Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Open Studios and Goodbyes

So the second half of the residency at Aberystwyth disappeared even quicker than the first half did. The last few weeks fell through the hourglass at breakneck speed as I tried to get all the things that I had started to a completed state. 

We had an open studios on the 24 November, which was a nice way to catch up with a lot of people that I have met over the last three months, and to show some of the things I have been working on. This included a set of portraits, some costumes, some masks entitled 'three quack doctor's masks for the purposes of self diagnosis - the coroner, the psychologist & the surgeon', and a chair banner/costume that I just finished. [also we had a chance to finish off the packet of fireworks I had left over from making a film].

There are three projects that I have been working on mainly….

A series of portraits based on an image that I found at the Ceredigion Museum
I was interested in the history of the Welsh folk costume, an image that you know as the ubiquitous dress of women on postcards of Wales. I was lucky to discover that Michael Freeman, the curator at the Ceredigion Museum is an expert in the history of the Welsh women's folk costume. How this dress came to be associated with a national identity is a curious process in itself, but I wanted to look a little beyond this history. Through the process of going through some victorian examples of people wearing this costume we came across a very curious image indeed…

This photograph provides no immediate clues about its origin or its intention, but this is what I like the most about it. Why had this bearded man gone to the trouble of being photographed in a welsh folk costume, and who was the photograph intended for?

Perhaps this image was intended simply as a joke, but it led me to discover more about the Rebecca Riots, a series of protests by farmers and agricultural workers in Wales in the 1840s over unfair taxation. The protesters dressed as women for disguise and invoked a short verse from the bible. The image is also familiar to me as the man/woman character in European folk drama and ritual, a figure that plays with the topsy turvy nature of folk celebration, and a distant relative of the modern pantomime dame.

Working with Stuart Evans at the musuem, I created a series of portraits of men wearing traditional women's folk costume, using the image above for a starting point.

Straw Devils
There are many examples of straw costumes for folk rituals across Europe and the rest of the world, but I was curious about the possibility of constructing some costumes from drinking straws. These costumes became two devil characters after I had been reading Edmund Jones' accounts of appearances and sightings of the devil accross Wales during the 1700s. After his his admission that he never really bothered to come to Cardigonshire and his firm belief that had he made it to these parts then he would have "received many accounts" of devilish activity and appearance, I decided that my characters would be a kind of example of a devilish occurrence in these parts.

I made two straw devils, one a mainly white one, with a dash of colour, that I decided was a 'devil of the daytime', and partnered this with a black devil, the 'devil of the nighttime'. I ordered 10,000 drinking straws to make these suits, and started by sewing them into strings, and then sewing these strings onto an undersuit. Like some of the ritual devils that you see in folk processions in eastern Europe, each costume has a long red tongue hanging down from its head. 

I got the chance to use the costumes to film a short ritual involving a couple of other costumes I have made, and the University Cheerleaders.  I am still editing this piece, but will post it when I have finished.

The Sheep Stealer
One part of the residency at the Art Centre was to make an artwork with a group of people in the area. In the first few days that I was in Aberystwyth I came across the films of William Haggar in the Screen & Sound Archives at the National Library of Wales. I thought these films were amazing, and the humour and life in the stories he was telling seemed like a great point to start work with a group of people in the area. The same day that I had been looking at the Haggar films in the library, I had come across a photographic exhibition on the top floor of the library celebrating the history and the 70th anniversary  of the Young Farmers Clubs in Ceredigion. The YFC seemed to be an amazing combination of rural skills and amateur dramatics taking place in fairgrounds and fields across the county. 

The film that stood out to me initially had been 'The Sheep Stealer" made by Haggar in 1908, and after a few weeks of trying I managed to make contact with a group of YFC in Tregaron, not too far from Aberystwyth. After a few meetings we set a date and filmed a new version of the film on the farm belonging to the dad of one of the girls in the group. I shot both a digital and a super8 version of the film, and next year the both the original William Haggar film, and the new one we have worked on will be shown at the National Library.

And so an amazing three months in Aberystwyth comes to an end. 

Thanks to Eve, Carys, Cath, Tim, Carol & Paul at the Art Centre, to Michael, Stuart & Jill at the Ceredigion Musuem, Petri & Richard my fellow resident artists and housemates, and a special thanks to Pete Stephenson & Ali Matthews for all their help.

Matthew Cowan

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