You Don’t Know What It’s Like: Both Sides of the Self at St Andrews Museum, Fife

Alberta Whittle, 'The Axe Forgets, but the Tree Remembers', 2022 (film still). © Alberta Whittle. All rights reserved, DACS/Artimage. Courtesy of the Artist and The Modern Institute/ Toby Webster Ltd. Glasgow 2023
Alberta Whittle, 'The Axe Forgets, but the Tree Remembers', 2022 (film still). © Alberta Whittle. All rights reserved, DACS/Artimage. Courtesy of the artist and The Modern Institute / Toby Webster Ltd. Glasgow 2023

Crafted Selves: The Unfinished Conversation

From: 14 Oct 2023

To: 29 Feb 2024

St Andrews Museum
Kinburn Park
Doubledykes Road
St Andrews
KY16 9DP

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‘Who are you?’, ‘Where are you from?’ On one hand these can be friendly, interested enquiries, or on the other a pointed, investigative inquisition into one’s identity. How to feel if you’re asked it throughout your life? What if the answer isn’t straightforward, or remains unresolved?

A curator and researcher whose practice specialises in social justice, Cat Dunn (pictured below) has curated an exhibition at St Andrews Museum in Fife, Crafted Selves: The Unfinished Conversation, which showcases the work of thirteen Scottish-based artists who explore dual identities in their works: responding to the question, ‘What does it mean to have a dual identity, and how is this sense of self reflected in work being made by Scottish craft artists today?‘ Thirteen artists have offered and expressed their experience of their own selves – having, like Cat, a cultural heritage which is both Scottish and one which is rooted in another cultural home. Cat has said, ‘Being dual identifiable carries a sense of pride and strength. While there can be sorrow and pain, there is also joy. Having a dual identity can be used to celebrate one’s social identity, or it can be used as a platform to express and teach others what life can be like from a different perspective. I am incredibly proud to merge my two cultures as it makes me unique.

Participating artists include Alberta Whittle, Sekai Machache, Ashanti Harris, Viv Lee, Rae-Yen Song, Adil Iqbal, Eden Grant Dodd, Li Huang, Emelia Kerr Beale, Joy Baek, Sara Pakdel-Cherry, Tilda Williams-Kelly and Harvey Dimond. The ‘dual identities’ don’t always refer to countries: they can be of gender, history, cultural, or of colour. I’ve mentioned a few of my personal highlights below, and apologise to those artists I’ve not covered, due to restrictions in the length of the article.

Installed in the classical setting of two rooms in St Andrews Museum in the pleasant surroundings of Kilburn Park, the exhibition is a showcase for myriad different individual, personal identities, expressed in variety of media: on entering, the visitor is struck by the mix of 2D and 3D pieces – sculpture and painting, ceramics, textiles, installation, moving-image films and creative writing. The illumination of sunlight through the large bay windows is noticeable and welcome.

Exhibition curator Cat Dunn face to face with Ashanti Harris’ ‘Emi Ori Cse in Bronze’, copper mesh, thread, with sequin trim.

Guyana-born artist, teacher and researcher Ashanti Harris‘ suspended mask piece Emi Ori Cse in Bronze makes for a striking encounter: engaging with West African and Caribbean mask art, Ashanti uses mask-making techniques learned from the Carnival culture of the Caribbean, and the masks, suspended from the ceiling, recall a computer-generated image-map, with a delicate intricacy evident when viewed close-up.

Oils by Li Huang. Image Alan Dimmick
Oils by Li Huang. Image Alan Dimmick

To the left, Li Huang‘s oil portraits betray his interest in spiritual ancestry through generations of his family (the paintings depict Li’s father) as well as demonstrating a mastery of carefully-composed oil painting, that prompted his selection for the Scottish Portrait Awards exhibitions for four successive years. 

Sekai Machache, 'Deep Divine Sky', Copyright the artist. Image Antanas Budvytis
Sekai Machache, ‘Deep Divine Sky’, Copyright the artist. Image assistance Antanas Budvytis

Two large photographs of Sekai Machache can be seen – The Divine Sky and Deep Divine Sky – with her recognisable indigo long-train dress under a gloaming sky. The production and allure of indigo is a recurring theme in Machache’s work: Glasgow-based, she received the 2020 RSA Morton Award from the Royal Scottish Academy, and will represent Zimbabwe at the 2024 Venice Biennale.

Sara Pakdel Cherry, Siah 1, Siah 2. Image Alan Dimmick.
Sara Pakdel Cherry, Siah 1, Siah 2. Image Alan Dimmick

Strikingly large, suspended from the ceiling are the twin textile drapes by Iranian-Scottish Duncan of Jordanstone (Dundee) graduate Sara Pakdel-Cherry, Siah 1 and Siah 2, which highlight her Persian background as well a fierce defiance in the face of the plight of women in the current Islamic regime in Iran.

Emelia Kerr Beale, trust for support', textile. Image Neil Hanna.
Emelia Kerr Beale, ‘trust for support’, textile. Image Neil Hanna.

Moving into the smaller of the two rooms, but still brightly lit, three suspended, unwearable machine-knitted jackets, interlinked by never-ending sleeves, comprise Emilia Kerr-Beale‘s trust for support textile sculpture, articulating imagination and repetition as feminist coping mechanisms for disability.

Adil Iqbal, 'Washroom Chapals (Slippers)', hand-embroidery on Harris Tweed
Adil Iqbal, ‘Washroom Chapals (Slippers)’, hand-embroidery on Harris Tweed
Adil Iqbal, 'Weaving Songs', hand embroidery on calico
Adil Iqbal, ‘Weaving Songs’, hand embroidery on calico

The Scottish-Pakistani textile artist Adil Iqbal collaborates with other practitioners to bridge western and indigenous craft cultures, connecting Scottish textile heritage with that of the Chitrali valley, through weaving and hand embroidery, bringing together makers in Orkney and Pakistan. In addition to the colourful ‘Washroom Chapals (Slippers)’ the countries’ shared folk tradition of singing while weaving is marked by Weaving Songs, co-created by Scottish writer Donald S Murray, Iqbal and Chitrali embroiderer Taiba. Murray published the acclaimed book Weaving Songs in 2011.

A multi-voiced portrayal of members of the Windrush Generation and their descendants with material sourced from the Hackney Archives, Alberta Whittle‘s film The Axe Forgets but the Tree Remembers (see still image at top) will be screened at The Byre in St Andrews on Wednesday 17th January. This will be great chance to engage further in this subject, as the screening will be followed by an in-conversation event featuring Alberta, Cat, and Jillian Sutherland, Lecturer of Museum and Heritage Studies at the University of St Andrews.

Following its stay at St Andrews (until 29th Feb) 2024, the exhibition is to travel to Kirkcaldy Galleries, where it will open 23rd March, running until 12th May, with plans for further touring later in the year. The exhibition has been created with Fife Contemporary, director Kate Grenyer.

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