More images of the whole piece here
A few months ago I saw an opportunity advertised locally for artists to make work using the idea of metamorphosis and using an object in the collections of New Walk Museum as inspiration, as part of a conference in the School of Museum Studies at Leicester University. I decided to visit the World Art gallery at New Walk, which is full of wonderful things (although they don’t seem to have a page about it in their website!). I took photos of lots of intriguing and beautiful objects but couldn’t find something that really worked with the metamorphosis idea. I photographed this Nigerian ‘charm gown’ because I thought the decoration was fascinating. It wasn’t until later that I realised it would work with the metamorphosis concept.
The idea of the gown is that the words, drawings and amulets added to it, make the garment protective. I was intrigued by the idea that by marking marks onto cloth, it can be changed from mere fabric to something spiritual and powerful. I found the following text on the British Museum website, about a similar object:
Register 1940: ‘Jibbeh’ W. Sudan (?)
Register 1940 later addition:
[N.Nigeria? (W.B.F.)](LaGamma and C. Giuntini, 2008)
‘Every inch of this simple cotton tunic was inscribed and invested with prayers by an itinerant Hausa artist who sought to transform it into a mantle of invulnerability. The extraordinary measures taken suggest that the garment was made for an important warrior to wear into battle. The Islamic belief in the power of the Koran’s written word is manifested here in a creation configured so its Koranic texts encase the body, affording a line of mystical defence superior to armour’
I wanted to explore how the role of the artist can transform a plain piece of cloth into something powerful. In the same way that the artist made the charm gown, I wanted to make a modern, personal charm gown, using humble textile and the hand of the artist to transform its meaning.
Since my grandad died in December 2012, I’ve been wanting to use some of the textiles from his home in my work. When we cleared the house (and extensive sheds) I gathered up all kinds of cloth from old sacking to neatly starched and pressed handkerchiefs, knowing that I would find a use for them. This project seemed like the ideal opportunity.
Initially, I intended to make a small garment, maybe a shawl or scarf, to represent the charm gown, but when I visited the School of Museum Studies, they offered me a HUGE glass case and I couldn’t resist taking it on. Despite all the perfect tablecloths and pristine white sheets from the hoard, what I kept coming back to was a large, old dust sheet. It must have been a high quality cotton sheet, once upon a time, but had been used for painting jobs for many years. My step-grandmother’s family ran a small laundry and no doubt this is where the sheet originally came from – things were not always collected, hence the huge collection my step-granny acquired. The sheet has laundry marks and even an address in Ealing marked on the edge.
Almost everything else I have used in the piece comes from Grandad’s. The pegs used for display must have been from the laundry too.
Rust dye using tools and scraps from the sheds, encouraged with tea to create a soft, brown stain.
Outline of tools in stitch and appliqué.
Floral embroidery transfer, found in my late Grandmother’s sewing basket. She was a professional seamstress and died before I was born. I had no idea that her embroidery things were still in the house, waiting for me, 40 years after her death. I’m so pleased I could use them too in this piece.
Scans of letters, local maps and war time documents printed onto textile to make amulets and appliqué.
Hapazome or flower-pounding, using flowers transplanted from Grandad’s garden to mine.
Found objects, all but one came from Grandad’s things.
Patterns, embroidered text and details taken from the original charm gown and given a twist.
Details of the original dust sheet with collar stud found in the things.
The work is now installed in the School of Museum Studies and is open to the public 10-4 Monday to Friday. Part of the appeal of this commission was the link to Museum Studies, where I did my MA 17 years ago. There is something very pleasing about now creating art works inspired by museums when my whole adult life has revolved around museums in so many ways.
This is only the start of a body of work using textiles and themes from my family history. I am working on a series related to Grandad’s tool shed for Llantarnam Grange Art Centre for later this year and there will be plenty more, I hope!