Melodie Holliday: An Interview

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This week, Melodie Holliday received a UAL Teaching Award for her work as a Lecturer on the Foundation Course at London College of Communication (LCC). To her knowledge, only two BAME tutors have won the award from LCC—and she’s one of them. In recent years, the UAL Teaching Awards have been coordinated by the Student Union, and voted on by UAL students on the basis of recognising ‘the teaching staff they appreciate most’.

Melodie Holliday is overflowing with creativity. She makes sewn pieces, installation art, prints— and sings in a punk band. But Melodie doesn’t just create the work, she inhabits it. Her piercings, tattoos, jewellery, clothes—and, most strikingly, her calm grace—are all part of her self-expression. And today she’s brought her Chihuahua, ‘Bizkit’. Her faithful little hairy companion wants nothing to do with anyone else—eyeing me with suspicion before plopping down by her side on our park bench—but I can hardly blame him.

I ask Melodie to tell me how she feels about her upcoming award. “I think the thing that’s so moving to me is that the students voted for me to get it. My students,” she explained, “and that’s so lovely. They tell you what the students have said about you and it’s just so moving. Had to stop myself from welling up.”

First and foremost, she felt overjoyed “that my teaching’s been recognised by the people that I care about most.” Despite getting her BA and MA at UAL—and teaching there for 8 years—she’s attending her first graduation ceremony to receive her award this week. The award comes at an otherwise difficult time, as Melodie will be leaving LCC at the end of the month.

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Background

Born and raised in Rugby during the 1970s and 80s, Melodie grew up feeling out of place in the small Midlands town. Her father, and her step father, both passed away when she was in her teens. Her mum was a constant source of support and encouragement.

As a teenager, her mum gave her a sewing machine so that she could take her work home with her from art classes. “I started to alter clothes, and I would simultaneously alter clothes and be experimental—and experiment with what I wore, and the way I looked.” She told me, “It was lovely because my mom could see that there was something—she could see that I had taken that sewing machine up all by myself, and it was something that had developed in school that I was happy to take home.”

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How did her mum feel about Melodie going to art school?

Melodie said that her mother and father came to England from Jamaica—“kind of [from] the Windrush generation.” Her mother worked hard to keep them clothed, dressed and fed. “She had a sense of: ‘push yourself’. Because there was a lot of fight to that journey—to survive. Especially because they called [England] the Mother country— the Jamaicans. And I suppose coming to England and finding out they weren’t liked—that must have taken an enormous amount of courage to do that. So you know mum would encourage me with the knowledge that she had, just saying: ‘look, grasp the opportunity to learn, embrace what you’re good at.’”

But some things took a bit of getting used to, Melodie told me with a wry smile:

“I liked punk as well. I was interested in changing my body, changing my appearance. The machine, and art, and wearing florescent makeup, shaving my hair, piercing my ears, [was] expressing myself.” Her mum, now 73, still recounts “walking through the town centre with me dressed—I had a shaved head, which I have now (I’ve had different hair styles), I had a tutu on, and I had Doc Marten boots. She said ‘I remember when you wore that tutu, and those doc marten boots’”, Melodie laughs, “and one day she threw out all my wardrobe!” I can tell she is reliving her teenage outrage all over again.

“It was the whole thing of coming from Jamaica and ‘you dress smartly, you show people’. Because there was that hostility [in England]—‘you dress smart, you presented yourself well’. And of course with Punk, it was about going against the whole ‘do this because you have to, or it’s expected’. So buying those second-hand clothes—for me—was expressing myself. But to mum it was just ‘you’re wearing other people’s dirty cast offs! I haven’t worked all my life and got this house and the car so that you could wear other people—dead men’s clothes’—she would say. But I called it style.

We can’t help but laugh. And when she came home with piercings all over her ears, Melodie recounts her mum saying: “‘I can’t even be bothered. I can’t be bothered to get angry with you.’” Melodie imitates her mum’s look of resignation with another chuckle. “You know this is my mum from Jamaica—and given the fact that it was about: ‘you’re proud, and you’re doing alright’, she was very accepting of me. I did push the boundaries quite a bit. Because I was Black British. I grew up in a town with a small black community, and I wanted to get into—I got into the British music. I loved it, I wanted to express myself. So in terms of art—my mum was brilliant. I think there would have been families that would definitely not have been that patient with me at the time.”

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What was it like growing up in Rugby?

“Didn’t really like it to be honest. Didn’t like school, didn’t like living in a small town—everybody knew your business. I was just—I was dressed quite alternatively. Quite a lot of racism. It’s a funny place.” Her style inspirations were Leigh Bowery and Trojan—“big boots and bicycle shorts, big eyebrows…” She laughed. Because Rugby was so small, to a certain degree people had to mix together and accept one another—but Melodie feels much freer today in London. “I like,” she paused, “all the communities, different nationalities, living together. I like being able to wear what I want, see people express themselves. I like the fact that there’s all kinds of different people—into whatever they’re into—living together. I like the open-mindedness of the city.”

