Culture Writer Abbie Fitton interviews Artist Foka Wolf to learn about the inspirational story behind his exhibition, Why Are We Stuck In Hospital, which represents people with severe autism and/or learning difficulties who are stuck in social care.
Could I start by asking, can you tell us what the inspiration was for this exhibition?
Basically, I’ve been working with a charity called Changing Our Lives and the University of Birmingham. Changing Our Lives are a charity that pull people out of social care who are severely autistic or have severe learning difficulties. Because a lot of people, especially those with autism and learning difficulties, get stuck in social care for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes it’s just red tape. Sometimes people get a mark put next to their name, so they’ll be kept in for over ten to fifteen years. And yeah, it’s crazy. I started talking to them and I couldn’t really believe what I was hearing. There was a woman who I think she scratched someone’s face when a fire alarm was going off, a severely autistic woman. And she ended up, I think, spending 30 years stuck in a hospital. So, I’ve been working with the charity, and the university have done some research. Hopefully, that research can then get put forward to the government and change legislation.
What can we expect to find at your installation at the Ikon?
The installation highlights people stuck in social care. It’s pretty much unlike anything I’ve done before because a lot of the stuff that I usually do revolves around humour or fake adverts, but I thought, well, I couldn’t really make light of the situation. I felt like I had to create something that was just impactful and would carry the message. The message was more important than the actual artwork. So, I wanted to create something that, one, people would go to and was exciting, and two, people would take photos of. So, I’ve created something that is I guess you’d say it would be theatrical; it’s to do with lights and there’s two different states which sort of changes. I just wanted to create something that would highlight the charity and the research from the university. That’s it really.
When the Ikon approached you, asking you to do this topic, you’ve mentioned on Instagram how it was ‘truly shocking’ to learn about. How did you begin to approach this project? What are your ideas when creating it and what was the creative process like?
Well, I did research, I spoke to the charity and I listened to stories of the people. I just sort of tried to get into my head what was going on and it became apparent – I thought that if I didn’t know about this, other people are definitely not going to know about it because I feel like I’m pretty clued up with social issues and things like that. I just thought that information was the key thing here, that it had to be shared. So, I prioritized the information. But then also there’s a human aspect; obviously there’s a lot of facts and figures, lots of numbers and things like that, but at the same time, behind these numbers, there’s actual people that show the two aspects of it. So, I want people to know about the facts and figures. But also, I want people to know that there is people behind these facts and figures. The people’s children and people’s babies, basically, because I’m a parent myself and I couldn’t think of anything worse if my kid was sort of trapped in social care. It would just be terrifying. And I tried to show the two different aspects running through this.
The ‘I’m so far away from my mum’ posters are quite harrowing and terrifying. So how did this, as you mentioned, departure from your common humorous feel?
I think I pulled that – that was a quote off one of the patients. I just feel like obviously I do work with humour primarily. But I guess now I work a lot with language. I just sort of tried to take what I know about language, design and about visual communication and I tried to use those aspects of my work, rather than this humour.
And so, with this new approach using language, was there anything about this, either the topic or the installation that you found challenging? Whether that’s the new approach artistically or emotionally?
I do touch on social issues and things like that, but a lot of the time I feel like I skim the surface a little bit. I try to do topical things and I try to do stuff in the news. I’ve never really sort of plunged myself into any of these issues, I try to- I guess sort of limit damage, especially with the internet and things like that. I try and keep myself safe, I guess? I tried not to sort of delve too far or doom scroll on the internet as much. But for this I had too to get a feel for it. It was sort of challenging and it was just really sad to hear some of these stories. I just got to know the scale that it’s at and I just couldn’t really believe that it was present at this country at this time. It sounded unreal. It sounded like something from 100 years ago, do you know what I mean?
Yeah, it really did. And so, with this experience of creating an exhibition for a gallery, how does that differ from your previous and foundational work in public displays?
It’s been brilliant! They keep doing stuff for me! The stuff that I do, I do it usually by myself. But working at the gallery, I’ve had technicians helping me along the way, so really I just had the ideas and spoke to them about it. It’s been a good experience, but usually I’m not really a gallery person. I do go to the Ikon and things like that, but I just feel like it’s a little bit better, more democratic to put stuff in places where everybody goes, because I didn’t go to galleries when I was a kid. I’m trying to inspire people, not the sort of people that go to galleries, but obviously I do want to them, but I’d rather everybody come and see art. So usually, I don’t really hang around in those sort of places. I do go to art galleries, but I’m not really up for exhibiting stuff. I’ve done exhibitions, but they’ve always been sort of chicken shops or pubs or things like that.
With this new approach from you as well, there’s a great opportunity to join a workshop after the launch of the gallery.
Yeah so me and Tat Vision are doing a workshop afterwards. Because my installation is going to contain UV lights, me and Tat Vision are going to be doing some live drawing with some UV pastels and we’re going to invite people to come and draw with us on a sort of communal piece of work.
And so, what significance do you think this level of interaction between viewers, the topic, and you will be?
I want to do more community level work. Just chatting to people and doing some drawing with us and just mess about really. Because there’s a lot of heavy stuff in this project, and I feel like you need a little bit of a respite and a little bit of a fun aspect to it. It gives people the opportunity just to chill out for a bit.
And what do you hope for people to take away from this exhibition and the workshop?
I just want to raise awareness of what’s going on and possibly help the charity, because like the university, the charity are doing some amazing things; they’re actually pulling these people out of social care and figuring out ways to help them. So, it’s just highlighting that. And from the workshops, I just like people to come and participate and just have a chat really. Because there’s going to be a lot of serious stuff on the day.
And on that topic, what do you feel like you’ve taken away from the experience of working in a different setting with different people?
Maybe, I would be more open to doing stuff in places like galleries. I’ve enjoyed coming up with ideas, and people just making them happen has been brilliant. What I’ll probably take from this project would be, I guess maybe do something of a deeper meaning and help specific projects or specific causes, rather than sort of just skimming across the surface. I think communicating more with the people I’m trying to help.
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