The day after the Nazis annexed Austria at the start of the Second World War they began their relentless and brutal pursuit of all Jews. Indignant at this injustice, an eight year-old girl vowed to put an advertisement in the paper informing the Nazis – and Austrians who supported them – of their wrongdoing.
Unfortunately, she never got the chance, as her family decided to flee the country in what turned out to be the last train to leave Vienna.
This little girl was Suzy Powlesland, who now is 85 years old and goes by the Buddhist name of Shraddhapuspa. Influenced by her experience of growing up in Tower Hamlets as a refugee, she went on to become a head teacher in East London with a proclivity for helping newly-immigrated Bangladeshi children.
In addition, she is co-founder of the Limehouse Project, which aims to help families and especially women from minority backgrounds find support, education and opportunities. “It was impossible not to do anything,” she says. “For me, anyway.”
Despite having such incredible drive and fascinating stories to tell, elderly people like Powlesland are too often marginalised.
“I think it’s a sign of our contemporary life, in which performance, income and success are top values,” explains life coach and mindfulness teacher Karen Liebenguth.
“When we retire we are not contributing to the producing, performing society anymore and I suppose people lose value. As sad as it is, they are not as respected anymore.”
Tareshvari Robinson is a social artist and creator of The Art of Ageing project, which is currently being held at the Idea Store Whitechapel until November 11. It was organised in honour of the UN International Day of older persons in cooperation with the Tower Hamlets council and Globe Community Project.
Much like Liebenguth, she believes that “even though we live in an ageing society there is such a focus on youth. As you get older, this means that you tend to become invisible.”
For the project Robinson created eerily life-like 3D sculptures of two of her elderly friends, which now inhabit Idea Store’s ground floor. Upon entering, the first thing you see is a sculpture of Suzy Powlesland standing next to a growing bed of real chillies and fennel, smiling at passers-by.
Further back, you find a carbon copy of Beryl Carey (92), reclining on an armchair and serenely listening to music through big, white headphones.
What inspired Robinson was the contrast between her friends’ physical frailty and the inspiring things they were doing in their old age: “Facing very difficult physical limitation while still having this emotional robustness is something that we don’t have as younger people. They have this wisdom to offer which I wanted to share. I wanted to make them visible through the installation.”
The Idea Store’s fourth floor gallery houses the second part of the project, which consists of long strips of wallpaper, adorned with intricate, hand-drawn portraits of nursing home residents by artist Angela Groundwater.
“It’s about older people not being in the background like wallpaper,” explains Rugina Mukid, the curator for the Idea Store gallery. “They should be spoken to and in the foreground of someone’s life because they’ve got a lot to offer.”
Apart from bringing the issues of older people and their visibility to light, the project also aims to give people in the community skills to help them age well, which is why Robinson curated multiple workshops in creative writing, life coaching for retirement and mindfulness.
The writing workshops serve the dual purpose of providing retirees with a creative way of expressing themselves while also getting them seen and heard in the community, as they will be reading any prose they have produced at the project’s closing night.
Liebenguth agreed to facilitate workshops for the project due to a lack of activities on offer, which help older people increase their quality of life.
“I find it important to live well at any stage in our life and often as we grow older we deal with anxieties about death, isolation, losing friends and loved ones, of being less mobile, perhaps feeling more out of control as we become more vulnerable.”
Within her workshops she wants to give new life skills to retired people, so they can respond to the ups and downs of life more resourcefully and feel more empowered at an older age.
“That includes helping them become more self-aware, identify some of the things that are not working so well in their life and how to deal with them. I help them understand that they, as anybody else, have a choice how to respond to things happening in their life. Sharing their experience also helps them realise, that there are others who deal with the same, very human experiences.”
Liebenguth hopes that The Art of Ageing will inspire local councils and community organisations to pick up similar projects. With the overwhelmingly positive response it has received, this doesn’t seem too far-fetched.
Robinson describes the project as having a bit of magic to it.
“Personally, my experience with it is just that I’ve got a warm feeling in my heart. It’s this tiny little good thing happening. In the scheme of things it’s insignificant but it doesn’t seem that way when I speak to people and they tell me how much they love the installation and how much it has inspired them.”
Catch the project’s infectious positivity on its closing night, which will take place in the Idea Store Whitechapel gallery on November 11, from 6-8pm.