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Everyday superpowers

Members Luisa & Hannah come to (fake!) blows.

A superhero- singular, ‘a fictional hero having extraordinary or superhuman powers’. We tend to imagine superheroes as typically lonesome, cape billowing in the wind, eyebrows arched in a pensive state. We don’t see the power of invisibility that is held by the endless groups of people caring for the ‘hero’, such as the foster family, the friends that embrace their ‘outsider’ position, the community making it possible for them to act ‘heroically’. 

A similar notion characterises the ever-elusive ‘artist’, either completely out of view or totally centre stage, the concept of the extraordinary artist and their muse denies the existence of a creative community making ‘art’ possible. It denies the caring, learning, and teaching that happens collectively, giving way to a cycle of ideas. 

Through an Easter Sunday spent at the Foundling Museum’s ‘Superheroes, Orphans & Origins: 125 years in comics’ exhibition, followed by a themed workshop, Assemblage Youth Collective spent the day distilling the assumptions around what the term ‘superhero’ means. The Foundling Museum’s history as a hospital for the care of abandoned children, founded by Thomas Coram in 1739, set the perfect stage for an exhibition around care identity and comic book hero histories, the exhibition focusing on how orphans, adoptees and foster children are depicted within comics and graphic art. 

The exhibition room itself felt like stepping into the pages of a comic book: plush with baby pink polka dots, strawberry red and electric blue walls. The display held vintage comics, contemporary pieces specifically commissioned, and graphic art from all over the world. Personally, I was struck by the originality of contemporary artist Bex Glendining’s piece, Begin Again, a digital illustration designed specifically for the exhibition, exploring themes of growth and emotion in new environments. The mesmerizingly vivid blocks within the piece could be read in any order, playing with the idea of sequential art and questioning how we order time and space. This mirrored the Foundling Museum’s approach to the conversation around care, where they replace the term ‘care-leaver’ in the descriptions with ‘care-experienced’ and ‘care identity’, expanding ‘care’ out to include different spaces beyond the foster home.

Justin’s superhero symbol

Reactions to the exhibition informed the creative work that followed. Assemblage founder Tasch led a workshop centred on designing and crafting our own superhero symbols, playing with the concept of superpowers. A member of the collective, Justin, considered how powers could move beyond the visual: ‘one of the things I took away from the pieces on display was that power can be much more internal and metaphorical as well – it’s resilience, it’s accepting change, it’s staying focused, and all of that. I took the basic motif of a wing/wave shape to symbolise that ability to ride out changes’. 

Hannah’s superhero symbol

Other members thought about how the illustrations on display distilled classic depictions of a hero, and of a foster child. Hannah took inspiration from Lisa Wool-Rim Sjöblom’s drawings, that ‘focused on ‘the harsh othering that can and often does occur as a result of being an adopted child’ and ‘her use of muted, selective colours, and the textural quality of her pieces that looked almost tea-stained’. Hannah’s symbol played with conventional notions of femininity, merging bright pinks with geometric shapes to capture ‘the endless realm and range of what a woman looks like and can achieve’. 

Tasch’s symbol

Tasch drew ideas from Lars Horneman’s illustrations of warrior queen Zenobia, impressed by how the comic ‘combined traditional feminine and masculine emblems to constitute a sense of power, breaking with more classic representations of superheroes and superpowers’. 

During the workshop, I led a brief talk about how poetry writing could help inform our symbol-making. Poetry is how I care for myself and expressing feelings and observations through creative writing helped us to expand out our symbols beyond the visual, thinking about how we might symbolise our identity through sound and smell, noticing how it has changed and been informed by others. 

As I made my own notes for my symbol, I wrote, ‘writing is drawing’, as I felt the bends of the letters grate against cardboard, my illegible handwriting resembling squiggles more than words, prompting my own technicolour symbol to express how what may seem directionless can fulfil an emotional or creative purpose. The exhibition itself is based on an original work commissioned by the museum in 2014, where care-experienced poet Lemn Sissay made a poem that is sprawled over the museum’s walls entitled ‘Superman was a Foundling’. 

The idea of being found, instead of being made or being new, sits at the heart of the Museum’s themes and Assemblage’s workshop. Member Josh captured this through his fascination with the characters in Taiyō Matsumoto’s illustrations in the Manga series Tekkonkinkreet, who wear clothes made from found materials, emphasising how we can re-use objects and surroundings to create new identities. Similarly, member Amy’s symbol played with the recycling logo, expressing how creativity and identity exist as ongoing processes.

We continued re-imagining superhero and superpower tropes in the reflection portion of the session. Usually, evaluations after workshops can feel quite clinical, but by discussing the session in real-time, the participants created a comfortable space to share thoughts and feelings. Luisa explained how her drawing of tear drops symbolised her connection to her own vulnerability and how she cares for her friends, and Tasch drew inspiration from the raindrops in her emblem to consider how judgements and moods, like the weather, can change and flow. 

As the sunshine warmed our journey home, we were left thinking about the ‘everyday superpowers’ that mark our identities, and how care becomes an ongoing and collective experience. 


Anita is a freelance journalist and writer with a background in Sociology and Gender Studies. She loves scribbling poems, writing articles about society and culture and drinking endless amounts of coffee!
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Blog

Tate Again

Peeking out over an inescapable mask,
I see once more,
Women draped over ornate couches,
Done with the world and its confinement,
And its clothes.
I see once more,
Disembodied faces meeting unhinged shapes,
Unsure, they attempt to devour one another.
I see once more,
Unlikely creatures emerging,
As if willed by the vacuum of imagination.
I see once more,
Ambiguous structures,
Soaring while more solid words explain little,
Of what, perhaps,
Should not be explained.
I see once more,
The collective embrace merge,
With joint resistance,
Forever twinned in a fleeting, nonchalant glance.
Feeling nill,
I wonder if I am measuring effort wrongly.

