Exhibitions Tell Stories Too: ‘Power of Stories’, Christchurch Mansion, Ipswich

This week I visited the latest exhibition on show at Christchurch Mansion in Ipswich. ‘Power of Stories’ is a collaborative endeavour and melds the loan of three of the Oscar-winning costumes from the Disney/Marvel film ‘Black Panther’ with historical pieces already held by the Ipswich Museum. Together with a team of Community Curators made up of local people, the exhibition also tells the story of how and why the Ipswich and Suffolk Council for Racial Equality (ISCRE) was formed during the 1970s.

From the left: Costumes for T’Challa, Okoye and Shuri from the Disney/Marvel film ‘Black Panther’.

It is not a new idea that human beings express their lived experiences and histories in narrative forms. Storytelling is and has been an essential part of human existence and as the anthropologists inform us it is present in one form or another in every community and culture across the world.

Queen Hatshepsut (1507-1458 BCE)

To begin with there was the storyteller and the story listener, but each time humankind discovered or invented a new medium for expression then a song, a cave-painting, a stone carving, a stained-glass window, a book, a photograph, a play, a film, a computer game or even an exhibition told a story.

Children’s history book. Circa 1950 (My note – an outdated yet ‘interesting’ storytelling of English history.)

As you enter ‘Power of Stories’ there is a large block of text written on the wall introducing the exhibition. It states:

A world of stories.

Sharing stories is something all people have in common. The more stories we know, hear and share, the wider our view of the world becomes.

Museums have historically presented a European view of history, which has excluded many voices and ways of knowing.

As Community Curators, we have woven our perspectives into this display, recognising that everyone has valuable stories to share. This is part of a developing collaboration around history, community and belonging.

The exhibition begins with a series of cabinets containing objects from the Ipswich Museum collection including puppets, metalwork sculptures, books and comics.

Puppets are part of a long and worldwide storytelling tradition. Punch from Europe and traditional Indonesian Wayang Golek (translates as theatre rod puppet).
Exhibit note – Foxe’s Book of Martyrs – John Foxe wrote this book of people who were killed for their faith by Queen Mary I between 1555 and 1558. Foxe, a Protestant, hoped to convince people that Catholicism was bloodthirsty and dangerous. (My note – the text and imagery persuasive storytelling or obvious propaganda?)
Exhibit note – Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám translated by Edward Fitzgerald. By translating ancient Persian poetry into English, Edward Fitzgerald encouraged fellow Victorians to think beyond their Christian mindset. (My note – this text placed next to Foxe’s Martyrs is perhaps the storytelling of the exhibition in action broadening the visitors outlook despite this being a Victorian English translation.)

There couldn’t be an exhibition about stories that didn’t include comics. Naturally this exhibition includes some of the most iconic Marvel issues, including copies of editions from ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’, ‘X-Men’ and ‘Iron Man’ series. And, of course with the main draw for the exhibition ‘Power of Stories’ being the three costumes designed for characters from the Marvel film, ‘Black Panther’, there’s versions of the earliest Black Panther comic book appearances.

Exhibit note – All of the comic books in the exhibition have been kindly loaned by Matthew C Applegate. These comic books are part of a collection of over 40,000 Marvel comic books which is believed to be one of the largest and most complete collections in the UK. (My note – Iron Man first appearing in 1963 a troubled, wealthy, individualistic superhero played in the films by Robert Downey Jr an equally troubled, wealthy, individualistic Hollywood star!)

I have not seen the film, ‘Black Panther’ but I know it was critically acclaimed and heralded for its mostly black cast especially for the lead actors’ strong performances and, notably, an all-female army.

Okoye’s Final Battle Scene Costume. Exhibit note – Marvel Studios’ Black Panther (2018). Worn by Danai Gurira. Okoye is the head of Wakandan armed forces and General of the Dora Milaje, an elite group of all-female soldiers. She represents heritage, tradition and loyalty.

Predictably from a film franchise based on comics that revel in the mythic superhero, Thor/Loki, Iron Man, X-Men, Spider Man amongst others, and, with only 12 percent of the superhero comics having female protagonists, it is not surprising that ‘Black Panther’ is about a king, T’Challa, and his kingdom of Wakander. Despite two of the three costumes on display being those for the female characters, Shuri and Okoye, the story is not primarily their story, but the king’s.

Shuri’s Final Battle Scene Costume. Exhibit note – Marvel Studios’ Black Panther (2018). Worn by Letitia Wright. Shuri harnesses the powerful fictional metal Vibranium to create Wakanda’s technology.

The film costumes for fictional characters are, no doubt, the crowd-drawing, eye-catching spectacle and next to them the real life, local story of how and why the Ipswich and Suffolk Council for Racial Equality (ISCRE) came into being feels quiet in the telling.

