‘It took me a long time to develop a voice, and now that I have it, I am not going to remain silent.’
Madeleine Albright, American politician
I may not agree with Madeleine Albright on everything, but I love the above quote of hers and as it’s particularly appropriate for this blog post, wanted to include it here.
I’ve been thinking a lot about speech and the human voice – and, in relation to my work specifically, the voices of girls and young women and the ways in which they are repressed. Revisiting the work I made for the ‘Me, Myself and I’ exhibition, led me once again to think about ‘Sweet Nothings.’ This work was very much the starting point and central focus for the installation I was commissioned to make for the Collyer Bristow Gallery platform area last year. The exhibition included the work of twenty artists exploring identity.
Gag – definition: to prevent someone from speaking freely
I wrote a post on this blog when the exhibition first opened, written to coincide with International Women’s Day, 2020. This is an extract from it, followed by a link to the entire post:
‘Keeping women down, repressed and subdued has always been achieved by silencing them. Without a voice that is heard, we are powerless; what women need is to continue to search for and find a voice that has the freedom to express itself authentically, without having to keep it ‘nice’ – a voice that dares rage against the injustices and inequalities so often imposed on them and a voice that screams and calls out the way in which women are silenced everyday in every corner of the world.’
You can read the rest of the post here:
‘Sweet Nothings’ is a piece of work I keep returning to. It’s composed of small ceramic girl figurines, placed on a dressing table, gazing into a mirror. You have to look closely to see that each individual figurine has its mouth taped over with Elastoplast. It speaks volumes (ironically) about how girls and young women were (and continue to be) silenced. The girls are adorned in pretty party dresses, reminiscent of the 60/70s era, an era in which children were very much expected ‘to be seen and not heard’ and girls specifically, to be decorative and submissive.
It seems like they’re destined to stay in this decorative and submissive state for some time now: like so many events of 2020, the show became a casualty of the pandemic. No sooner had I installed my work for the ‘Me, Myself and I’ group show, than I was back in the Gallery, taking it down again – numerous objects, wrapped up and back in boxes, before they’d even had a chance to breathe. It would be easy to put them to one side, forget about them – another large body of work, packed away. But there was so much energy attached to these objects, so much potential narrative emanating from them, that it feels almost impossible to put a lid on them.
Throughout the various lockdowns, the Sweet Nothing figurines have reminded me of the many fascinating conversations that might have been – the unrealised opportunity for conversations with 19 other artists, to meet and get to know each other, exchange ideas and share insights into our respective work. I loved the premise behind this exhibition, one which as stated by the curator, Rosalind Davis:
‘ … investigated artists’ self-enquiry and expressions of the interior self. Works speak to a range of lived experiences recalling personal and political struggles, family relationships and memories of childhood. Across painting, drawing, photography and assemblage the show reflects on themes of freedom and solitude, collectivity and belonging, disenfranchisement and loss. In liminal spaces between fact and fiction, the fantastical and the everyday, twenty artists grapple with – and celebrate – the complexities of identity, selfhood and finding one’s place in the world.’
I was excited by being a part of this show and looking forward very much to exploring each artists’ unique take on the theme of identity.* In the absence of the conversations that never had a chance to materialise, and feeling rather silenced and subdued myself, I’m wondering if in time, I might start my own dialogue with the objects included in the installation – examining their meaning and value, not merely as display objects on the platform, but as indicators of emotion and attachment, of social and political history and other factors.
This lack of conversation is of course, indicative of how life in general has been for many of us this past year – normal everyday conversations and face to face interactions with others, hugely curtailed. Once these current restrictions are lifted, I imagine it will take us a while to readjust and get back to some sort of normality – whatever that is and whatever form it takes.
At this point in time, surrounded by so much uncertainty, I’m finding it hard to properly commit to anything, really – finding myself identifying more strongly than ever with the ‘Sweet Nothings’ figurines – silenced and restricted. The expression ‘no words’ is so often associated with expressions of grief – reactions to horrific situations and moments in life when words literally fail us and we just don’t know what to say. If ever there was a more appropriate time – in the midst of immeasurable suffering, caused by this extraordinary pandemic – that time surely, is now.
* In spite of the exhibition closing, Rosalind Davis, the curator of ‘Me, Myself and I’ managed to organise an online conversation with a few of the artists involved. I’m so grateful to Rosalind and the artists for creating this record of the exhibition. Thanks also to artist Paula McArthur for her sensitive words about her late friend and collaborator, artist Wendy Saunders (whose work was also exhibited in the show). Wendy is missed by many of those who knew her; she was very much loved, not just for her brilliant enthusiasm and passion for art but for her warmth, kindness and generosity as a lovely human being.
You can access the conversation here: