On the floor of Birmingham New Street is a sprawling 20-metre photo mosaic of the face of a key suffragette in history. Composed of over 3,700 photo submissions from different women and girls all over the UK, “The Face of Suffrage” belongs to Evaline Hilda Burkitt. Although her name is not as frequently mentioned as others in the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in Birmingham, she is a key militant suffragette who fought for women’s rights from 1907 to 1914. Due to her activism, she was imprisoned and force fed a total of 292 times.
Combined with hundreds of other historical images that date back as early as the 1900s, the artwork pays tribute to her valiant tale of bravery and resistance. The artist behind the artwork is Helen Marshall of the People’s Picture, who is known for similar projects across Britain from other historic occasions. To create the project, Marshall had called for submissions focusing on selfies and pictures of women whom the participants wanted to celebrate. “The photo is the face of a smiling Edwardian lady,” Marshall told the BBC in an interview. “But her story is far from what we might expect, much like the public submissions.”
True enough, her narrative is peppered with hardships and tribulations. Burkitt was born in Wolverhampton in 1876, and passed away in 1955. She worked at the Birmingham WSPU headquarters in Ethel Street, near New Street station. Her life took a turn when she threw a stone at Prime Minister Herbert Asquith after he attended a male-only budget meeting. As a consequence, she was immediately locked away at Winson Green prison. At a time when patriarchal rule was at an all-time high, Burkitt held her head high and continued to challenge the system. Like many significant figures in the past, her efforts paved the way for social and political change. Similar to Burkitt is Nelson Mandela, who Lottoland details didn’t give up despite suffering a similar fate, spending years in prison. Mandela went on to become a Nobel Peace Prize awardee, eventually dismantling South Africa’s apartheid system. In much the same way, Burkitt’s militant efforts were largely instrumental for the women’s movement — the fruits of which we still enjoy today.
Thanks to these historic heroes, both hailed and unknown, women and the oppressed have slowly but surely begun to dismantle structures of discrimination and oppression over the years. However, the fight is far from over. Marshall’s artwork is another step towards spreading awareness and encouraging equality in today’s world. In a statement, Marshall states, “This artwork is a personal statement as well as a more universal one. I inserted a few women who meant a lot to me including my mother, my daughter, and a friend who passed last year. I researched a number of women from the West Midlands involved in women’s suffrage, and whilst all these women have a daring and brave story to tell, Hilda’s was uniquely connected to the station and Birmingham.”
The artwork will be up for display until December 14th — the exact date that woman were finally granted voting rights in the UK exactly 100 years ago. In line with it, there will be events taking place in Birmingham to celebrate the day and let audiences learn more about women’s suffrage.
For more arts and culture in their many forms here in the West Midlands, explore the Polaroids and Polar Bears site.