Feminism

What lies beneath, Strange Worlds: The Vision of Angela Carter?

The Banquet  by Ana Maria Pachecho. Image: Pratt Contemporary Art

The Banquet by Ana Maria Pachecho. Image: Pratt Contemporary Art

It’s the unconscious mind. We’re all afraid of the dark inside ourselves.
— Dr. Sam Loomis, Halloween II

A visit to Strange Worlds: The Vision of Angela Carter – the RWA exhibition that celebrates the life, work and influences of the idiosyncratic writer 25 years after her death – is a profound experience. Provocative. Stimulating. Poignant. It’s hard not to feel moved by a collection that strips bare the surface to expose the underbelly of us all.

Co-curated by Dr. Marie Mulberry-Roberts (UWE) and Fiona Robinson (RWA), the exhibition is a powerful nexus which brings together work from historic heavyweights like Dame Paula Rego and Marc Chagall (a wellspring of influence for Carter), and leading contemporary artists like Ana Maria Pacheco, Andrew Munoz and Wendy Elia.

Pulsating with the recurring themes of subversion, feminism and fantasy, with which Carter has become synonymous, Strange Worlds is on a mission to make, “concrete the visual quality [and diversity] of [her] writing.” By blurring the line between art and literature to see what drifts up through the space (or lack thereof) between, the exhibition asks us to reconsider the fabric of our collective beliefs and, in doing so, what it means to be human.

In Wendy Elia’s Maxime (2010) we see a figure at once masked and unmasked, semi-naked yet guarded, uncertain of the unseen eyes that fall upon it. The hands wring together and the knees fall inward to form a kind of barrier, a re-masking perhaps, to counteract the vulnerability that nakedness demands. Reminiscent of a sad clown, of conventions and the truths they belie, this is bona fide Carter territory.

Similarly, The Bather by Andrew Munoz (2013) is a visceral witnessing of the outsider. A lonely, androgynous figure stands naked amid a desolate landscape but, unlike Maxime, there is a seeming openness at play, an acceptance of (or perhaps resignation to) a vulnerability that is rarely embraced in life or portraiture. Binary definitions of both gender and society are questioned here. You can’t help but wonder where the line between you and the emanating solitude of the piece starts and ends.

A complex interplay of form and theme is alive throughout the space, culminating in Ana Maria Pachecho’s nightmarish installation, The Banquet (1985). Four grotesquely oversized men sit hunched and suited in feverish excitement over the taught, naked form laid out on the table before them.

Tropes of power (white men, suits, a flat, elongated surface) are subverted to become monstrous, cannibalistic, making the point - as Carter so artfully did throughout her career - that truth is what lies beneath, and not above, the surface of conventions.

That quest for truth is the beating heart of Strange Worlds, a bold and fitting testament to Carter’s legacy. The gallery is alive in its consideration of a writer who personified boundless creative expression, and continues posthumously to do so.

In the same way that she re-visioned through her work the fairytales, myths and dreams that inform our collective waking lives, her work is (directly and indirectly) re-visioned throughout the exhibition. It is a frenetic yet considered dialogue, a dynamic narrative in honour of an artist who may have ceased to live 25 years ago but is immortalised by the art she produced and continues to inspire.

Carter studied Medieval Literature at Bristol University and continued to live and work in the city during her early career. The exhibition which closes this Sunday, 19 March – is part of Bristol800, a city-wide partnership programme that celebrates notable Bristol anniversaries.

Written for and originally published by Bristol Women's Voice.

What's in a voice?

Earlier this week I had the pleasure of delivering a workshop for Saffron Records, Bristol's first female-only record label, for young women aged 16 – 24.

Just before its launch in July 2015, I worked closely with Saffron's Creative Director, Laura Lewis-Paul, to develop the label's tone of voice. Over a year down the line, it's great to look back at all Laura has achieved, and see how established that voice has now become.

Just the two of us

Laura and I were the only two people in the room when we first got together for a tone of voice workshop. 12 or so months on and Saffron has recruited two fantastic apprentices (A&R and digital marketing) and signed three talented young artists.

The vision, values and personality that inform, as well as its tone of voice, everything the label is and does, have really taken root and become a culture. It's an absolute joy to see.

That said, when Laura asked me to do a voice workshop with Saffron's artists I was, initially, a little stumped.

What's in a voice?

Tone of voice guidelines are there to support people communicating on an organisation's behalf. While Saffron's artists are representing their label, they're not really communicating on its behalf in quite the same way as, for example, its digital marketing apprentice.

As artists they're largely in the business of communicating self-expression. With this in mind I asked myself what, for an artist as opposed to an organisation, is voice really made of?