Melodie’s artwork

I told Melodie how refreshing the range of media used in her work is—she embraces variety, and doesn’t feel the need to label herself as one kind of artist, or, as having one kind of career.

“I’m old enough” she laughed, “I did struggle, I used to think ‘well what do I do?!’ But, I think that was one of the things about growing older. I just don’t see the need to squash it into any particular form. This is my life, for as long as I have it, so why am I needing to do that. And also, I do what makes me happiest. Everybody should do that. And what makes me happy is doing a number of things.”
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She’s previously focused on the ‘obsessive nature of Fandom’ with ‘large scale visual or graphic appliqués’, owned a Screenprint company with her husband that made Artrock Attire, and created a number of Sound Art pieces and Multimedia Art Installations.  She’s also the writer, singer, and guitarist of a Punk band called Art Trip and the Static Sound (her brother in law is on the bass)—whose music focuses on ‘socialist ideology, Witchcraft, Relationships, Misogyny and gender roles’.

Her daughters, Delilah and Ursula, are currently in an up-and-coming Punk band of their own, Skinny Girl Diet, that was ‘picked’ by The Slits legend Viv Albertine. They played at Latitude last week—and will be at Ally Pally in September—where they were compared to Bikini Kill. Not bad…

Outside of her family, and her own work, she’s consciously applied an open-minded, multidisciplinary approach to teaching. “In my students I see people who are able to function in so many different ways and have talent, and that’s one thing that I do is say ‘it’s okay, it’s all right’ and actually to put people at ease and ‘say God when I was 16 I didn’t know what I wanted to do. And just try things out, experiment.’”

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Transition into teaching

So how did Melodie get into teaching?

“I guess what really started me teaching is the fact that my education had been quite difficult, my background. School was quite difficult. I’d had a series of bereavements when I was young. When I was about 15 my step-dad died, my real dad died, I just had a series of events that made school really difficult”, she told me, “and for a long time, I think I felt like I had failed.” Completing her MA, starting her own business, and having her two daughters gave Melodie perspective on the obstacles she had to overcome to get so far. “I just wanted to be there for people who were struggling with their home lives and education. Because my home life was difficult.” And outside of home, “going into educational environments, trying to balance that—well I was struggling against all sorts.” Time gave her clarity—and she realised “in retrospect, I believe it was my circumstances that made it hard for me to overcome [certain] barriers.”

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Art, for Melodie, had been a safe space—and she understood first-hand that students are often working through deeper personal struggles in class. “There’s underlying issues and I need to be able to hold and support students when they come in with all this stuff, into the learning environment. And that’s essentially what I had. I had all this other stuff that at the time I didn’t know that was impacting my learning. I didn’t know that that was forming barriers”.

During her teaching qualification, Melodie was diagnosed with Dyslexia. I asked her if this changed her understanding of how she works creatively.

“I realised, being diagnosed with dyslexia was a positive thing to happen. It was sad because I realised, ‘God all that time not knowing’, and I thought: ‘why can’t you get this?’ But at the same time, it gave me skills to relate to students.” Knowing she had Dyslexia ultimately gave her confidence—and helped her further understand her own, very visual, way of working and learning. “So when I teach now,” she told me, “I would say to people—I’m not asking you to memorise a list, I’m asking you to go back to childhood and remember that moment when you would pick up a pen—or pick up something—and just make marks for the sheer hell of it.” She wants her students to reconnect with a creative self that can often be hindered by the rigidity of school.

Experience at UAL

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Given the last 20 years she has been connected to UAL, as both a student and a teacher, I wanted to know if Melodie found it to be a supportive institution.

“I think I’ve found it quite a difficult place. I think the students that I meet are really amazing. I think there’s lots of cuts that have taken place in terms of staff, and I think the contracts that they have are really difficult.  Because they’re not permanent.” Melodie has worked at UAL for 8 years on temporary contracts—so each September she’s been unsure if her contract will be renewed. In keeping with Melodie’s experience of job insecurity, Dr. Robbie Shilliam, at Queen Mary University of London, argued that Black academics are disproportionately unsuccessful in their applications for teaching positions across the UK, are more likely to be on temporary contracts, and are less likely to hold senior positions than their white counterparts.

Melodie continued to explain, “so it’s difficult. It’s a hard one for me to answer at the moment, I must admit, because as you know I’m being made redundant. So my contract ends in July. And I’ve taught on foundation, like I’ve said, for 8 years. It’s been quite difficult because of the way it’s been handled. What can I say on it. I think as well because the hardest part is knowing that UAL has a shortage of BAME academic staff—or staff of colour.”

