Director of Craftspace Deirdre Figueiredo names those who have inspired her throughout her career.
Maria Souza and Dr Nima Poovaya Smith
My great Aunt Maria was a force to be reckoned with, a single-minded woman of grace, creative talent, a progressive mind-set and vision. Married to artist Francis Newton Souza, she emigrated with him from Bombay to London in the 1950s. Enduring hardship and rising above any prejudice encountered, she worked tirelessly and with an unstinting belief in her husband’s artistic talent. An excellent seamstress and couturier, she worked for a range of private clients including the editor of Vogue. In the early 70s from the front room in her house in Homer St London W1, she set up Gallery 38 to show, sell and promote Souza’s work and also many seminal contemporary Indian artists of the time. Later she gave her support to the setting up of other galleries for the promotion of Black artists such as the Horizon Gallery, to which I became a frequent visitor. This was a side of intercultural Britain I came to know and experience through art.
As I started out in my career post university, Maria was a great inspiration and role model. She was delighted that I was awarded an Arts Council England bursary in 1988 to train in exhibition curation with a focus on Black art. After all she had done to pave the way, Black artists still found themselves excluded, relatively ignored and in the margins. Encouraged by her example, I became involved in championing cultural diversity at Cartwright Hall in Bradford, with support and training from another woman curator Nima Poovaya Smith – a formidable intellect with incredible persuasive powers. In 1988/89 you could count the number of professional Black people employed in the whole museum sector on one hand. During Nima’s tenure at Cartwright Hall she began a remarkable new collection of art, craft and objects that would define a fresh and intelligently nuanced view of cultural diversity. I learnt from her skill and perspective in curating objects in a way that connected cultures, offering shared as well as distinct ideas about our place in the world and the human condition.
Whilst at University I had a moment of cultural- and self-awakening when I took a module about Commonwealth literature. Being exposed to a rich seam of writing I had never encountered before and which spoke to my own heritage and history was empowering. Developing a cognisance of my identity within a diaspora of East African Asian people later informed my ability to work with a range of diverse communities. Meeting the influential cultural theorist and sociologist Stuart Hall was a further building block. During the early 90s when I worked as Cultural Development Officer for Leicestershire Museums and Arts Service I went to many talks given by Hall. He was one of the most charismatic and engaging speakers I have been privileged to hear. His ability to put across concepts and ideas in an accessible way enabled me to get to grips with the politics of identity, questions of race, post-colonialism and the migrant view of Britain. His writings gave me the confidence to devise projects and exhibitions which promoted the idea that identity is never static or one-dimensional, but rather an ongoing product of history, culture and place, multi-faceted and changing through constant interactions.
When this pioneering Bengali woman became Head of Adult & Community Education at the V&A, there had been no precedent and she made a significant impact reaching out to involve South Asian audiences as never before. We worked together on the Mughal Tent project and I’ll never forget driving a minibus full of Asian women from Leicester and descending on the V&A – the heart of the establishment – in a remarkable celebratory gathering. We had arrived!
The recent writings of sociologist Richard Sennett inform my current work. He suggests skilful and crafted forms of co-operation will help us negotiate difference. He makes the case for the importance of learning the values of good craftsmanship – that the way craftspeople use tools, organise work and think about materials offers an alternative way of conducting life with skill and mindfulness.
Deirdre Figueiredo MBE is Director of Craftspace, an award winning craft development organisation based in Birmingham.