Photo by Mr Drone on Unsplash
Amy originally studied Archaeology but has just finished a Masters in Social Anthropology at Edinburgh. She is back in London now, where she’s from, and currently works part-time as an editor for a publisher. She loves to travel and write, and has a blog where she shares her articles and poetry called dlohere. She is also trying to learn Italian!
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Anita's Digest

Lessons from Playfulness

Collection of Elyse and Lawrence B. Benenson

Last year, I had one of those unremarkable days. It was neither good nor bad, just unexceptionally dull. Back from university for a break and deflated after a rush of deadlines, I could not bring myself to occupy my time in any meaningful way at home. So, I ventured out to an exhibition at the Wellcome Collection. It was called ‘Play Well’, and it explored how the concept of play impacted our daily lives and how it had shifted over time. 

Wandering around the exhibition’s various stops; life-size soft toys, miniatures, digital games, I was exhilarated. I left inflated with ideas, the exhibition had added playfulness to my day, and had lifted me out of the static slump I was in. 

Thinking back to that exhibition, it got me wondering how the notion of play could clear the haze that has set in since restrictions began. It made me question, are we ever too old to act like children? I don’t think so, because I think aspects of being a child are lessons in critical thinking. Children are very good at imagining different worlds, making elaborate career plans to be clowns or astronauts, conquering climbing frames, building coin-sized villages. 

As you grow older imagining worlds becomes more about living and surviving in this one. And with tightened restrictions, being confined to domestic or localised spaces means getting through the day. As many of us stay in our childhood homes, the domestic space becomes uncanny, only partly familiar. The steam that used to escape hot milk and the blanket forts that acted as forests are exchanged for hot coffee steam and burrowing under duvets to work not play.  

Now we are limited to spaces of nostalgia, and I think it has confused what kinds of things we reclaim from childhood. Being young is associated with protection, ease, comfort. Yet, being a child is also mud-lined adventures, questioning how objects and spaces are organised, inventions made from unusual resources. Advice for the first lockdown was full of statements like ‘disconnect’, ‘slow down’, ‘relax’, to the point where I felt I entered a kind of zombified, protective stoop. Yet, this time around as we move through the wintery expanse, I want to take note of the playfulness with which children approach the world.

“Approaching the world through embracing irregularity can help us notice flaws in our current systems.”

In The Queer Art of Failure, Jack Halberstam exchanges typical associations of the child with innocence and traditionality, for notions of silliness, childishness, and playfulness. Approaching the world through embracing irregularity can help us notice flaws in our current systems. So, whilst we can’t be free in our usual ways right now, how can we engage in the playfulness of youth? Perhaps we can embrace muddy or rainy weather rather than shying away from it. Maybe we can take less pedestrian paths and look for unconventional routes instead of being isolated to benches and pavements. We can allow ourselves to feel all the kinds of emotions, good or bad, that come out of this time. Rather than feeling the pressure to ‘unplug’ altogether from technology, we can use it inventively, finding pages that spark creativity, organising online collaborations. 

As with everything, reclaiming playfulness is easier in theory than in practice. The other day when I took a walk in the park, a dog ran over and barked at a couple of kids that had built a twig-fort under a rain-soaked tree on the side of the concrete path. The owner approached the fort and apologised for her dog’s presence but explained in an accusatory that she didn’t expect anyone to be there. Defying expectation is something that children do really well, they shift how we see and use space.  

The above example is muted compared to two instances where teenagers were berated for experimenting with idle time. In the first lockdown a teenager was shouted at by a passer-by for using a scooter on a pavement, and just this week a teenager on a bicycle was stopped and surrounded by policemen because of an alleged minor cycling violation. I can only describe both of these instances as racially motivated. Policing young people’s movement calls into question where we expect them to occupy space and how. 

The racialised aspect of these occurrences calls further into question the intersectional nature of race and age, and how young people who seem like they have nothing to do are always framed as a nuisance, and ultimately criminalised. As writer, activist, and model Hélène Selam Kleih argues, “To be black, to be any ethnic minority, and to add to that, young, leads to suspicion”. The “false inclusiveness” of bustling city life implies there is a space for everyone, but is this really the case? 

With space more and more privatised, it has become less acceptable to simply ‘be’ in open spaces. Now in the context of heightened restrictions, space has become even more private as we are limited to domestic, familial zones. We need to rethink how we negotiate space through the framing of childhood wandering. This could be a step towards imagining spaces that expand physical and mental possibilities, instead of labelling young people as ‘out of place’.

Photo by Aila Müller on Unsplash

Approaching this stagnant time through a lens of childlike irregularity can help us break the polarisation of youthful ‘immaturity’ and adult ‘seriousness’. As I stand looking at the mist-covered rows of trees in my local park, I think of how ‘Play Well’ lifted my fog that day, and I start to look at the dusted trees differently.

About Anita

Anita is a writer of all sorts. She has a background in Sociology and Gender Studies. Her main creative pursuits include poetry, short fiction, and articles on social and cultural topics. She often likes to play with the boundaries of fiction and non-fiction, exploring the liminal spaces between these styles. She’ll be updating this column weekly, with fresh, topical discussions about what’s on her mind. Stay tuned!