Again, the challenges Melodie is currently facing as a BAME tutor, and a female tutor, are—sadly—not uncommon at UAL. And even UK-wide.  

In 2015, a number of reports came out that highlighted the disproportionate lack of racial representation amongst academic staff in UK Universities. For example, a report from Elevation Network, a youth employment charity, found that in UK Universities, Colleges, and higher education, only 7% of professors, and 8% of senior lecturers, were from a BAME background. This is contrasted with at least 13% of the population identifying as BAME (according to the 2011 UK Census). The Runnymede Trust published findings that only 0.49% professors employed in UK Universities were Black—and that there were only 17 Black female professors. Also in 2015, Baroness Valerie Amos became the first BAME woman to become the head of a UK University (SOAS).

At UAL, the Equality and Diversity Report found that although over 45% of the student population are from a BAME background, only about 15% of staff were BAME (9% of which are academic staff). These findings helped spark the viral campaign #UALSoWhite, started by a student at London College of Fashion, which, among other things, asked for better representation of BAME staff.  

“I’m in a process of being made redundant and I think that hurts,” Melodie explained, “it’s difficult, because I have worked with students, and most recently I’ve been working on different projects where I’m meeting students and asking students of colour how things are. And they’re talking about a disconnect on some courses. And they are saying things that I may have experienced 20-odd-years ago or longer. From the 80s. And that’s disappointing. And I somehow want to effect some kind of change. Because I never want people to go through any of the kind of sad times that I’d gone through, or difficult times, in order to express themselves visually.”

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She paused. “So, UAL is a mixed bag. Because on the one hand, it’s allowed me to do what I most love in the world. I love interacting with people; I love being able to support people with huge amounts of potential—to see them grow in confidence, to witness that, is the most amazing feeling. So, on the one hand, UAL has provided me with [the] opportunity to do that—and they have some good staff development. But at the same time, I feel sad that they have not kind of dealt with this situation very well. I don’t feel like it’s been dealt with very well at all.”

And yet, Melodie wants to focus on the positives ahead.

“But— as is the story of my life—I don’t just give up with things. So there’s my work with Shades of Noir—which has come about. Which I’m so excited about. Representing on the side of social justice, and having debates.” Melodie then told me that her husband is White, and explained that their 25-year relationship has been all the more “brilliant” because of the way that they can discuss issues to do with race. “What I like about Shades of Noir is: it’s not about people of colour going into a corner and having these hushed conversations, whispering. It’s about having open, honest dialogue with people who are sympathetic to the cause of all different colours. And it’s getting together and thinking about what can we do to create change. How we can create an environment where people are not suffering, where people don’t feel excluded, and I think that keeps me positive. So potentially going back into UAL and addressing some of the things that I’ve found out from working there, and being able to represent the views of students that come through shades of noir—is a positive, brilliant opportunity.”

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What changes does Melodie think UAL can make to become a more inclusive and supportive institution?

“I think they need to recruit staff of colour. They need to do that. They need to make sure that the teaching staff is representative of the diverse student body they serve. And they also need to think about the knowledge that they have—and updating that knowledge on a regular basis.” And she thinks it’s a change that could happen quickly.

Why does she think so many staff members are resistant to listening, and learning, from diverse perspectives?

“I think people get used to the status quo.” Melodie then explained that she has given this subject a good deal of thought, and it’s something she’s still trying to process. She doesn’t think the resistance is always deliberate, but that “maybe people just, sometimes, get so used to seeing themselves reflected in each other that they just get quite used to thinking ‘well you either get it or you don’t. Anybody that doesn’t get it—well, there’s something wrong in that—lets concentrate on the people that get it.’” In other words, those highlighting issues on campus, or raising contradictory views, are seen as not fitting in with the University—as not ‘getting it’.  

Having directly experienced the loneliness and upset of not being heard—having someone not understand where she’s coming from and not try to understand—Melodie feels it has given her “cultural competence”. She explained, “it means that I’m quite sensitive within a room to the fact that I could alienate somebody through my discourse.”

This willingness to “look inside” herself, to “soul search, is undoubtedly a major part of why Melodie will be onstage tomorrow, accepting the UAL Teaching Award—for those who ‘inspire’.

“My students have given me that visibility, for whatever reason, and I’m going to grasp it. And I just think they’re wonderful.”

Check out more of Melodie’s work here

 


Further Reading: 

Black and ethnic minorities still have mountains to climb in higher education.

Teaching profession fails to reflect multi-cultural student population

Black Students Must do Better than White Students to get into University

Is UAL too white?

‘Universities have prioritised the voices of white, privately educated men for too long’