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Fari Bradley

Sound artist, composer, broadcaster.

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That Illiterate Woman – Sound Piece

Fannie Lou Hamer, a Freedom Democratic Party delegate, leads the singing of freedom songs at Democratic Party convention.

It’s a piece for headphones. Headphones! Which I always avoid. So, it has to be special.

I was invited to take part in Folketone’s Profound Sound Festival, which featured an art exhibition: Sight and Sound at the fantastic Brewery Tap UCA art-space in town centre. It is strange to make work remotely for a place you are not in situ. It has a message in a bottle quality, and an thread, an uncharted path opens up before you to travel into, to expand into.

Once before I took part in Sight and Sound during the Folkestone Fringe, and made a piece called Separate Engagements about Princess Diana and Charles, title taken from her candid interview about the crumbling of their marriage.

This invitation was an opportunity to continue with previously explored lines of thought: to engage with headphone pieces in a constructive way, after many years railing against sound works being arbitrarily presented on headphones, attached to the wall. For this work I again looked for starkly opposing, historical audio testaments. A long period of reading led me to research the exemplary life story of Fanny Lou Hamer, of which ample records exist, and who lived in the most toxic of times and places.

Fanny’s humble background, epitomised the life of the sharecroppers, who were to all effect still slaves in all but name, in the Southern United States in the 1960s. This, despite the then President Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act the same year, as Hamer delivered her live TV address to the Democratic Party. This, in contrast with what she became through her own sheer willpower and faith, put paid to the title and status given her by president Lyndon Johnson of “that illiterate woman.”

Fanny’s powerful lungs, her singing voice, and power of address carried her through an incredible series of hurdles just to register to vote, and her personal struggle inspired a movement. She became so powerful as a public persona that the mighty, ‘enthroned’ Johnson made a fool of himself by calling an emergency press conference for TV, in which he flummoxed the press by announcing nothing of much importance live on air, just to draw their attention away from Hamer’s live televised address to the Democratic Party. I became engaged with the different quality of sounds made by the crowds that listened and encouraged Fanny as she spoke, and worked around her powerful voice, with the nature of an archeologist, expanding silences and micro dusts, that fell to the ground around the pillars of her words. The ambience in the outtakes after the speeches of both are canvases from which one can make out a portrait of the character as reflected in those being addressed, as well the spaces in which the addresses are being made: a church, town hall, a public square. As per my previous stereo headphone pieces, the audio creates a crucible in the mind of the listener, feeding left and right. Opinions are formed in a third space, as contrasting viewpoints arrive not just as words, on the same topic.  Meet in the ‘auditorium of the mind’ these polar opposites manifest another voice between the lines, between the breaths, between the speeches.

Installation shot of the piece at the Brewery Tap UCA

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