Entertainment & Arts

Idle Women: Creating a female-friendly arts space on a narrowboat

Rachel and Cis on narrowboat Image copyright Jill Jennings
Image caption Rachel Anderson and Cis O'Boyle hope the narrowboat will be somewhere women can "breathe a little"

From carrying coal to transporting tourists, the canals of the North have taken a variety of loads, but a new narrowboat is bringing something unusual to the waterways - a women-only arts centre.

The Idle Women project, aimed at addressing "the urgent need for women's space" and providing "a radical redress of power, acknowledgement and voice", has been put together by caretakers Rachel Anderson and Cis O'Boyle.

It centres around the Selina Cooper, a renovated butty with both a living area and an arts space which will travel the canals for the next two years, giving women a chance to "take off armour and just relax and breathe a little", Anderson says.

"We start with the canals but it's definitely about addressing the urgency for change that is needed across the board.

"In part, this a conversation about the arts and a woman's place in the arts, but it's also about our place in everyday life - the way we constantly have to consider our security. Whether that's walking home at night or in our relationships with men, and the things that we have to navigate in terms of inequality or our role as mothers.

"The issues for women are everywhere and it's really important that we have a space to just be. It doesn't have to be about looking at those issues.

"I think the starting place always has to be about women and women's capacity to breathe, so let's take it from there and see what impact that has."

Image copyright Jill Jennings
Image caption The interior of the narrowboat includes an arts space that can be used to house exhibitions

The idea for the project came while the pair were working in "a very patriarchal way" in London, which O'Boyle says left them jaded and feeling "a little bit like going down with a sinking ship".

As a result, they thought about where they could put the energy that would have been put into a big production, into "something that has some value".

After realising the limitations of a farm - both financially and in terms of how many women they could connect with - O'Boyle says they struck upon the idea of doing something on the waterways.

"We toyed with it for a while, took a trip on a friend's narrow boat and realised the canals were an extremely male-dominated space, so we thought 'why not start a revolution on the canals?'."

'Incredible contribution'

In doing so, O'Boyle says they are following in the footsteps of the women who gave the two-year project its name, and who worked on the canals in World War Two.

"They did all the heavy labour while soldiers were at war and at the time," she says. "It was Inland Waterways, and they had a little badge which said IW to get on and off the barges and into secure places - they were immediately nicknamed Idle Women."

Anderson continues: "When we found out about that, it tapped into other women's histories that we don't really know about - and it feels really important to learn.

"Being here in Lancashire, we've also learned about the women who worked in the coal mines and the women that worked the land - these are really important parts of our history that are not forefronted or celebrated."

Image copyright Jill Jennings
Image caption The butty is split between the arts space and a living area

Even the boat's name taps into that, coming as it does from a suffragette who began life as a child labourer in the area's cotton mills and went on found a maternity hospital and speak for the local women in parliament.

"She was this incredible woman with this incredible contribution to society, but she's relatively unknown," Anderson says.

"We want to bring history into the forefront as well as talk about our future - to acknowledge ourselves in a more full way."

To do that, the Arts Council-funded boat is going to spend two years travelling around Lancashire, Greater Manchester, Merseyside and West Yorkshire, working with women's groups where it moors and housing seven artists-in-residence along the way.

The first to take up that post is photographer and visual artist Martina Mullaney who, along with her daughter Cecily and dog Max, will spend two months on board.

She says the butty is "a gift... a lovely space that frees me up to be able to think about making artwork".

Image caption Martina Mullaney, with her daughter and dog, will live and work on the narrowboat for two months

Importantly for her, it is also somewhere women can gather: "Those spaces are fewer and fewer and art-only spaces for women haven't really existed since the 80s.

"This is a space where women can put our other experiences to one side. Women feel, on a daily level, really hassled by patriarchy and the system, and sometimes it's just a joy to get a break from men.

"That's not because anyone is a man-hater, but it's tough fighting constantly - whether it's wolf whistles or sexism at work or other such things.

"It's a luxury to think 'while I'm on this boat, I put the outside world aside'. I suppose I could do that at home, but now I can consciously think about what it means to not invite a male into the space."

'Artists need inspiration'

Anderson says Mullaney and the other residents, including theatre director Mojisola Adebayo and multimedia artist Karen Mirza, were chosen because they "represent an aspect of arts practice and socially engaged practice that is undervalued in the mainstream art world".

"We're starting to think of it more as a co-dependent practice because the truth is artists cannot make work without other people," she says.

"We're interested in artists that recognise that. There's a really big misconception that artists work in isolation - it's totally inaccurate.

"Artists always need inspiration from others - the extent of how they acknowledge that varies - but we are really interested in forefronting how we work together to create and feed each other."

Image copyright Jill Jennings
Image caption Moya O'Hagan says the butty is "a fabulous space and a fabulous concept"

Some of those who will be coming to the project will have been directed there by Lancashire Women's Centres, who work with women needing many different kinds of support.

Training co-ordinator Moya O'Hagan says she was drawn to the barge because "it's always useful to have women-only spaces".

"We can't offer a lot of out-of-hours provision so it's great to direct women to because it's here all the time. And it's flexible, it can move to where women want it," she says.

"The idea is really new and innovative and it's just got this relaxed sanctuary feel to it. It's like a real retreat - a safe space that feels creative.

Anderson says she and O'Boyle want the narrowboat to become a treasured space to the women that use it and hope that by the time the project is completed, they "will have created a space for women to use in a way that they want to or need to".

"We're already seeing that. It's overwhelming how many women are feeling in touch with us all of the time," she says.

"We have a very broad range of ideas of how women can get involved - whether they come and have a cup of tea with us one day or whether they come to everything that we do.

"For two years, between Blackburn, Barrowford, Dewsbury, Manchester and St Helens, this area will have this network that know each other through art, and that feels so important."

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