The materiality of Fine Art is often called into question in this present day and age.
‘Why should we take this banana on the wall seriously’, ‘this painter only does abstraction because they can’t REALLY paint’ or even, ‘why would you create something that has no function?’.
But to be honest, art has long ago ceased to just be about craftsmanship and is now about the ability to move or even transcend one’s audience.
As I lay there, half awake, I rummaged around my bed a little and found my new favourite red pen and Byzantine decorated notebook and went to work.
This was another one of those dreams that I was going to interpret and turn into an artwork.
My dreams are masterpieces of personal agony, academic research, popular news and culture, psychology, colour theory, mythos, and allegory.
The day that I can truly recreate my dreams to my expectation, is the day that I would have officially become a ‘Master’ of sorts. So it may never happen, because mastery to me seems extremely boring. Experimentation is far more interesting. That said, I’m a bit obsessive so…
I get to work on understanding my dream and how others could relate in the installation that I am planning.
1) The Personal: Blue + Red = Purple
In my dream my mother was besides herself about how ‘different’ I was to the rest of the family. I’m on the spectrum (and loud about it), I’m bisexual, I’m not conventional, I practice the traditional Yoruba religion of Ifá and not Christianity (she and all her siblings + parents are literally pastors) I’m somewhat passably attractive and yet not dating or even very social and my British accent gets stronger and ‘posher’ every time I see her, I am also extremely sex and body positive. Also, I am WAY too nice in comparison to her other kids, almost constantly being in servitude of others – this was also VERY weird to her.
So in my dream, when the whole family wore traditional blue attire and I wore purple, my Mum needed an answer and a friend and ‘elder’ came to her and said that I am borne from a similar cloth as her and the rest of the family, but that the red inside of me could not be denied or ignored. That it was part of who I am, and it was something that strengthens me.
2) The Mythological: Yemọja + Ṣàngó = Something Unheard Of
In Yorùbá mythology Yemọja is the mother of all Òrìṣà (Yorùbá Gods & Goddesses), as she suddenly birthed them all from a large body of water after undergoing distress. Ṣàngó is an offspring of Yemọja, but is the embodiment of lighting + thunder and Yemọja is the embodiment of water – a fairly chaotic mix when they come together. And this was apparently the reflection of my own internal self.
3) The Research: Environmental Instability
An aspect of my dream that reflected not only mythology but existential dread about the environment, was the submergence of the man-made Lagos Island into a tumultuous and ravishing flood. And I was being asked to enter it.
Now a significant part of Yorùbá mythos is Òrìṣà becoming overwhelmed with emotion and turning into a body of water as a result – this is what was happening in my dream.
In my dream the violence experienced by the land and the violence experienced by the bodies of women and girls in Nigeria was creating a reaction within nature. And the waters had decided to begin to swallow up humanity.
It is true, that in reality the floods in Nigeria have become so problematic that they are killing whole families, with one rush of water.
Similarly, one of the main health issues that W.African women of this particular region experience is water retention, creating high-blood pressure in otherwise healthy people, particularly women.
I guess my mind saw a connection with this.
The body retaining water - the land becoming overwhelmed with water
All because of trauma.
But I wonder about inspecting the waters, finding out what causes this instability. But I am just an artist, not a scientist. I can only critique and bring attention to – and so I try to.
4) Personal Agony: It’s just being different generally
So I’ve always been different. Sometimes in a good way, sometimes in a way that makes a lot of people around me frustrated. Or uncomfortable.
I’ve been popular (by accident) and I’ve always shied away from it, but this often means loneliness in order to have piece of mind.
From having fairly painful invisible disabilities to dressing completely out of place in most environments, to simply refusing to conform in order to be my most honest self.
I’ll admit that the level of vulnerability I feel calls for a constant protection, but also a level of confidence and self-esteem that I do not like to compromise on.
Which is where the solitary aspect of my individuality comes into play.
Someone else wanted my space for this exhibition, and if it was by popularity rather than a first-come-first-serve basis, it wouldn’t have happened.
And this was in my dream.
Solitary Gold, who was not popular, but who made everything look great because I refuse to fall into the pitfalls of self-pity and insecurity.
Is it shallow to always try and create beauty? Well to be very honest I don’t care, because the beauty of fashion and garment construction has always been a form of expression, and also the aspect of me that is the most heavily critiqued.
And so with all of this I create “Diasporan Wilderness”.
An intense over analysis of self, how the world interacts with myself and of the world I reside in general.
As I wade through the intense emotion needed to survive life, I wonder what would have happened if I kept dreaming and journeyed into the flood.
Does my ‘difference’ mean I’ll survive, or does it just mean I’ll experience it differently?
Through this exhibition I wanted to immerse the audience into strong feeling, via the sound of a story, through murals painted on Yorùbá adire fabric (the traditional fabric of the Yorùbá people of West Africa) , by installing instruments of worship collected at Osun’s sacred grove in Nigeria and through my use of cowrie shells scattered on the ground and adorning the bodice of the one singular garment. A garment that represents the individual borne of 2 very different worlds.
And individual that wishes to survive and tell their tale of life.
I’m not too sure how the audience felt, walking through the antiquated quad of St. John’s and entering my own personal wilderness.
There is no one way to feel.
I just hope that they felt.
