INTERVIEW: 40 Women And Girls | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Image: Catrina and Huffty McHugh at the West End Women and Girls Centre for Pedal Against Patriarchy Sept 2021

Since 1981, Newcastle’s West End Women and Girls Centre has established itself into the very foundations of Elswick. Providing support from youth clubs to domestic abuse services, for young girls to matriarchs, the centre is the beating heart of the West End, standing tall whilst austerity saw so many community services diminish.

Now in its 40th year, they’re celebrating all of the women and girls who have made the centre what it is. The 40 Women And Girls exhibition includes 40 portraits taken by photographer Phyllis Christopher, with stories gathered by writer Catrina McHugh MBE for an accompanying book, and will open on International Women’s Day, Wednesday 9th March.  

I met them both on Zoom, along with Huffty McHugh, the centre’s coordinator. What ensued was a restoration of faith in feminism and the assurance that someone is watching out for us. With fists momentarily raised in the air, we talked about the centre’s significance in so many women’s lives, and how the services they provide relies on the women’s politics. 

Huffty explains that through the exhibition they “wanted to mark 40 years with 40 women and girls who have been so important to the progression of the centre, so they can be remembered.” She takes me through the services and groups they run: Girls’ group, Women’s group, cooking and farming groups, all alongside campaigns to further equality and empowerment. Domestic violence support is one of their weightier tasks: “Unfortunately, during lockdown, the incidences of domestic abuse were massive and we continue to receive more and more referrals every day, so they work, really, really hard.” But the centre has trained more than 250 young women across the region as domestic violence champions, who educate and support the women who need it most. 

Speaking to Catrina about the anniversary project, she states: “The centre is important because of how much it means to everybody. Yes, the services provide support for women experiencing domestic violence, but in some respects, it’s so much more than that. It’s about empowerment, coming together.” She expands: “When people talk about the different experiences of women it can seem bleak, but these are stories about women that make change happen. We’re standing alongside these women and girls and witnessing their strength and talent.”

There is no doubt that this is a celebration, a beacon for all of the women that have contributed to the centre over the years. BALTIC will help project Phyllis’ photos onto the side of the building, which will be lit up on their private opening night, fit with a red carpet for all of the nominated women and girls, of which the youngest is eight. 

the approach to the photography was to honour these women. You can think of photography as superficial, but it’s not. It’s a way to preserve history and show very dignified portraits of these heroes

I love taking new photographs, it’s my little way of being an activist. We all do what we can, and so I take pictures,” remarks Phyllis. All three women continually marvel at the power and inspiration every woman who has graced the centre wields. Phyllis sought to capture that essence in the portraits: “the approach to the photography was to honour these women. You can think of photography as superficial, but it’s not. It’s a way to preserve history and show very dignified portraits of these heroes. Sometimes it’s hard to convince people to sit for a picture, and these are hardworking, everyday, modest people. But everybody cooperated, even though it was understandably scary. And we’ve decided to print them A1 so they’re going to be huge. I hope it looks like a wonderful tribute.” 

Originally, Phyllis wanted to capture the 40 women in their natural environments, the places they were most comfortable and, so, most themselves. “I wanted to tell the story of what they do, but as the pandemic went on, we realised it just wasn’t possible. So, I set up a studio in the centre, using images of the centre as a backdrop. The architecture is very distinct and always brings back good memories.”

Significantly, it’s the same approach Catrina took when she sat down with the women and girls to be interviewed for the corresponding book: “It was my job to create a safe space for these women, so I used memories. I asked them to return to walking through the building for the first time: what did they see, what did they smell and touch.” West End Women and Girls Centre is such an anchor and constant in these people’s lives, returning to it is a safe practice and it’s a second home for many of those nominated. “I wanted to see the history of the centre unfold,” she continued. 

The talk inevitably turns to the feminism that underlines the centre’s ethic. With women, their empowerment and struggles at its core, it seems that the centre’s ethos is undisputable: “You know the world is not equal, and women are discriminated against. Women are having to reclaim the streets. I do think feminism makes the centre work,” explains Catrina. With the centre motivated and supported by feminist ideals, the women grow likeminded, supportive and demanding for change. Catrina laughs: “There was one nominee who claimed they weren’t a feminist, but when we talked it through, and what feminism meant, she quickly corrected herself saying ‘oh, maybe I am a feminist’, because she’s on the side of understanding women.” 

Phyllis concludes: “It reaffirms my feminism when I come to the centre because you’re just reminded about what happens when women get together with the feminist philosophy, anything can happen and good things happen. It’s a very strengthening, supportive environment that you can’t find anywhere else.” 

West End Women and Girls Centre has been correcting inequalities and reinforcing the lives of women for 40 years, it’s only fitting that the women who make the centre what it is, and what it stands for, are celebrated artfully and emotionally. They’re the empowerment a person needs: as we still confront an unequal world, this reminds us that there is still someone watching our backs. 

40 Women And Girls is exhibited at Newcastle’s West End Women and Girls Centre from Wednesday 9th-Thursday 31st March. The exhibition is open to women only during the week, with men able to attend at the weekend.  

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