Design a site like this with
Get started

Jo Scorah

I spoke to Jo Scorah – a local artist working with different mediums including sculpture, print, textiles, and painting. We talked about THE Dress that I love, which is exhibited at the Manchester Jewish Museum, the themes of her art such as migration, nomadism, and the emotional burdens of leaving home. Find her amazing work on Instagram and on her Website.

All photographs are displayed with kind permission of the artist ©Jo Scorah

Sara – I went to see the Jewish Museum in Manchester a few weeks ago. That was the first time I was in Manchester and that’s when I saw the dress that you made with the Manchester Jewish Museum’s Women’s Textile Group. I took a photo of the description to look you up on Instagram and see your art. I absolutely loved the dress. 

Jo – Thank you

The dress has now had a re vamp and is looking very beautiful. It was featured in Laure Prouvost’s film ‘The Long waited, weighted Gathering’, for the Manchester International Festival. It has since been selected for exhibition at Manchester’s NW Open Exhibition in 2022 at ‘HOME’.

How did this project come together? Working in a women’s group, sewing the dress and having it exhibited at the Manchester Jewish Museum and now at HOME. Tell me about the journey of the project.

I’ve done work previously for the Jewish Museum and the curator Laura Seddon, commissioned me to lead their Women’s Textile Group in a new project during lockdown.

The group is made up of local women of many differing faiths and cultures who love to sew and had been meeting up locally on a two- weekly basis. The Museum were keen to promote the Textile group when the Museum re-opened after extensive renovations.

My job was to develop a concept that promoted a theme of tolerance and understanding of others using creative methods such as embroidery.

The Jewish Museum, which was once a Synagogue stands in Cheetham Hill, and has been voted the most ethnically diverse Street in GB.

I began with a mood board and my thoughts were directed at how the finished look would be. Because the sessions were all on zoom it was going to have to be something that each woman could work on remotely from home. There were also prohibitive limitations on how and where it would be situated.  As my practice was originally in dress design and much of my work has to do with the body, I decided on a voluminous dress made up of separate channels of fabric giving each woman a banner to work on. I bought canvas fabric, cut it up into banners, dyed and hemmed them and posted a banner to every woman.

All photographs are displayed with kind permission of the artist ©Jo Scorah

As I visualised in my own head what I wanted, I was aware that I didn’t want the dress to look too disorderly, it needed to be visually flowing. I asked them to start with an image of their own face in the middle of the banner. It could be done any way (paint, embroider, draw, print etc). I just wanted everyone to share a similar image that would bring the finished piece together. We had a slow start, I think they felt nervous about putting their faces on, not sure how real or abstract they wanted to create. After a few weeks, they all accomplished the task, and that probably was the hardest part of the project, getting going! Then we let loose, we had talks on our culture, different religions, what was important to us, family gathering, memory and all the things that happened within our families. Once they told me what they wanted to do, I gave them ideas and advice on how to achieve it. I encouraged them to reflect their own culture and community and use their incredible talents so when people saw the dress it would be a melting pot of different cultures. It turned out amazing well they accomplished the most beautiful work that shared their stories. But it wasn’t just about the project, we all got to know each other, and we gained understanding and tolerance which was what I wanted to achieve through working together.

We also embroidered panels for the former Turner Prize Winning artist Laure Prouvost for her film ‘The long waited, weighted gathering’. Laure was commissioned to do a film installation as part of the Manchester International Festival. On hearing of our group, she asked us if she could join one of the sessions. This culminated in her asking us to create four panels that would border the projection.

All photographs are displayed with kind permission of the artist ©Jo Scorah

Laure drew up what she wanted based on testimonies of families who founded the synagogue, and drew on the lives of women who were instrumental in Jewish life during the 1900’s. If you look at them closely, all the motives were collaged and stitched on, and added another dimension to the film itself.

All photographs are displayed with kind permission of the artist ©Jo Scorah

Could you talk more about the process of selecting the topics for your art and settling on expulsion and migration? Has it always been part of your identity and interest to focus on expulsion and migration because of your family’s history or did you discover and explore these topics more due to your art?

Being Jewish there’s a long background of historical expulsion and migration, that has played an important role in our culture. We haven’t had to learn about it, we’ve had family experience of it. My grandparents came from Aleppo, Syria, and it’s really painful for me to see how that beautiful country has just fallen into the most awful destruction. My past has been informed by historical exile going from place to place. So, this has infused concepts within my work of nomadism, moving and migration. When I first started my embroidery degree in Manchester, my initial passion was really about clothes. Concepts or meanings were not something I thought about too much. However, university inspired me to relate to ideas and concepts. We were encouraged to use different media, lots of plaster and metal and I liked the idea of volume and structure.

I then went on to gain an MA in Textiles. For my degree piece, I created a canvas bubble suspended from a high ceiling with a red rope cascading to the ground. Named ‘The Bubble’, it reflected the bubble that was about to burst in the Middle East. And the themes carried on from there for me, looking at exile and migration.

