Johanna Domke-Guyot is a sculptress and fine artist who was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis around 20 years ago. She suffers from relapsing-remitting MS meaning that she undergoes periods of physical incapacitation, known as relapses. These occur in between periods where she is able to fully engage with her artwork. Her latest piece of prolific work is the new war memorial at Manchester Piccadilly.
I met Johanna at the reception following the unveiling of the memorial. A cement statue of seven soldiers blinded by bullets, shell or gas was her original creation before a bronze version was later commissioned by Blind Veterans UK, the latter being the statue unveiled on October 16th.
Chatting with the sculptress towards the end of the event, Johanna was sat up on the edge of the stage when I approached her. Sitting together, legs swinging, she kicks off her shoes, smiles and explains that it’s been a long day.
Before I’ve had the chance to formulate a question, she tells me that this is the biggest World War One memorial created by a disabled female artist which is, in my opinion, the perfect conversation starter.
With the theme of disability resounding through every word she utters, we talk a little about her experience creating the statue and how this project was more than art for her, but also a challenge. The medium of her original statue was cement, deliberately choosing the heavy medium to “push her boundaries.” Not only does the piece represent disability, but disability itself was its origin. “My condition will not hold me back.”
Concerning the image produced by the statue itself, Nick Caplin, CEO of Blind Veterans gave me an incredibly memorable anecdote. A few months ago, he explains, Blind Veterans UK had a research seminar at The University of Manchester. Just before the event, he was stood watching those who were visually-impaired making their way across the campus toward the event. “They each had their hand on the shoulder of the one in front”, exactly the same image that the statue gives us today.
What worked in 1915 in a combat situation, works exactly the same today in 2018 in a completely different environment. People’s natural instinct doesn’t change. They want to help each other and the most natural way is to guide the one who follows with their hand upon your shoulder.
When I speak to Johanna about the unveiling that morning, “emotional” is a word which slides effortlessly into the conversation. As a fine artist, Johanna explains to me that there is a tendency to forge an emotional creation with your work. She says she has quite literally spent five years with these figures and whilst she is both proud and honoured, she can’t help but be “sad that they’re not coming home with me.”
Johanna explains that yes, she wants this statue to be a “gentle reminder of what soldiers have been through”.
“Devastation,” she says with a certain passion “not glorification.” Johanna tells me this statue is about so much more than war. She swivels to look at me directly, giving me a single word; “children”, she says, “children are who we need to target.” There is a way to go in normalising disability, but she explains “these figures stand for every disability.”
I wanted to ask her about her choice for having the statue level on the ground. She says that for other war memorials, like those in London for example, she remembers having to always “crane her neck” to see them. She questioned how unnatural this was, and the imposed meaning it gave to the memorial. She wants this statue ultimately to be accessible, yes for those with visual impairments, but quite simply accessible for everyone.
After all, she says – and whether referring to disability or war, I’m not quite sure – “it’s still happening.”