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The Henry Moore Institute in Leeds is closed for refurbishment until Summer 2024.

Shanzhai Lyric in Yorkshire

Two people walking along a canal path, with trees to their left, and large metal storage sheds on the other side of the canal to the right.

How are the industrial waterways and medieval monuments of West Yorkshire intertwined with the research of New York based artists Shanzhai Lyric?

Lauren Velvick, Cultural Programme Manager for the School of Arts & Humanities, University of Huddersfield.


There are important social and political histories woven through the landscape and architecture of the Colne Valley, which can easily be overlooked by those of us who live here. From my vantage point within an international research university based in a West Yorkshire town, it’s always interesting to think about how our corner of the country is thought of and experienced by people arriving from elsewhere; often it is these histories, of radical struggle and social transgression that strike a chord.

When I was contacted by Nick Thurston, co-curator with Dr Clare O’Dowd of The Weight of Words at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds, about a duo of visiting artists from New York with a particular interest in canals, English radical history and the Robin Hood legend, the potential for connection was clear. In 2022, as part of our Cultures of Place festival, academics from different subject areas across the School of Arts & Humanities collaborated on projects exploring these exact themes. Prof Todd Andrew Borlik and Prof Katherine Lewis produced ‘The Yorkshire Robin Hood’, and Prof Jodie Matthews collaborated with Dr Simon Woolham on ‘Depth/Gauge’, which invited members of the public to participate in a drawing workshop exploring the canal space as a site of interaction.

Six adults making rubbings on paper, using the textured surfaces of stone walls and the pavement alongside a canal.
Depth/Gauge workshop. Courtesy Cultures of Place. Photo: Laura Mateescu.
Photo of Shanzhai Lyric's sculpture 'Incomplete Poem (hedge)'. The made from numerous colourful t-shirts arranged on a wooden frame, and are part of a larger collection of bootleg slogan shirts, often featuring mistranslations. Some of the slogans on these t-shirts read: 'SIMPLE TRUTH INSIDE', 'NOM HIRING', 'NUIVERSAL', 'I AM NOT SORRY I AM NOT FOR SALE I AM FOR I AM NOT FOR SALE', 'BEWARE OF PEOPLE LIKE ME', 'Be So Rooted In Yourself That Naomhetu Absence Or Presence Can Disturb Your Inner Peace', 'MISSONE fashion', 'ALONG', 'BRAVE', and 'la vieen rose'.
Shanzhai Lyric, 'Incomplete Poem (hedge)' 2023. Photo: Rob Harris.

The Weight of Words is a group exhibition exploring the overlaps and meeting points between sculpture and poetry in artistic production, with an international and intergenerational array of artists represented. These range from foundational practitioners of conceptual art to artists like Shanzhai Lyric, whose collaborative project stems from an interest in how English is subverted in the slogans found on bootleg clothing. Their practice also encompasses research into global labour histories and financial structures.

During their residency with the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds, Ming Lin and Alexandra Tatarsky had expressed an interest in taking the opportunity to further investigate the potential links and resonances between their research into the clothing bootleggers of Canal Street in New York, and the post-industrial canals of northern England. It did not take long for Prof Jodie Matthews to identify a rich vein in the legend of the Slaithwaite ‘Moonrakers’, early nineteenth-century smugglers who would conceal contraband in the canal and when retrieving it under cover of darkness claim that they were raking the moonlight.

Serendipitously, Shanzhai Lyric’s time in West Yorkshire also coincided with the one day per year when the ‘Robin Hood’s Grave’ monument at Kirklees Priory is open to visitors. It is unlikely that the remains of a real historical figure corresponding to the Robin Hood mentioned in medieval ballads lie beneath the site. However, the fact that the supposed grave of one of England’s greatest folk heroes now sits on private land and can only be visited by special permission or trespass, is certainly poignant.

On Saturday 1 July I met Ming at Huddersfield Train Station surrounded by troupes of morris dancers practicing in St George’s Square, near the bronze statue of Harold Wilson, as if to welcome this visitor from North America with some of the most peculiar English traditions. To visit ‘Robin Hood’s Grave’ and gain access to this now gated community of luxurious properties, you need to book on to one of the annual ‘Outlaws & Nuns’ Calderdale Heritage Walks. After a slight detour over a dry-stone wall and through the woods, having arrived at the wrong estate gate, hearing from the knowledgeable guides about the history of the site from the fifteenth century up until the present day was fascinating.

The following weekend saw the finale of our local community textiles festival, WOVEN, as well as the Textiles Institute World Conference. On Saturday 8 July, Jodie took both Ming and Alex on a walking tour of Huddersfield Narrow Canal. Having formulated an itinerary to contextualise Huddersfield within overarching histories of the industrial revolution, Jodie brought the artists to visit some of the nearby post-industrial curiosities that speak to the churn of global finance and industrial development, with effects that are borne out in hyper-local knowledge and cultural practices.

A group of people looking over a waist-high stone wall and metal gate at the supposed grave stone of Robin Hood.
Calderdale Heritage ‘Nuns & Outlaws’ walk to ‘Robin Hood’s Grave’. Image courtesy Lauren Velvick.

This post was written by Lauren Velvick, Cultural Programme Manager for the School of Arts & Humanities, University of Huddersfield. Visit the University of Huddersfield website for the current Cultures of Sound programme, or follow @Culturesof_ on Instagram to stay up to date with what’s on.

Find out more about Prof Jodie Matthews on the University of Huddersfield website, including her research into representations and experiences of people who travelled around Britain (including canal boat people), and the cultural significance of Britain’s industrial waterways. Her new book ‘The British Industrial Canal: Reading the Waterways from the Eighteenth Century to the Anthropocene’ is now available from the University of Wales Press.