Local artist explores “rich thread of mixed heritage” in new exhibition at The Higgins Bedford

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Artist Sophie Gresswell with one of the pieces from her new exhibition at the Higgins Bedford. Image: Bedford Borough Council
Artist Sophie Gresswell with one of the pieces from her new exhibition at the Higgins Bedford. Image: Bedford Borough Council

A new exhibition in the Higgins’ Sir William Harpur Gallery is the result of a year-long journey that has taken artist, Sophie Gresswell, from Luton to the island of St Helena and finally to Bedford.

On the Wings of a Wire Bird opened on Saturday, 3 February and weaves together the threads of empire, destruction, survival, and the enduring impact of Commonwealth heritage on the British identity.

The exhibition explores the rich tapestry of mixed heritage and intersecting journeys through artworks inspired by Sophie’s home county of Bedfordshire and a residency to her grandfather’s birthplace on the remote British island of St Helena in the South Atlantic.

“The diverse communities of Luton and Bedford are those I’ve grown up amongst,” said Sophie. “I’ve always been fascinated by their rich mix of human stories, especially ones of migration and identity.

“I know both towns played a huge part in my finding great joy in seeing communities come together to connect through collisions of culture.

“Travelling from my home county to the island of my grandfather and back again has helped me to try and better understand the rich thread of mixed heritage that runs through our veins.”

Visitors will be initially be greeted by a collaborative curtain of clay heritage heads, symbolising unity and diversity. The exhibition further unfolds with large-scale poetry, embodying the thoughts of local Commonwealth communities, and captivating paintings portraying ‘Saint’ women demanding their space in history.

The three main paintings in the exhibition, depicting three ‘Saint’ women (St Helenians), boldly feature the phrase “Loyal roots, Burn ‘em up, Unshakable us” – a play on the motto of St. Helena, “Loyal and Unshakable”. 

The redefining of these words encapsulates the essence of the exhibition, reflecting on our collective roots, the challenges faced and still to overcome, and the unyielding power in our diverse communities.

“The Higgins is the perfect place to have this exhibition,” said Sophie. “A museum which holds so much of Bedford’s identity, but also houses an ethnological collection with objects from around the world.

“Bedford is a town whose population was dependent on migration. The exhibition will not only hold my own personal journey, but words and artworks from the local community and museum objects which hold echoes of our ancestry.

“I hope it will be a space where communities can come together and explore their own place in our interconnected heritage, as a town, as a country but also as beads on the intergenerational thread of this thing we call life.

“The exhibition, which runs until 9 June, is not only a celebration of our heritage but also an invitation to question and reconnect with our entangled past. It serves as a space to share experiences, cultures, stories, and humanity in a world where connections sometimes falter.”

Explore ‘On the Wings of a Wire bird’ at The Higgins Bedford from Saturday, 3 February to 9 June 2024. The Higgins Bedford, MK40 3XD, can be found behind the Castle Mound on Bedford’s Embankment.