Artistic director's continued creativity through lockdown rewarded by National Lottery

·5-min read
Moji blazed a trail for the arts throughout lockdown thanks to her tireless work with the Utopia Theatre
Moji blazed a trail for the arts throughout lockdown thanks to her tireless work with the Utopia Theatre

A Yorkshire resident will appear in a unique photography exhibition after being recognised by the National Lottery for her dedication and devotion to keeping the arts alive and accessible for all during the pandemic.

Moji Elufowoju, 57, who lives in the Heeley District of Sheffield, is the founder and artistic director of the Utopia Theatre, which she formed in 2012.

The digital exhibition marks the first time in history eight of the UK’s most iconic art galleries - including London’s National Portrait Gallery, Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, The MAC in Belfast and the British Film Institute (BFI) - have come together in this way.

The collection, titled ‘The National Lottery’s 2020 Portraits of the People’ celebrates the remarkable individuals, including Moji, who have worked tirelessly during the pandemic to bring creativity, enjoyment and enrichment to people in new ways.

Thirteen powerful and poignant portraits have been created by Chris Floyd, who normally photographs celebrities such as Sir Paul McCartney, Sir Mo Farah and Victoria Beckham.

The exhibition was born out of National Lottery insights which indicate a ‘domestic renaissance’ in people enjoying the arts at home with almost 2 in 3 (61%) of those saying it helped their state of mind during the crisis, and more than half (51%) believing the positive impacts on their wellbeing would be long-lasting

“I founded Utopia Theatre around 2012 after I finished at Drama School, and I didn’t want to wait around to be offered a job,” said Moji.

“It has grown from strength to strength since then. A lot of people say it grew from the passion I have for it. I came into theatre as a mature student.

“When I was growing up in Nigeria, where I did my first degree, I wanted to read theatre but my parents wouldn’t allow me to so I ended up studying English Literature.

“As a grown woman and a mature person, I wasn’t happy in my job and just wanted something different. I went to Drama School and the maturity I had at that time meant I wasn’t looking at the industry in the way a lot of my colleagues were in terms of ‘who is going to give me a job’. I was looking at it from the point of view that I had wanted to do this all my life, and I now had the opportunity to do it. I had to find a way to make sure that I can do it as it is a very difficult industry to penetrate.”

Moji has worked across a series of funded projects to create and promote work by and for black artists, for audiences in Sheffield and beyond.

The lack of representation is a key element in her work. At a time when theatre is suffering, Moji believes that attracting more diverse audiences will help to secure the future of mainstream theatre, now battling for survival in the wake of COVID-19.

Moji has been using funding to provide virtual training workshops for directing, design, music and poetry during lockdown, which will now continue for a further six months.

“We received the emergency funding from The National Lottery and engaged about 50 artists who then had the opportunity to bring other people on board as part of their project” said Moji.

“You propose an idea to us – if you are a director, you can pitch something that you can do online such as a workshop, seminar or talk, and you can invite another colleague to facilitate that with you.

“When you do that, it is opened up to anyone around the world. People were enjoying it from Korea, Russia, Israel – they were able to join on Zoom and participate in those workshops.

“A lot of them were involved with theatre, music, movement - every day there was something to attend.

“There were people who attended every single session. There was a dance session, a movement session, a directing session, playwriting courses – all from very experienced and well-respected people in the industry.”

National Lottery players raise £30 million a week for good causes around the country, funding thousands of projects that make a huge difference to people’s wellbeing.

“The National Lottery has contributed to the growth of the company,” said Moji. “The funding has helped us create work and employ staff to support us on our next stage of growth.

“If it wasn’t for that funding, all the work we have put in and all the work we are doing online – we wouldn’t have been able to do. We’ve been able to make an immense impact on people’s lives.”

The digital exhibition in which Moji’s portrait features can be visited on the websites and social media of: The National Portrait Gallery, The National Museum of Wales, The MAC in Belfast, IKON Gallery in Birmingham, Summerhall in Edinburgh, Ty Pawb, Ruthin Craft Centre in Wales, The Photographers’ Gallery in London and The British Film Institute. The portraits will also be on display at BFI Southbank in London.

It is free to enter across all gallery websites, and the collection of portraits will run throughout November.

Leading photographer Christopher Floyd will design the 13 portraits for the ‘The National Lottery’s 2020 Portraits of the People’ collection
Leading photographer Christopher Floyd will design the 13 portraits for the ‘The National Lottery’s 2020 Portraits of the People’ collection

Photographer Chris Floyd added: “The journey to capture these artists of all varieties was an incredibly humbling one. I wanted to do justice to the ongoing and selfless efforts of these creatives and creators who have taken their skills within the arts and built accessible resources for those who needed it most. It feels like a small thank you in comparison to what they’ve done for their local communities and for the arts sector as whole.”

Darren Henley, the CEO of Arts Council England said: “People in the UK have a great love of creativity, art and culture. We know these things can bring us together, enrich our lives, support our emotional wellbeing, and make us happier.

“Throughout lockdown we've seen that in villages, towns and cities, people have continued to participate and enjoy the arts whether that's at home, digitally, or through socially distanced activities within their communities.”

The works aim to create a ‘moment in history’, preserving the work of these unheralded champions for posterity and encapsulating the varied and innovative ways art can be expressed.

Image credit: National Lottery 2020’s Portraits of the People by Chris Floyd

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