When I did my MA, I delved much more deeply into subject matter and the concept of where these thoughts were coming from. Philosophy and social history helped to transpose ideas about what our work meant to us. Gradually it became a subject that I could respond to creatively. The history that I’d experienced, not personally but though my heritage, much of what is still ongoing today fuels my work. The experiences and the documentation I’ve got – family testimonies from families that lived in Syria showing tales of exile. I have always been fascinated at ways of carrying burdens, how to carry your burdens, how people who are migrating carry all their belongings. 

After my MA show, I was invited to join a studio group in Manchester with other artists. I got an opportunity of a residency a bit later also in Manchester. Where I was encouraged to put in a bid for funding which paid for my residency and a solo exhibition. ‘Moments of expulsion’. As part of the funding, I was asked to organise a symposium to run alongside the exhibition. This focused on the emotional effects of war as well as the physical side. Finding candidates to take part was challenging as many people were of unsettled status and did not want to talk publicly, however I did eventually find amazing people, and the symposium was powerful and informative. This exhibition went around the country and was hugely successful.

I’ve kind of just carried on the theme because obviously, it doesn’t go away and there are more and more issues about migration. That’s why I am passionate about working with people and promoting understanding and tolerance towards each other. 

My focus is more on the individual, the emotional side and ability for people to lose themselves and paint or sew or do something that releases emotions. It doesn’t really matter what it looks like, it’s more about opening- up and sharing what you feel. I try to value their expression. Each and every one has a different story to tell.

When I do workshops, I’m encouraging them to tell a story – where they are coming from, what makes them feel like home and what they miss about home.

For me, I aim to display the feeling of refuge and covering and trying to penetrate that emotion. My focus is the outside covering the inside – trying to get those feelings revealed. The fabric I maybe use is old, hard, weathered, I want the viewer to feel the staining of it, the hardship.

That is so important I feel that you share stories of individuals through your art. I really love how you communicate something that is the worst kind of shared experience – and something that is experienced very differently in different cultures – but through promoting creativity, sharing stories and openness that can connect people from different cultures.

Has your practice changed during COVID? 

During lockdown, I had the textile group and that has kept me in textile mode throughout the last two years. However, because I was at home and not in my studio, I began to start painting mainly large canvases.  Some depicted lockdown and have been featured in publications which is a fitting reference to the times we are living in. Others were more abstract and have been selected for exhibition in London, so 2021 has been a pretty fruitful year workwise.

All photographs are displayed with kind permission of the artist ©Jo Scorah

When you’re painting are you still discovering these themes and work around them, or is it more of what you feel and expressing everyday feelings and frustrations?

I have a theme that I begin with and then it perhaps morphs into something a bit more abstract. The origins are still there, maybe just harder to decipher.

I do a lot of live drawing, when COVID started, I came across an Zoom class #lifedrawing-plus based in Bee Studio Manchester, participants join in the class from all over the world. A lot of the images on my Instagram are from this class. I also incorporate textiles into those drawings – sometimes I stitch fabric onto them or collage them. I use a lot of different techniques prepare the paper, stitch fabric onto it, paint on the canvas, cut it up and then collage it – and then I do the drawing on top of that. The sessions are always themed on topical matters such as LGBGT, NHS workers, burlesque or generation x just to name a few.

All photographs are displayed with kind permission of the artist ©Jo Scorah

Does it depend on how you feel? Or on what concept do you think for that painting? How do you decide what to put into it?

Depends on what I have been reading and sometimes it is quite a struggle to find the way into a new piece of work. Often, I will find a sentence or a word that inspires a thought for a new work.

Are you still preferring to work with mixed media or is it more painting on canvas now?

I love painting and whether it’s painting canvas formed into sculpture or installation or simply stretched canvas paintings, I alternate between the two.  I play with an amalgamation of paint and other pigments. I varnish if they are stiff structures and I also used metal. Whilst I was preparing for the ‘Moments of Expulsion’ exhibition I went to the Middle East and collected bits of metal found on the ground which I use in my sculpture. It’s reminiscent of my emotional homeland, remnants of home. Made up of tattered fabric and rusted metal, a reminder of what has become of people’s homes from these war-torn countries and what is left of their home, their beautiful home.

The imagery we see, the emotions and the desperation of people is just awful.

The sad thing is – and this is the reason I aim to build the bridges is that, all religions lived together side by side in Syria and Aleppo. I think it’s so sad that we are focused on the differences and not similarities. I feel strongly that pull to work with minorities and people, such as refugees, to gain more tolerance and understanding of each other. Textiles is an ideal medium because cloth is something that’s universal and you can put so much into it. For women, it can evoke memories as well. I feel that I want to try and encourage more multifaith exercises like the textile project, so that people can come together and gain a better understanding of each other’s customs and culture. It’s been such an amazing experience with these women from the textile group – we’ve all learned a lot from and about each other

I think women are the stronger ones that can make things happen naturally that way.

I would hope to work with women in a refugee camp, and be able to capture their imagination, try to help them to do something that tells a story of their lives to the world.

I think it’s amazing and much needed. I think it is a form of activism – not in the mainstream way – but representing the individual, personal, emotional. 

%d bloggers like this: