Universiteit Leiden

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Poems in sign language

Will Leiden be the first city to have wall poems in sign language? It will, if sign language researcher Victoria Nyst has her way. She recently started a crowdfunding campaign together with the Leiden Language Museum and the TEGEN-BEELD Foundation.

Why a wall poem in sign language?

‘Leiden is famous for its wall poems. They are written in many different languages and they really show the beauty of their diversity. A poem in Dutch sign language - the mother language of the Dutch deaf community - should be part of this diversity. Don't forget that this sign language is one of the unique Dutch languages, like Frisian, for example. Across the border in Belgium or Germany, they have a different sign language.' 

Is it possible to narrate a poem without written or spoken text?

‘Certainly. We want this project to show that you can make beautiful poetry using sign language, something that will come as a surprise to many people. The best-known sign language poet in the Netherlands is Wim Emmerik, who died two years ago. His poetry contains some beautiful descriptions of the landscape of Amsterdam, nature and the Dutch polders. We want to show one of his poems that was filmed in Leiden's Hortus Botanicus on a big LED screen.’

Why were LED screens chosen?

‘It was by no means easy finding the right format. Attempts had been made previously to paint sign language, but it proved difficult because movement is such an important part of signing.  When you try using a flat surface, the poem immediately loses its beauty. The rhythm, speed and variety of signs don't really come into their own. A video recording works much better.’

I'm hooked: where can I sponsor the idea?

'You can find out all about the crowdfunding on the For Art website.'