Manda Helal, Urban Beachcomber
Manda Helal brews tea in her kitchen. The jam she had been making all morning has been decanted into glass jars with neat, handwritten labels on them, “SE23 blackberry and N17 apples.” The postcodes indicate where the fruits were picked. They are packed neatly on top of the cooker. On the table where we sit, there are bulbous tomatoes that she has grown, along with more apples, bowls and cups.
In fact, there is no surface left without something being placed on it. Here, tin-boxes piled on top of one another – there, decades-old postcards and photographs fill an entire wall. Glasses of all shapes and sizes, ceramic vegetables, massive clay heads, vases and teapots cram the room. In the hallway, dainty wind chimes forged out of broken pottery and bits of Lego bricks dangle down. Elsewhere, the severed heads of shop mannequins find themselves attached to rubber skeletons, miniature porcelain cherubs joined to marble columns and colourful feathers emerge from the bodies of Barbie dolls – familiar items put together to create new configurations. Before houses became something to make a profit out of, homes were seen as extensions of ourselves, in essence a metaphor of our lives, histories, experiences, losses, desires, fears and obsessions. In this sense, Manda’s home has a lot to say.
She has lived in the same flat off Whitechapel for the last thirty-four years, which means plenty of time to accumulate quite an assortment of things. Each and every room is packed with her own artwork which includes sculptures, ceramics and loads of teapots. In amongst these, are things she has salvaged from skips, found on street corners, collected, saved from fires, been given, or has simply stored to be used in an indeterminate future. These are the tools of her trade. “I use things I find because I prefer the ruined, unfinished, aged condition of things. I find that they are more interesting than new things,” she explains.
Each item that she collects is a relic of a past. It comes with its own biography and, in turn, rightly commands a story to be told about it – where it was found, how it was once used, who may have owned it and what its new incarnation will be. Take the sculpture of the Sacred Heart in the living room, for example, standing besides the fireplace. Manda found it dumped in a skip outside a school where she works as a gardener. It had had its head accidently decapitated, which is why she thinks it was probably thrown away. The body now has another head attached to it, provisionally – from a child’s plastic doll, something else she found. A miniature teacup is propped delicately on top of the assemblage. The work, like a lot of what she makes, has stories within stories associated with it. While they are often disturbing to look at – troubling and arresting – they are also funny and beautiful.
“I’ve always been like this, I’ve always had a hatred of waste. I was worse before and would get really angry about it, but I’m more mellow now,” she laughs. “It is to do with having a Jewish mother who grew up during the war and learnt to be thrifty, she had the waste-not-want-not culture instilled into her. My mother was a keen gardener as well and I learnt to grow things and compost my food waste from her. Even when I empty my own rubbish, I look around to see what other people in the block have thrown out, sometimes finding some real gems. It’s ridiculous, I know. I can’t help myself. I often can’t believe what people throw away.” Even as a child, Manda collected and made things. She calls herself an urban beach-comber, regularly mud-larking north of the Millennium Bridge when the tide has gone out. “Plastic bags are no good to take with you, something sharp could pierce them and you could loose the best thing you’ve collected that day. I make my own carriers using old rice and laundry sacks that have been thrown away. I find bits of Roman pottery, Victorian pipes, ceramics, old beer mugs that have been chucked and of course, a lot of rubbish,” she laughs. Combining these finds with some of her own clay-work, she gives them a new life, making delicate little figurines and teapots that have stories, creativity and the past infused into them.
Manda’s family history is similar to many Londoners – with features of trans-national travel, colonialism, religious conservatism, generational changes and love thrown in. Manda’s paternal family are Egyptian. Her father’s father, the director of Egyptian Railways in the twenties, arrived at Waterloo Station from Cairo where he met his wife-to-be, a Scottish station mistress. They immediately fell in love and left for Egypt where they got married soon after. Later, their son, (Manda’s father) came to London to study medicine. This is where he met a fellow medic, the daughter of a Russian Jewish cabinet maker who was based on the Cambridge Heath Rd. She fell in love with the man who apparently resembled Omar Sharif and, to the dismay of her orthodox father, ran away to be with him – and consequently found herself disowned by her family.
Manda grew up in Hertfordshire where her mother worked as a GP and her father as an orthopaedic surgeon. She also came down to London to study medicine but, unlike her parents, failed her finals. She laughs when she says that, by the end of the six years, she had had enough of it. It was from her mother that she learnt many of the skills which remain key to her work. “My mother had a pottery wheel at home, it was all very seventies. Because we lived apart, we decided to do a pottery evening-course together, after which I went to Goldsmiths College to study it properly.” Manda says that she has made more than thirty “phantom teapots,” out of old, broken spouts and lids – collaging discarded things. “Teapots are quintessentially English and, once upon a time, England used to make all of its own pottery, but today the schools that taught how to make it – some that I worked in – have closed. Wedgwood and Stoke-on-Trent are no longer what they once were and teabags have made teapots redundant. By making the phantom teapots, I’m invoking the technical achievements of a bygone era and reflecting upon the loss of the English ritual of four o’clock tea. I’m celebrating the past and what it means to be English.”
More obvious than her teapots is Manda’s obsession with bodies, especially as objects of rejection, decay, ruin – things that are disused, refused and, indeed, recycled. “In 1987, my mum died and that was the same year I started studying ceramics. They thought it was breast cancer, but it was a brain tumour – she was in denial of what was happening to her. She didn’t want to tell anyone. She had radiotherapy on her brain in Sheffield and only survived a year after that. I cared for her during her final illness and her death affected me deeply, and became formative to the person I am. Five years after, my life partner also died. I was thirty-five at the time. All these experiences manifest themselves in the work that I make today.”
Teapot with transfers designed by Manda Helal
Manda Helal, Urban Beachcomber
Photographs copyright © Jeremy Freedman
Follow Manda Helal’s Blog to see more of her work
You may also like to read about