The ISCRE Story – Portraits by Loleitha Evelyn and Cartoon Strip by Dan Malone

However, there’s no doubt though that the loan of the ‘Black Panther’ costumes has offered an exciting opportunity for the wider community of Ipswich to be engaged with the presentation of the town’s heritage, identity and culture. And, this sentiment was expressed by Carole Jones of Ipswich Borough Council when she said:

“The exhibition is a thrilling collaboration between museums and Ipswich’s community. We did not want to tell people how to get the most out of Power of Stories – we wanted them to inspire each other and visitors with their stories and, hopefully, to bring new audiences to the mansion.”

Carole Jones, Ipswich Borough Council (portfolio holder for planning and museums).

The exhibition as a whole is offering a variety of stories to coax the visitor to consider how storytelling can either unite or divide peoples. However, one of these stories more in focus than the others is the predictable ‘individualistic hero’, particularly as told through the hereditary king. In the 21st century perhaps we need dramatic tales of collaborative governance and democracy as surely this is the way forward for a united and peaceful planet regardless of gender or race. We are, after all, all members of one storytelling species.

From the left: T’Challa (king), Okoye (general of elite force), Shuri (princess) Exhibit note – Costumes are one of the many tools a film director uses to tell a story. Ruth E. Carter understood each character deeply before creating clothes which brought them to life on screen. Her research drew on many traditions and features of life for different people across Africa. She won many accolades for her work on these costumes, including the 2019 Oscar for Best Costume Design and the 2020 Gold Derby Costume Design of the Decade award.

Collaborations

The World Presents . . . by Megan Wright
“I created these posters because I wanted to put across the message that it doesn’t take much to save the planet that we live on. If everyone just did small things to help it would make a massive difference.” Megan Wright.

Last month I went to see an exhibition of artwork on display at my local library. It was work created by art students studying for the UAL Foundation Diploma in Art & Design at Suffolk New College in Ipswich.

The brief for the students was to creatively tackle the issue of sustainability and their explorations were displayed around the Ipswich County Library.

One of the displays for the recent BLOC / Suffolk New College collaboration at the bottom of the stairs, Ipswich County Library.
Modern Goddess by William Board
“In a world where the fight never ends, we continue to contribute to a problem as we are fighting it. The textile industry generates more than 15 million tons of used textiles each year in the United States alone, and the amount has doubled over the last 20 years.” William Board.

This interesting exhibition was a collaboration between Suffolk Libraries and Suffolk New College with BLOC hosting the event. What or who are BLOC you’re thinking. Actually BLOC is an acronym that stands for Building Libraries on Creativity. It is Suffolk Libraries’ creative youth arts programme which has the aim to use creativity as a catalyst to improve young people’s resilience and wellbeing, and to change perceptions of libraries and how they serve the community, with a focus on young people. It was certainly great to see the thoughtful and compelling work created by the students. However, it was a little chilling that there was a definite grim edge to their assessment of where they think we currently are with the issue of sustainability.

Tooth and Claw. Imogen Howe
“A piece that captures the struggle to maintain ‘ethical sustainability’. Depicting the fight between good and evil, in the form of the angel and the devil. Painted using fabric paint on calico fabric, and etched using a drypoint technique over the top.” Imogen Howe.

I think any endeavour to get youngsters into libraries is welcome and holding exhibitions and other events helps to highlight the presence of libraries and also broaden their appeal for the wider community.

Nature drawn and/or photographed – ‘Art Forms in Nature’ Exhibition

It is always a pleasure to visit a thoughtfully curated exhibition.

From top left clockwise: Koelpinia linearis (Compositae), Centaurea Kotschyana – Knapweed, Hamamelis japonica – Japanese witch-hazel, Echinops sphaerocephalus – Great globe thistle, Pale globe-thistle. Photogravures, 1932

And, this was particularly so when I went to see ‘Art Forms in Nature’ at the Ipswich Art Gallery. The exhibition was comprised of four collections of images showcasing nature. The main area had a display of 40 photogravures by Karl Blossfeldt, the main upper gallery showed botanical drawings by Guy William Eves, and two smaller side rooms were devoted to specialist classification imagery.

From the left: Euphorbia – Spurge, Centaurea Grecesina – Knapweed, Cotula turbinate – Water buttons, Buttonweeds. Photogravures, 1932

The photogravures of natural forms by Karl Blossfeldt are fascinating. They are a Hayward Gallery Touring exhibition. Each image is beautifully and elegantly framed and mounted, and with discrete labelling (white on black), the main wall of 16 had both a classic and contemporary appeal. It invited closer inspection of each single photogravure.

Phacelia congesta. Photogravure, 1932

It is hard to believe these enlarged close-ups capturing such detail are nearly 90 years old.

