Female Icons, Peacock Visual Arts, Aberdeen
Its not every day youre asked to make a dinner-plate of
your favourite female icon, so when Im offered the chance at
Aberdeens Peacock Visual Arts, I am intrigued. Dutch artists
collective De Geuzen has moved into the gallery space, inviting women
to create iconic plates over four days, culminating in a homage to
Judy Chicagos feminist installation, The Dinner Party, of 1979.
A little confused by my mission, I consult De Geuzens website.
It is a bewildering patchwork of projects, from an online séance
with Guy Debord to instructions for a DIY paper dress. An online vote
asks me to consider what makes a woman an icon, and with 24% of the
votes, the winning quality so far is character.
None the wiser about the process of making my plate, I set about choosing
an icon. My first thought is Audrey Hepburn, but I cant make
my choice based on prettiness alone. Instead, I decide on a woman
with plenty of character: Màiri Mhór nan Òran,
or Big Mary of the Songs. Born in 19th century Skye, she was a renowned
writer and singer of Gaelic songs.
Màiri Mhór is not an icon because of her looks, but
she is certainly defined by them. At nearly 17 stone, her nickname
has stuck forever as Big Mary. Neither is she known for her youthfulness
she didnt start writing songs until her fifties, when
anger moved her to poetry. Set up by a jealous colleague, she was
imprisoned in Inverness for a crime she didnt commit, by a judge
who bore a grudge against her late husband.
Returning to Skye, Màiri Mhór became a leading activist
in the Land League, campaigning for crofters rights, and attracting
crowds wherever she went. She drew from her own experience to sing
of the injustices suffered by Gaels, and while other bards wrote in
the sentimental style beloved of late Victorians, Màiri Mhórs
language was straight-forward and everyday.
Having looked out a picture of the singer, I arrive at Peacock Visual
Arts to find the place a hive of activity. A long table runs through
the space, a clutter of magazines, scraps of paper, plates, computers
and sewing equipment. The tablecloth is a cheerful patchwork of less
than complimentary female monikers, ranging from er indoors
The three artists who make up De Geuzen are hard at work, finishing
off the results of their morning workshop. Riek Sijbring seems to
be the crafty one, Femke Snelting the computer expert, and Texas-born
Renee Turner the handiest with a camera.
The atmosphere is light-hearted, and the afternoon is punctuated with
comedy moments as gallery staff wander in and out with newly-baked
plates. Is Marilyn baked yet? someone asks. No,
shes just been sponged down comes the reply, followed
by hoots of laughter. Or Audreys coming! causing
widespread oohs and aahs.
A womens group has already produced a varied range of plates,
by collaging cut-out images onto ordinary dishes. The singer Pink
bursts out of a blaze of flowers on one, while Kylie is barely recognisable,
overlaid by kangaroos on another. The woman who made this plate chose
Kylie because of her inspirational fight against breast cancer. She
preferred an image which was not like Kylie Minogue, says Femke.
The artists are keen to find out about my icon. They become excited
when I explain that Màiri Mhórs career was triggered
by her wrongful imprisonment. People like someone who takes
something thats working against them and flips it to a virtue,
explains Renee. Already today others have chosen Anne Begg, the wheelchair-bound
MP for Aberdeen South, and Evelyn Glennie, the famous percussionist
who is profoundly deaf.
Im offered a choice of dishes on which to assemble my masterpiece.
The fussy china plate is definitely too ornate for my no-nonsense
lady, so Renee offers me a plain plate with a dark green border. I
reckon Màiri would have approved of the sturdy, bold dish.
Adding fancy flowers or swirly patterns doesnt seem quite right
for someone as solid and straight-talking as Màiri Mhór,
so I turn down all offers of these. I decide the singer should speak
for herself and put the title of her best-loved song around the rim.
Left with a faded photograph for the centre, I want to give her some
colour. Femke hands me a pack of felt-pens, pointing out how little
time I have left, and I instantly regress. Yes, Miss!
I say, and in nursery-school mode I start scribbling away.
A few scribbles later, Im told my time is up. Renee and Femke
deal with the technical process of printing my drawing to special
transfer paper, and with Rieks help, I sponge it onto my plate.
All of a sudden my childish drawing looks quite at home, and Im
pleased with my plate.
My day at the cheerful feminist nursery draws to a close, and I leave
Màiri behind in a queue for the oven. A few days later someone
will eat beef stew off my plate, and by now it should be washed up
and gleaming on the gallery wall.
If De Geuzens endeavour seems unnecessarily silly, consider
this: a poll was launched recently by Highland 2007 to find the
ultimate Highlands and Islands icon. From the full list of 21
nominations, only one, Flora Macdonald, is a woman. No sign of Màiri
Mhór, or of many other equally deserving Highland heroines.
De Geuzens project might feel like little more than fun and
games, but at its heart it raises questions which are clearly not
asked often enough. If they were, there would be far more than one
woman on that Highland list. When it comes to gender, it appears that
our society still has plenty to learn from a basic nursery education.
Black, Sunday Herald 11.02.07