L19 Guest Blogs: Meet Gill Crawshaw of For Oluwale II - Leeds International Festival
Chapter 81

L19 Guest Blogs: Meet Gill Crawshaw of For Oluwale II

Our next guest blog Q&A focuses on an event which highlighted a massively significant and poignant character in the history of Leeds – David Oluwale.

David Oluwale arrived in Hull from Nigeria, by boat, in 1969. After a few short years enjoying Leeds, he faced unbounded racism and endured persecution due to his ill mental-health, homelessness and destitution, at the hands of the Leeds police service. He was ultimately hounded to death by the police, who brutally beat him and abused him countless times before chasing him, probably to his death by drowning in the River Aire in 1969. Oluwale’s ugly story shaped Leeds, and his memorial 50 years on has been an important landmark across Leeds over the year.

We spoke to Gill Crawshaw, who helped to bring the For Oluwale II exhibition to the Tetley, with added insight through creative spoken description and sign language, to the Leeds International Festival, so that his story is made accessible to as many people as possible.

Q: How did you find out about Leeds International Festival?

I’d heard about the Festival before, but never really engaged with it – mainly due to other commitments, I guess. But this year a friend told me about the open call and I thought it was a great opportunity.


Q: Why did you want to get involved?

I wanted to see something in the Festival that somehow raised the profile of disabled artists or specifically addressed access to cultural events. And I wanted to build on an event I’d organised that took a creative approach to describing art, to make it more accessible for blind and partially sighted people, but also engaging sighted people.

I thought that this would be a great fit for LIF’s approach to innovation and experimentation – and fortunately, they agreed!

Credit: Gill Crawshaw
Gill Crawshaw

Q: Tell us about your event. What did you submit, and did it evolve before its final iteration at the festival?

I submitted a proposal for a creative spoken word description event, of artworks in a gallery setting. This time, the event would also include a description delivered in British Sign Language by a Deaf person.

The creative element came from inviting several writers and performers to create and read the descriptions. Their different approaches made for a fascinating and moving event.

When I submitted the proposal, I didn’t know which venue the event would take place in, or what the writers would be describing. It had to be a venue that was accessible to disabled people, so that cut it down.

Nearer the time, I was excited to discover that The Tetley would be showing For Oluwale II. This artwork is Rasheed Araeen’s response to the death of David Oluwale, which took place in Leeds fifty years ago. The exhibition at The Tetley brought the work to Leeds for the first time and showed it alongside literature, newspaper cuttings and other material relating to Oluwale. David Oluwale was a British Nigerian who drowned in the River Aire in April 1969, after being systematically harassed by members of the Leeds City Police Force.

I was also pleased to involve the Remember Oluwale campaign in the festival. As well as working towards establishing a permanent memorial to David Oluwale, this organisation educates the city of Leeds in coming to terms with its past, improving its care for those who remain marginalised, and to promote equality, diversity and racial harmony.

On the day, the event was brilliant. The writers and performers – Leanna Benjamin, Char March, Sai Murray, Adam Bassett and Joe Williams – delivered powerful, informative and moving descriptions, which included poetry, storytelling and historical research. The material being described was often upsetting, reminding us of the enduring nature of issues including racism, homelessness and mental distress. However, we also talked about and discovered Leeds’ history of resistance to injustice and oppression.

Credit: Ben Bentley
Ben Bentley

Q: What did the festival do for you / your brand / your event?

It was great to be involved in such a prestigious festival.

I kept my name off the publicity – the writers and describers were more interesting than me! So it didn’t really raise my profile. But it did give me confidence to deliver something as part of a high-profile programme.

I’m continuing on my mission, as a disabled curator, to raise the profile of disabled artists and to use art to get people talking about disabled people’s lives and experiences. I’m hoping to continue to develop the creative spoken / sign language description idea, as well as looking out for other opportunities to take a creative approach to access and inclusion.

The festival staff were all very helpful and approachable. They really did give relatively small events like mine attention and support, and it felt like I was part of something bigger.


Q: What do you think of Leeds’ creative landscape?

Leeds is fantastic – we’ve got everything here! The artist-led scene is particularly exciting and it would be great to see more local visual arts collectives represented in LIF.

I’d like the profile of disabled artists to be higher in Leeds, though – there’s some fantastic, innovative work going on in disability arts across the country, I’m not sure why that’s not reflected so much in Leeds. And I’d definitely like more of our arts and cultural venues and events to be accessible – and for venues to publish honest and accurate information about access.


Q: What advice would you give to someone entering the open call for L20?

It’s a straightforward process, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take care over your application. Like other applications, look at the theme and other information, and make sure your proposal is a good fit. LIF is about innovation, so if your event seems really different than other events in the Festival, don’t let that put you off, it could be a bonus!