Group shot in arch

Photography by Square Photography.

In 2008 I took part as artist in residence in a new burlesque inspired art project, 'What do you think you're looking at... the Sunniside of burlesque'. Held in Sunderland the project was a means of directing the public's attention to the re-developed area of Sunniside Gardens through art.

Myself along with others created overblown burlesque characters taking inspiration from the Sunniside 1861 census to bring some of the area's rich history back to life

Directed by myself and working with Art-Wave, local artists and Sunderland University students the project was a collaborative work designed to highlight one of Sunderland's most overlooked areas and highlight the major redevelopment including the building of multi million pound art venue The Place where the final exhibtion of work was held.

A saucy dressmaker with a dark secret (that's me!), a radical freethinking minister, a French shipbroker, and a gothic widow in all her mournful glory all starred in this provocative and unique exhibition. The final show included photographic work by local photographers and live V.Jing by video artist Carl Gregg as well as costume appearances from some of the charaters on hand to inform guests about the work.

Group shot in Sunniside Gardens

My main aim whilst working as artist in residence for this project was to use burlesque in a way that had never been done from an art perspective before.
My work specialises in burlesque and retro pin up styles that usually take the form of paintings and other image based artwork.
For this project I decided to take burlesque back to its basics as a form of performance and communication, but put this raw energy into a new art context.
Britain has a long history of bawdy entertainment including the music halls of the Victorian era right through to our annual pantomimes of nowadays and the Neo burlesque nights that are currently sweeping the nation.
Using burlesque as our main tool of communication has not only allowed local artists, students and businesses to take part but has caught the imagination of the public and made the artwork very accessible and fun.
This project has also allowed me to use my knowledge of performance and history in new ways whilst reaffirming the true meaning of burlesque as an art form in its own right.

The Dressmaker

This is Mary A Jedball, played by myself, a 28 year old dressmaker who boarded at 25 Norfolk Street, Sunniside in 1861.
Here she is photographed at the Eauzone cafe which now stands where number 25 once stood.
As a dressmaker Mary's life was a hard one consisting of 15 hour working days where she would travel to the houses of her customers and take work home that would keep her up until the early hours. It is estimated that people of Mary's profession would earn around nine shillings a week with which they had to find clothes, fuel, lodging and food!
But there's something about Mary, and it's something that she may have wanted to keep quiet about.
A woman described in a census as a dressmaker or seamstress might have been using this as a euphemism, since she was involved in something much less wholesome.
There is no firm evidence that Mary was a lady of easy virtue, so we can only guess at her lifestyle, but we know it would have been one of hard labour and low wages.

I made my burlesque version of the dressmaker a diamond in the rough, with a cheeky knowing look in her eye. On the day of the shoot I performed in character with tape measures at the ready and a sewing basket as I was filmed for the V.J set and members of the public captured the event on their moble phones.

The Shipbroker

Wigdohn Edouard, here played by Phillip Wardle, was born in France but lived at number 14 Norfolk Street during the 1850's and 60's.
He made his living as a Shipbroker and would have had a very important role in this profession acting as intermediary between ship owners and charterers, co-ordinating cargo for ships, symbolised by the objects at his feet, and juggling huge amounts of information and figures. He worked with a business partner and employed four clerks and one boy. Here Wigdohn is posed by the new sculpture by Laura Johnston in the centre of Sunniside Gardens. The sculpture represents the ribs of the hull of a ship.

Local artsit Phil, made his burlesque character rather menacing, as he was inspired by the original ship captain's truncheon he holds in the photo, which once belonged to his grandfather. The heavy wooden instrument was a status symbol that could be used to wind rope or as a hefty club or spike.

The Widow

The character you see here is Margaret Turnbull, played by Kirsten Woods, a widowed school mistress who lived at number 13 Norfolk Street in 1861.
Women were not allowed out of the house during the first year of mourning and were obliged to wear black and a weeping veil. Some would even go as far as to dress the entire household including the staff in black. Here we see Margaret outside her address which is now a picture framers.
Margaret was 40 years old when the 1861 census was taken and lived with her general servant.
With a high death rate during the Victorian era, mourning was a part of everyday life which encouraged a melodramatic obsession with morbidity.

Kisten's burlesque take on this character was to use a strong gothic look, resulting in a pretty racey widow

The Primitive Methodist Minister

The Rev Samson Turner lived at number 14 Norfolk Street, Sunniside during 1861.
The Primitive Methodist movement was still seen as fairly radical in the 1800's having only been established in the late 1700's. Here we see Samson played by Ross Collier, conducting an outdoor service, which was one of the reasons Primitive Methodists were seen as so controversial. Their simplistic view to worship and strong socialist views and welfare for the working class may have contributed to their disownment by the Church of England.
Samson has a decidedly punk aspect to his look here to visualise his anti establishment ideals.

As the work for this project was being finalised for exhibition a distant relative of the Rev got in touch after researching into her family tree. Not only did she find out about her great great great uncle but she was delighted about his use in the project and offered some more information about his life in Sunderland where he had two sons and lived until his death in 1876
All images copyright © 2006 - 2010, Gemma Parker. Site by A to M