the Cambrian Mountains.
Roma Piotrowska, curator at MAC, said: “The exhibition is a unique opportunity to present artworks in Birmingham that interrogate and respond to tensions surrounding the city’s water supply and the Welsh sacrifice of land. Watershed is part of MAC’s programme focused on sustainability, coinciding with the 150th anniversary of Cannon Hill Park. A model of Elan Valley remains in the park from 1962 – the same year MAC opened to the public. We hope exhibition opens up conversations surrounding land, ownership, nature, and legacy.”
Esther Wakeling from Elan Links said: “Watershed is the culmination of five years of artist residencies and fellowships at the Elan Valley. Resident artists immersed themselves in Elan, learning about the history of this unique landscape, what makes Elan special, and what challenges we now face. Watershed brings some of these impressions together to provoke questions about the history, and future of our water.”
Kate Green, curator and exhibiting artist, said: “There is no easy solution to our unbalanced relationship with Earth and all of its inhabitants; and art doesn’t have the answers. However, creative responses such as those exhibited in Watershed can inspire conversations and actions that might feed our journey towards a more sustainable future.”
Watershed opens on 28 June and will run until 5 November 2023, in the Terrace and Community Gallery at Midlands Arts Centre, with an opening event on 1 September.
*photo – Zillah Bowes, Pont ar Elan (landscape in moonlight) from the series Green Dark (2021). C-type print, 62 x 87 x 4cm.