Weemin’s Wark: How Art Helped to Transform Tradition in Shetland

For 200 years Lerwick’s annual Up Helly Aa fire festival allowed only male participants. Since 2020 Gaada, the artist-led organisation based in the Shetland isle of Burra, has been recording the decades-long campaign to overturn that rule, which was finally revoked in June this year. Gaada also commissioned artists Brooke Palmieri, Holly Graham, Hannah Harkes, Isabel Greenberg, and Esther McManus to create works in response to the archive. You can see their work at Glasgow Women’s Library until October 29.  

We spoke to Amy Gear, co-director and founder of Gaada, about the project, called Weemin’s Wark. “I think it’s 1908 that there was the first recorded protest, so it’s not new,” Gear says of the campaign to allow women and non-binary people to participate in Lerwick’s Up Helly Aa, a campaign known in recent years as Up Helly Aa for aa. The festival itself dates back to the late 19th century in its current form, though its origins are much older. The event includes a torchlit procession of “guizers,” revellers in disguise, led by a “jarl,” a lead torch-bearer dressed as a Viking earl. The celebrations often start around sunset and culminate in the burning of a replica Viking longship. Although there are 12 Up Hellya Aas held each spring, Lerwick’s is the best known and, says Gear, who is a SCAN board member, “it’s the only one that had this ridiculous rule against women and non-binary people being part of the procession.”

After they set up Gaada in 2018, one of the first projects that artists Amy Gear and Daniel Clark took on was to record the decades of labour and activism that had gone into fightingthat rule. “Up Helly Aa is such a well-kent festival around the world, when I was studying in London and mentioned that I was from Shetland, it’s the first thing that people would mention,” says Amy. “It was hard for me as a Shetland woman to respond. I thought: yes it’s brilliant, but it’s also really bad!” Building up the Weemin’s Wark archive was a “mammoth task,” partly because of the organic nature and changing personnel of the campaign. “People are flitting in and out of the group, because it’s gone on for so long, but also because it can get really intense. People say: ok I’m going to step back.” 

Nonetheless, a magnificent online resource has been created, with the help of many members of the public, consisting of news articles, written and visual records, and other documents. It can be accessed by request via the Gaada website. The collective also established a collaboration with Glasgow Women’s Library, which was originally planning to exhibit works created in response to the archive by the Gaada team. Covid-19 forced a rethink of plans. Instead, the artists Brooke Palmieri, Holly Graham, Hannah Harkes, and Isabel Greenberg were invited to create works remotely to be displayed at Gaada’s covid-safe exhibition spaces – a flagpole and outside display case – during the winter of 2020-21. “We got a very positive response on social media, which was quite overwhelming at times.” Meanwhile,in Glasgow, a flag created by Brooke Palmieri was flown outside the Women’s Library in lieu of the exhibition, based on the phrase “Take Nothing for Granted.” 

The project continued into 2021, with artist Esther McManus commissioned to create a Risograph publication documenting the archive, the campaign, and the work made by artists in response to both, including through workshops held in Shetland. This publication, We Axe for What We Want, was launched in September 2021, and is one of the most “visible and tangible” things to come out of the project, Amy says. Meanwhile, poet Roseanne Watt was invited to write a piece envisaging an alternative festival, which is included in the book. All of the work created through Weemin’s Wark, including prints, posters, sound pieces, poetry, and more, can now be viewed in Glasgow, after the Women’s Library offered a delayed exhibition slot this year. 

Does Amy think Weemin’s Wark had any effect on the decision, finally taken in June, to allow women and non-binary participants in Lerwick’s Up Hellya Aa? “It’s hard to say because that came out of nowhere! No-one knows why they did it. It was good timing, obviously, but it was really because of what’s been happening for years and years. Our project was part of a much bigger push for equality.” Still, she says, art has the power create powerful, emotive messages out of what might otherwise seem abstract or impenetrable. “We translated this huge volume of work into something that folk can take in. That’s something that’s powerful about art: the ability to transform a huge volume of work into something poetic and direct.” 

Image 1: Hannah Harkes, Lesley Simpson, SMUHA 1st Female Jarl, from As Long As We Make It (2020) c. the artist.
Image 2. Amy Gear, 2021, c. Gaada.