I was new to Blossfeldt’s work and am now a fan not least as I know I will be returning to his images for pattern and motif inspiration.

Erodium chrysanthum – Yellow storksbill. Photogravure, 1932

Whilst the downstairs gallery featured a German photographer’s work the upstairs space was filled with work by the local artist and botanical illustrator, Guy William Eves.

Now here is why I think this is a thoughtfully curated show – you walk up a staircase having just examined how the lens captures plant detail to come to a collection of detailed drawings showing how the eye and hand creates a record of botanical forms.

From the left: Iris, Lily Head, Magnolia. Pencil drawings

Botanical illustrations are about accurately recording the form of a plant, and yet at the same time a visual artist, such as Eves, offers us both the required accuracy and a personal interpretation. A myriad of choices are made as Eves develops each representation. His skilfully drawn studies suggest the presence of living material all created through line and shading.

Ferns. Pencil drawings

I think you can see (even in these photos) there is something added by a fine artist when you compare Eves work with the purely accurately rendered scientific drawings and watercolours such as these of flies and fungi.

Fungi – Leslie Green ( 1918-2007), a Suffolk fan of fungi. Watercolour.

And, furthermore, if we compare Eve’s drawings with Blossfeldt’s dramatic, intense photogravures, you might agree that the drawings certainly differ having a more vital and radiant quality.

Lily Head. Pencil drawing

One final point, of course, you are currently looking at all these natural forms several times removed. The artists/photographer have created these works, I have then photographed them (with varying amounts of light and reflections issues, I apologise for the less than optimal quality) and uploaded them to a computer and you are now viewing these images on a screen. Somehow this has deadened their presence. If you don’t get the opportunity to visit this exhibition, I hope you might spare a moment to take a much, much closer look at the next gift from Mother Nature as it crosses your path.

Ornithogalum umbellatum. Pencil drawing

The Ark has Landed

Last year, on the 9th November, this large version of a Noah’s Ark arrived in Ipswich, with the aid of a tug, and docked at the Orwell Quay down on the Waterfront.

It is big, it is very dark and it is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a beautiful boat. The idea for this project came from the Dutch TV producer, Sir Aad Peters, and his boat, originally from the Netherlands, has visited Denmark, Norway and Germany, with this visit to Ipswich marking its first time in the UK.

It is a 70 metre wooden version of Noah’s Ark and also houses a floating exhibition of Bible stories. According to the local press, the boat features a 12ft tall Tree of Life that ‘grows’ up through the four floors of the vessel.

I haven’t been to see the exhibition as it isn’t my kind of thing being neither art nor a collection of historical, cultural artefacts. Plus, it is £16.50 for adults and £9.50 for children (4-13 years old) whereas Norwich Cathedral is free to visit despite its running costs of about £4,000 a day. And, even Canterbury Cathedral (running costs of approximately £18,000 a day) with its wealth of medieval culture of national and international significance, is only £12.50 for adults.

The online promotional information claims the vessel is a half-sized replica of Noah’s original vessel as described in the Book of Genesis.

14. Make thee an ark of gopher wood; rooms shalt thou make in the ark, and shalt pitch it within and without with pitch.

15. And this is the fashion which thou shalt make it of: The length of the ark shall be three hundred cubits, the breadth of it fifty cubits, and the height of it thirty cubits.

16. A window shalt thou make to the ark, and in a cubit shalt thou finish it above; and the door of the ark shalt thou set in the side thereof;  with lower, second and third stories shalt thou make it.

17. And, behold, I, even I, do bring a flood of waters upon the earth . . . . 

Genesis, Chapter 6, Verses 14-17. The Bible, Authorised King James Version.

That’s clear then, its 300 cubits long, 50 cubits wide, and 30 cubits high. Although, I do wonder quite how this is a ‘replica’ when there is no description in the text of the boat’s shape neither of its overall appearance.

Interestingly, twenty years ago the scientist and marine explorer Dr Robert Ballard found evidence of a great flood that occurred in the Black Sea area around 5,000 BC. There is also evidence of human occupation of that area and of a world subsequently drowned by a great flood. However, so far, no ark or ark remains, or ark preserved impressions have been found.

Noah, Gilgamesh and other flood myths are most likely explanations of actual geological episodes that occurred in times before evidence-based, scientific accounts became available. If you have a look around the Web, it appears that finding a real, original Noah’s Ark is of considerable importance to some folks. However, in the meantime people can visit ark interpretations such as the one on the Waterfront or watch Darren Aronofsky’s film, ‘Noah’, with its Biblical accurately-sized Ark that has a very different appearance and doesn’t really look like a boat at all. I suppose if you think about it, the Ark only had to float as it wasn’t built for sailing.

Just to finish, here’s a photograph of a fine, stylish craft also anchored in the Ipswich harbour which was decorated very attractively for the recent Festive season.