Feature: Female Icons, Peacock Visual Arts, Aberdeen

It’s not every day you’re asked to make a dinner-plate of your favourite female icon, so when I’m offered the chance at Aberdeen’s 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 Chicago’s feminist installation, The Dinner Party, of 1979.

A little confused by my mission, I consult De Geuzen’s 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 can’t 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 didn’t 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 didn’t 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 Mhór’s 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 to Jezebel.

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, she’s just been sponged down” comes the reply, followed by hoots of laughter. Or “Audrey’s coming!” causing widespread oohs and aahs.

A women’s 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. “Not glamorous.”

The artists are keen to find out about my icon. They become excited when I explain that Màiri Mhór’s career was triggered by her wrongful imprisonment. “People like someone who takes something that’s 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.

I’m 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 doesn’t 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, I’m told my time is up. Renee and Femke deal with the technical process of printing my drawing to special transfer paper, and with Riek’s help, I sponge it onto my plate. All of a sudden my childish drawing looks quite at home, and I’m 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 Geuzen’s 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 Geuzen’s 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.

Catrìona Black, Sunday Herald 11.02.07