Voice as art (vulnerability)

As Julia Cameron, best-selling author of The Artist's Way and The Right to Write so succinctly puts it, ‘True art requires true honesty, which means that for our art's sake, as much as our own, we must learn the skill of vulnerability.’

To be human is to be vulnerable. An uncomfortable truth, which is probably why vulnerability isn't so easy to sit with.

We often want to skip past it to a place where we feel less exposed, more secure. But acknowledging and drawing from vulnerability can bring real strength, particularly for artists who trade in communicating emotion.

Voice as womanhood (courage)

It may be 2016 but the playing field still isn’t level. That's why Saffron exists.

To be a woman in a male-dominated industry can take courage which, in her excellent TED talk on the power of vulnerability, researcher Brené Brown describes as ‘telling the story of who you are with your whole heart.’

Vulnerability and courage are two sides of the same coin. To tell the story of who you are with your whole heart, you have to be vulnerable. One hand feeds the other.

Standing on a stage sharing your innermost thoughts and feelings, you're inevitably demonstrating both. And (perhaps) for women raised in a society that accepts their right to feel and express vulnerability in a way it (sadly) does not for men, womanhood and courage have a notable dynamic.

Voice as story (connection)

Stories cut to the core of who we are. They connect us to ourselves and each other.

Singers and songwriters are, of course, storytellers, connectors. They connect with themselves to connect with their audience.

This storyteller / listener relationship is old as hills and a cornerstone of the human experience. Any consideration of the artist's voice must surely take story and connection into account.

Voice for communication

We all have values and vulnerabilities, stories and beliefs. The more we understand them the better we communicate.

I love working on tone of voice with people and their businesses, understanding and helping them share their passions with the world.

If you're interested in tone of voice and would like to find out more, please feel free to get in touch.

Mustang: A modern-day fairytale?

As I arrived (late) to a recent private preview at Watershed, it occurred to me that I had no idea what I was walking in to. I scrabbled around in the dark, waiting for my pupils to dilate, and then the film began.

I was hooked, instantly. It grabbed me within seconds and didn't let me go until long after I'd left the cinema. In fact I think it's still holding on to some part of me even now. That's how beautiful Mustang is.

The début feature from Turkish-French writer and director Deniz Gamze Ergüven, Mustang tells the story of five young sisters on that stark yet subtle threshold between girl and womanhood.

When a neighbour complains that the girls (who were playing an innocent game) have been, "rubbing their private parts on boys necks," their world, as youngest sister and protagonist Lale puts it, quickly "turns to shit."

Terrified by their burgeoning sexuality, the girls' grandmother and uncle take drastic steps to sanitise, confine and ultimately marry it off. They are stripped of all possessions that might further corrupt them and held captive in their house-come-'wife factory', learning how to sew and make dolmades.

It's a modern-day fairy tale (orphaned princesses locked in a tower awaiting rescue) so the film has an entirely appropriate timeless quality: is there anything more timeless than fearing and confining female sexuality?

But the sisters are a force, a united front. Despite occasional (and touchingly universal) bickering about the unasked borrowing of bras, or whatever, the strength of their love is boundless and speaks of a wider female solidarity.

This solidarity doesn't just play out between the sisters. One of my favourite scenes is when an aunt short circuits the village electricity supply to stop them getting caught doing something they shouldn't.

It's an act of love as funny as it is profound but it also gives an insight into that aunt's own wildness, her own willingness to disobey. How many of these women once roamed free, playing innocent games with boys before they were held hostage to their own puberty?

The boys we see at the beginning of the film, who were in no way punished for playing the same, innocent game, will never be held hostage in the same way. They can use their developing bodies however they want to. They can interact with each other and the natural world which surrounds them. They can play with girls; their bodies belong to them.

Not so the sisters. They can't be trusted to steer their own ships. Their ownership is compromised.

But the film returns their bodies to them. Ergüven's gaze is unapologetically female and feminist and makes us look, and look closely, at all the things their bodies do, not just that one, supposedly terrifying, thing.

They're shot from all angles and bathed in a golden light throughout. They play and lie in collapsed, sisterly piles. They pretend to swim through their bed sheets. They misbehave. They pull faces. They laugh. They feel and act on desire. They are alive.

I watched Mustang is a room full of other women. There were few dry eyes by the end. As I left the cinema, I wondered how many of those tears were tears of recognition?

Recognition of your teenage body being branded with a shame you can't possibly understand. Recognition of the unflinching solidarity between women, and its antithesis. Recognition of the violence and aggression of men who are (perhaps) terrified of the female sexuality within themselves. Who knows?

One thing I can say for sure is that Mustang is an incredibly affecting watch.

An edited version of this post appears on www.conversationsaboutcinema.co.uk