This piece was first published in St Edmund Hall's Magazine 2021-2022
In The Heart Of Hidden Things by Kit Whitfield (Quercus Publishing) is a novel steeped in fairy lore. It centres around a family of fairy smiths, whose job it is to protect the humans from the fairy folk with advice and iron. In this novel, the humans are weak and the fairies are strong. But among the humans, there are hierarchies, too. The cruel and bitter landlord, Ephraim Brady, has it in for Tobias Ware, a boy who does not understand the laws and language of men. Together, John and his fairy-smith father, Mathew, must try to calm the wroth of the fairy folk to keep Tobias safe.
I read and am reviewing this book for its representation of neurodiversity. The story draws heavily on Kit Whitfield’s own experiences of being part of a neurodiverse family. Although within the novel itself, there is no explicit mention of neurodiversity in these exact terms, Whitfield’s intentions are made clear in an appendix that lists resources about neurodiversity in order to point readers in the direction of support should they need it.
In In The Heart Of Hidden Things, both John and Tobias’ neurodivergence is thought to have magical origins. John is thought to have been ‘touched’ by the fairy folk and Tobias’ behaviours are put down to the ‘bad luck that he’d been born one dark autumn night after his mother took fright at the sight of Black Hal [a spectral dog] running past their gate’.
Fairy superstition has historically been used to explain physical disabilities in newborn babies, and also disabilities that became apparent in individuals later in life. Often, it was thought a child may either have been demonically or divinely ‘touched’. Sometimes, such infants were thought to be changelings, and in other instances they were believed to be lucky in that they supposedly brought all of God’s wrath upon themselves, thus sparing the rest of the village. Today, the phrase ‘touched in the head’ is still used in a derogatory way to imply foolishness or insanity.
In In The Heart Of Hidden Things, to be ‘touched’ comes with some social stigma, in that it is something most people are trying to avoid. However, Whitfield’s use of the term ‘touched’ perhaps goes partway to reclaiming it. For one thing, those ‘touched’ are not idealised or demonised. Moreover, to be ‘touched’ holds a wide range of meanings beyond making one physically or intellectually disabled. For example, aside from John and Tobias, John’s mother is also ‘touched’, but for her this means that any needle work she does turns into forest foliage!
Although the novel features numerous central characters, for a lot of the narrative we follow John, a boy who according to the blurb, ‘turned out a little uncommon… but he means well.’ Despite this initial introduction to John feeling a little patronising, and perhaps more in-keeping with the modern understanding of ‘touched’ than I’d have liked, John is immediately a likeable and engaging character. He clearly means well, even when his difficulty grasping the implied meanings of vague, or idiomatic, language gets him into trouble with his grandfather in the first chapter of the book. These moments are generally handled extremely well, as we are led to easily identify with the logic of John’s interpretation of the words, rather than encouraged to find his misunderstanding funny.
For the most part, the villagers adapt themselves to John and Tobias, rather than wanting them to change. Those around Tobias understand that his perception of the law is not the same as their own, and they make accommodations for this. It is clear that his family love him and care for him, saying, ‘We all have our ways and Toby has his’. Meanwhile, John’s father, Mathew, is methodical and clear in his communication with his son as he continues to train John to be a fairy-smith and entrusts him with more and more responsibility. This is something John takes very seriously.
While on a grassroots level, the villagers are accepting and accommodating, the laws themselves do not account for any difference of perception, so Tobias’ safety from the fairy folk and from Ephraim Brady is an immediate concern for numerous characters. Yet, some of the animalistic traits Tobias demonstrates are problematic. For example, he eats raw meat, enjoys being petted, and is at times kept penned in or caged. Reading this with the knowledge that this book was depicting neurodiversity meant I found these descriptions uncomfortable, particularly when objects of Tobias’ fear were used as a tool to keep him fenced in.
In terms of disability representation, the fact that the curing or eradication of any disability is not the focus of this book is always positive (and a relief!) to read. John is a nuanced character who makes and rights his mistakes, Tobias, though with problematic elements I have already discussed, is a non-speaking boy who is allowed to be himself, and this is complicated and limited only when those around him are trying to keep him safe from danger and harm – and harm that is socially inflicted by a law that doesn’t account for Tobias’ way of living.
Overall, the novel has a collection of central characters at its heart, which in itself speaks to the community fostered in the pages of this book. Power struggles, violence, mistakes and responsibility are threaded throughout the story. John is a strong, nuanced protagonist whose sound heart gives this book its warmth, even when things start to go wrong. Whitfield’s world building is detailed, the magic of this story is enticing and I found plenty to enjoy in this book.
Reviewed by Beth O'Brien.
Thank you to Quercus Books for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
About the author:
Beth O’Brien is a writer, editor and reviewer. She is the author of Light Perception (Wild Pressed Books, 2019), I Left the Room Burning (Wild Pressed Books, 2021), The Earth is a Bookcase (Black Pear Press, 2021), Catching Sight (Blanket Sea Press, 2021) and I Chase Lightning (Black Pear Press, 2022). She is a children’s fiction ghost-writer, and also writes graded reader books for children learning English as a foreign or additional language. Having been born visually impaired and with an upper limb difference, Beth has a long-standing interest in the representation of disability in literature. She is currently studying for a PhD in Creative Writing funded by Midlands4Cities, researching the (mis)representation of disability in contemporary fairy tale retellings.
Discussing disabled characters in fairy tales and folklore!