St Fagans National History Museum

This exhibition at Oriel 1, St Fagan’s National History Museum , Cardiff , contains several drawings and two relief installations by Debbie Evans Quek who recently graduated from Swansea Metropolitan University with BA (Hons) Fine Art in Painting and Drawing. The work sits comfortably in the space alongside an accompanying exhibition by Becky Knight. The latter’s exhibition, ‘Comfort Blankets,’ has been reviewed by Quilt magazine since it celebrates the traditions of quilt making. The two artists were brought together by the Textile Curator Ellen Phillips.

From her interest in socio, cultural and political impacts on indigenous cultures Debbie studied for a Masters in Social Science at University of Birmingham and subsequently taught Archaeology, Tourism and Heritage. She realised the importance of her own cultural heritage and the way that Welsh culture had been affected by English Imperialism; particularly in past attempts to wipe out the Welsh language to the extent that her parent’s generation were not encouraged to pass on the language. Her work directly addresses this through her own experience of not being able to learn and speak Welsh, and seeing her own child’s learning. Furthermore, representing her country as Welsh Women’s Chess Champion, several times internationally, host countries presumed she would be able to speak Welsh, which naturally left her feeling lacking. Her work tries to capture the ethnicity of place by referencing Welsh textiles in her imagery for many personal reasons not least that, along with a Welsh bible, a treasured Welsh blanket was the only cultural object past down to her from her grandmother in North Wales.

She describes this work as sprawling abstract drawings of landscapes that emerge from webs of lines like threads in the process of being woven into a blanket. The Blankscapes depict analytical map like and aerial views referencing her experiences and feelings. Debbie regards her working practice as predominantly intuitive and describes her mark-making as one of an expressionist trying to liberate a primordial aesthetic.

Debbie feels a need to engage with the physicality of the materials used and gestures made in the mark-making process. The combination of the physical nature of the materials, the threads that extend (like thoughts going off in unexpected tangents) beyond the surface of her drawings, has led to her developing installations. An amalgamation of 2D and 3D images extend and invade the space. In this exhibition, for example, the low relief installation, Blankscape x, Cwrlun x, demonstrates the point. On what looks like a gutted carcass of torn paper she employs the primitive acts of hammering nails, stretching and weaving, knotting and stringing. These are gestures that also relate to working and building. She describes, too, how the habits are also similar to that of a weaver meditatively casting the line back and forth up and away to an intangible rhythm in the mind. There is also play with movement of the form created by the circulating air. To intensify the mood she has also orchestrated the lighting to cast shadows from the shredded paper which protrudes from between the webs of lines.

Reflecting on why she had been drawn to using shredded paper and masking tape, in the image making process, consolidated her realisation that the Blankscapes are predominantly about language. The symbolism imbued in the act of shredding paper and cancelling any meaning was intuitively made when she recognized the connection with personal loss. We shred paper to hide information, to keep secrets, to feel safe, she explains. Masking tape was also used to symbolically reference the notion of covering-up adding further layered meaning to the images. For example, Welsh was always her parent’s secret language when she was growing up. Furthermore, she shares her feelings of frustration through tensions in the mark-making when she describes some of her experiences in life where she has felt misunderstood by others and her not understanding others, including loved ones. The Blankscapes, she says, therefore reference secrets in personal relationships as well as relating to being one of a lost generation that was not given the opportunity to learn the Welsh language. Debbie tells of her joy in hearing her three year old singing in Welsh since attending Welsh nursery. She observes that there is a recognisable poise in the younger generation who have embraced the Welsh language with pride. They have a rich cultural connection to their heritage, literature and mythology.

People feel excluded, she laments, when they do not speak the same language. Being able to speak the same language as someone is a crucial part of ones identity enabling us to fully engage with individuals on a basic amiable level and with whole communities on a survival level. Her ambition, therefore, is that these Blankscape images should be able to speak universally across boundaries of cultures and personal experiences.

Debbie Evans Quek’s on-going projects include referencing other indigenous cultures visited globally to create images that express the ethnicity of a place inspired by the colours and patterns of relevant native textiles. She also uses shredded text, such as emails and postcards, relating to personal experiences. Evans Quek hopes that in one sense by gazing at the Blankscapes the viewer is encouraged to engage with their own psychological landscape of the mind.

From my perspective, I believe that the connection to one’s heritage is part and parcel of our human identity. Our sense of place in the landscape, to its stream of history is what civilizes us. Our links to those around us is essential to our empathy towards each other and helps create a sense of community. We see all around us the result of that disconnect with our own cultural history, for example among the younger generation the need for a sense of belonging, or a need for ‘respect’ has led to a violent gang culture in our cities, where ‘territories’ are defended implacably, sometimes even to the death. So, the resurgence of the Welsh language and its attendant pride in Welsh heritage, in this context, can be seen as an essential part of any social healing process and a bastion against the negative aspects of today’s globalisation. This does not mean that there should be a retreat into parochialism or a narrow nationalism but a self respect generated by the certainty of personal identity within a cultural milieu, enabling a real engagement with the wider world. We connect best with others from a position of self worth not through insecurity or fear. So Evans Quek’s tackling issues of communication, cultural and historical identity, in my view, is especially relevant in the face of our fractured social structures.