Wentworth Woodhouse exhibition tells story of first generation of Pakistani women who came to live in South Yorkshire

What would you pack if you were leaving your home, family, friends and everything you had ever known to go on a journey to begin a new life in a faraway country you didn’t know?

Zanib Rasool, Shaheen Shah and Mariam Shah at Wentworth Woodhouse. (Simon Hulme).
Zanib Rasool, Shaheen Shah and Mariam Shah at Wentworth Woodhouse. (Simon Hulme).

That question is explored in a thought-provoking exhibition at the private chapel in Rotherham stately home Wentworth Woodhouse this month.

The Suitcase, which charts the monumental life change experienced by the first generation of Pakistani women who came to settle in South Yorkshire in the 1960s, was devised and put together by the Zanib Collective, made up of poet and writer Zanib Rasool, visual artist Shaheen Shah and oral historian Mariam Shah.

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The exhibition was originally launched last November, but was open for only two days before the second UK national lockdown came into force and it had to close. “Our excitement was short-lived and to be honest we didn’t really know where to go with it next,” says Mariam.

Some of the exhibits from the Suitcase exhibition. (Simon Hulme).

“This was a passion project for all of us. We did it on a shoestring, with no budget and we were hopeful that we might be able to do something after the lockdown lifted. We knew that this is something that is so important to so many people that it wouldn’t be forgotten about.”

The women got in touch with Rotherham’s Clifton Park Museum which was interested in the project – it transfers there in September – and then Wentworth Woodhouse contacted them to say it wanted the exhibition to come back once it could reopen.

“We had received so many messages through social media from people in the community asking when the exhibition was going to be happening, sharing memories and asking questions about the various objects and artefacts that were going to be on display, so we knew there was a real thirst for it,” says Mariam.

Dr Suzanne Carter, who is helping the Preservation Trust that looks after Wentworth Woodhouse to develop community engagement plans, saw the return of The Suitcase as an opportunity to engage in conversations with the local ethnically diverse communities.

Zanib Rasool, pictured with a wedding dress on display at the exhibition. (Simon Hulme).

“The Trust is committed to make the site a heritage attraction of which all Rotherham’s communities feel a sense of pride and connection,” she says. “We want people to share their thoughts about how we can encourage a wider range of visitors to the house in the future. It is really important that we have these conversations.”

Through stories, poetry, visual images and film, the exhibition captures the sight, smell and feel of a Pakistani home. On display are everyday objects that the women brought with them such as glass bracelets, henna, kohl, scarves, clay pots, family photographs and letters from home.

“The idea is not only what do you take with you to start a new life but also what do you take with you that connects you to home,” says Mariam. “They brought with them things that reminded them of home and that they held most dear – such as their books, jewellery, ornaments, spices and prayer mats. Having spoken to a lot of those women, we have realised that the suitcases were their time capsules – it allowed them to go back to their childhood and their families in Pakistan.”

The exhibition is very much about celebrating these women, their resilience and their significant contribution to wider society. “It was interesting putting this together while the Black Lives Matter movement was growing,” says Zanib.

“In academic books and social histories, that first generation of Pakistani women are often referred to as ‘followers’, following their men to the UK who came here for work, but they were much more than that. They stabilised the family and they built networks – I think it is so important to make them visible and to give them a voice.”

Mariam adds: “I want people to understand the sacrifices that our mothers made and to recognise how much they have contributed. They were courageous and inventive and made the most of the opportunities they had.

"Not all of them were educated, they came from many different walks of life and here they have raised doctors and lawyers, opticians and dentists and teachers. So, for me it is not just about telling a story – yes, it is a trip down memory lane – but I also want people to understand that this is an aspect of our community that is really important.”

The initial seeds for the idea grew out of a conversation Zanib had with graphic designer and artist Shaheen when they took part in the 2013 Imagine project, connecting different communities in Rotherham.

“I remember Zanib told me that her mother, who came over from Pakistan in the 1960s, used to keep a suitcase with precious items in it under the bed and I said ‘my mother did too’,” says Shaheen. “The conversation developed from that – Zanib said that she was writing poetry about it and I said I would do the visualisation. Then we joined with Mariam and we put out a call asking people if they had any artefacts from the 1950s and 60s and we began collecting objects and stories.”

They spoke to their own mothers and other women of that generation who generously shared their experiences. “They talked about how they would open their suitcases, take out the items and reminisce about home and think about the loved ones they left behind,” says Shaheen.

“They would wrap the items in tissue paper to preserve them and the film in the exhibition recaptures that – it is very moving. It will evoke memories for people. One thing I remember is the blue aerogramme letters we used to receive when I was growing up and how long they took to get to us – when my grandmother passed away my mother only found out three weeks later.”

“I remember as a child watching my mum opening her suitcase and seeing the look on her face,” says Zanib. “As she picked up the things inside, there was a sense of loss as well as nostalgia.”

Her poem expresses this beautifully and one line in particular is very affecting. “I could hear the yearning in your heart every time you opened the suitcase, dear Mother, my heart yearned with you.”

While the exhibition is partly reflecting on the past, it is also very firmly rooted in the present and looking to the future. “It is about educating the next generation,” says Shaheen. “To let them know what their grandmothers went through, how difficult it was for them and the sacrifices they made. It is important for young people to know where they came from.”

The artists hope that the exhibition will spark conversations and understanding. “Wentworth Woodhouse have been very supportive in giving us this platform – we want to put some positive stories out there and get the different communities talking to each other,” adds Mariam.

"That is what the arts can do – help us realise how much we have in common. I was born and brought up in Rotherham – I am a Yorkshire lass through and through and also a proud British Muslim woman. I think and hope that this exhibition shows the unity of the two cultures.

"We are proud to be British and we are also proud of our South Asian heritage. We are living in a world at the moment that is so polarised, where there is a lot of anger and ignorance. It is really important to tell these stories to encourage empathy.”

The Suitcase is at Wentworth Woodhouse in Rotherham until Friday. The exhibition is free to view in timed slots which can be booked online at http://bit.ly/zanibcollective. The Suitcase will transfer to Clifton Park Museum in Rotherham on September 3.