Indre Serpytyte (b. 1983 in Palanga, Lithuania) is an artist living and working in London, UK. Serpytyte is concerned with the impact of conflict and war on history and perception. She works with photography, sculpture and installation.
Earlier this year GRAIN Projects commissioned Serpytyte to collaborate on research and make new work in response to the history of the Gun Quarter in Birmingham.
It is estimated that throughout both World Wars, the Ministry of Munitions employed around a million female munitions workers in thousands of arms factories. These women played a crucial role in Britain’s strategy of “total war”. especially after Britain’s shell crisis in 1915 when there was a severe shortage of artillery shells on the front line. The women worked extremely long hours as production was focused on a 24-hour shift pattern with only one day off a week. Many of the female workers were nicknamed ‘Canary girls’ as their skin turned yellow after TNT poisoning. Several of the mother’s children were also born with yellow skin, giving them the name ‘Canary Babies’. The women usually lived in controlled and secluded communities and faced dangers everyday: internal explosions from accidents in the factories and bomb attacks from German forces. Many of these deaths and explosions were kept from public knowledge for fear of undermining morale and deterring other female workers from joining the factory’s work force. The total number of deaths is unknown as many died later as a result of TNT poisoning related illnesses.
As part of her research Serpytyte is interested in examining not only the photographs of the women factory workers, but also their wage books, trade figures, medical records and death certificates.
Using archive material from Birmingham collections as well as from the Imperial War Museum she intends to closely examine the relationship between widely publicised propaganda images of the female factory workforce, as part of a political project of moral boosting, and the images, accounts and ephemera that tell the largely hidden and forgotten story of the so-called ‘munitionettes.’ In doing so, she hopes to recover a history of female work and life in the context of war, violence and political strategy.
Image credit: © IWM (Q 54375) – A female munitions worker operating a chronometer for registering velocity of bullets fired from cartridges at the Kynoch’s factory in Birmingham, 1917