How the Lenthall Road Workshop helped spread radical political campaigns
- Credit: Lenthall Road Workshop
At a time when posters were the best way of sharing ideas but printing was pricey, a workshop in Lenthall helped ordinary people with campaigns from Gay Liberation to anti-racism and feminism. Emma Bartholomew finds out more
For 15 years, the Lenthall Road Workshop contributed to a national movement for radical grassroots politics of feminism, anti-racism and LGBT+ rights.
Now a new exhibition at Hackney Museum showcases the posters made there, which depicted women's experiences, and some of the first T-shirts with queer slogans.
In the early 1970s, Jim Shallcross ran a commercial screen-printing business at 81 Lenthall Road, and also printed posters there for Centerprise, a community publisher, bookshop and café in Kingsland Road, Dalston.
In 1975, when he decided to give up the business, three women - Chia Moan, Viv Mullett and Jenny Smith - saw an opportunity for a community printing workshop for local people.
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Jim gave them a crash course in screen-printing and Centerprise agreed to pay the rent, rates and utility bills for the first six months.
With help from the new community arts fund at the Arts Council of Great Britain, the workshop was soon able to open its doors.
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At a time when it was difficult for people to make their own media to get their message across, it offered local groups and individuals cheap space to learn skills and to use printing and photographic equipment to make their own images and posters.
Printing posters was one of the most effective ways to share information but printing was expensive - and, to make matters worse, if a printer did not like a message they could refuse to do a job.
But the workshop encouraged the local community, and especially women and girls from marginalised groups to empower themselves.
Claudette Johnson, artist and former worker at the Lenthall Road Workshop, said: "As soon as we were in our boiler suits and masks we really looked like guerrilla fighters. We were definitely trying to change something in society - to change how women were viewed."
The exhibition has been created in collaboration with former Lenthall Road workers, and posters on display depict women racing in wheelchairs and protesting on the streets.
Nina Nissen created the poster "Rolling Sisters" to show the way in which she offered a disabled friend a lift on her bike.
"At the time - and still now - public transport, especially buses, were really very difficult to access for people using wheelchairs," said Nina.
"It was very difficult for a woman in a wheelchair to get up and down and across roads.
"Daniela was very often on the road, as I was on my bicycle, and that's how it happened.
"She just said: 'Can I just hang on to your bike here and we can just roll together?' We had a fantastic time doing it. It was a great way for both of us to get around Hackney."
Chia remembers how they created an alphabet, "A is for 'ackney", to help with adult English literacy.
She said: "If you had basic English, you got children's material, so we wanted to make an alphabet book for adults, mainly migrants. We wanted it to be local so all the images from it are Hackney, stuff that went on. We had an absolute hoot doing it - we just went nuts with puns and alliteration."
Suzy Stiles, remembers how inspiration for the "Women Reclaim the Night" poster came from a poem about the "master's tools" by the American writer, feminist, womanist, librarian, and civil rights activist Audre Lorde.
She said: "There was a real conscious use of imagery to use not the master's tools, but women's tools, which were traditionally the broom and the vacuum cleaner. It was about looking at power and agency differently, and using women's ways to create change."
Lenthall Road helped effect political change across the country, with groups printing materials for many different campaigns, from gay liberation to anti-racism and support for the miners' strikes.
The council's community chief Cllr Jon Burke said: "Hackney has a long history as a home for political movements and collectives who've worked to transform society for the better.
"I am proud that as a council we are celebrating the contribution that printmaking and activism at the Lenthall Road Workshop has made to this rich history, and would encourage residents to visit the museum to find out more."
Women on Screens: Printmaking, Photography and Community Activism at Lenthall Road Workshop 1970s-1990s is on show at Hackney Museum in Reading Lane until August 31.