Friday, November 30, 2018

Artistic fiction...

My daughter often expresses regret for the passing of her childhood, and misses above all those almost-magical periods of play during which would be mesmerised by her make-believe universes.

The loss of that power of play, which would transfix her, transporting her away from her surroundings yet readily using all the means at hand to do so is still keenly felt and mourned, to a degree.

I too miss hearing her little voice, engaged in busy, bossy discussions with her toys which would all duly express themselves through her, obediently following her every decision in line with a set of events that would unroll under her command.

The teenage years slowly but surely eroded that landscape, making it ever-harder to re-enter that odd, little country that eventually grew to seem flat and meaningless when faced with a new world of unchartered territory. Whilst the realm of childhood is definitively shut off to us once we set off on the trajectory of adolescence towards adulthood, you can surely get a visitor's pass if you play your cards right.

The trick of this, presumably, is to find some essence or quality of that childhood space that can be recreated and re-adapted to the 'grown-up' world, much as you would try to simulate a specific natural fragrance in a synthetic manner.

At least, that is what I try to explain to my daughter but then the teenage years are when you test and reject most of what formed your safe, familiar universe - starting with the family.

Literature is what comes to my mind as the obvious means to gain instant access to other realities - the process of reading and writing any work of fiction represents a perfect gateway or escape route, in Narnia fashion. But then, in fact any kind of creative endeavour must largely serve a similar purpose and satisfy the same needs. We are driven to lose ourselves, yet to remain firmly rooted physically and mentally in our practical lives so that this simultaneous experience does not disrupt the normal functioning of our supposedly ‘adult’, responsible existence.

Until a recent visit to an exhibition, here in Reims, Le Peuple des Femmes Nuages, I had never considered how far you could create a whole culture and community through visual art ‘fiction’. In fact, I was totally taken in by this troublingly life-like creation, which I simply took to be reality.
Having forgotten my glasses and failed to notice the term 'fiction artistique' used to describe to work on display, I entered a parallel world!

Set under the vaulted 18th century ceilings in the Musée Saint-Remi de Reims, the site of the former royal abbey, the exhibition dazzles against the sober stonework with its bright colours and intricate detail. Suddenly, we are faced with the personal effects of late 19th century Westerners who had spent their lives trekking around the far-flung corners of the world, experiencing first hand the social codes in matriarchal societies.

Mexico, Bolivia, China, India, Morocco and Algeria are but a few of the sites visited by these two trail-blazing women, their paths often crossing those of renowned figures such as Frida Kahlo. The numerous notebooks, diaries, items of correspondance, photographs, sketches of flora, fauna and landscape, botanical samples accompany the heavily-decorated costumes, jewellery and accessories that entered into the two women’s possession during their travels.

According to the story, these precious items had all been discovered in dusty trunks, having laid long-forgotten for over a century in the attic of a wealthy Parisian family working in the textile industry.

The objects had all belonged to distant relatives - Mary Miller (1855-1943) and Adèle de Causse (1870-1950).

These two women were cousins, sharing the same interests in travel, anthropology, sociology, spirituality, botany and notably the position and representation of Woman in the societies that they encountered.

Legend would have it that many of the exhibits date back to a trip to Turkestan at the very end of the century, followed by voyages to India, the Yunnan province in China and the Himalayan foothills.

It was during this latter adventure that Mary and Adèle came across the gynaecocratic system of the Nam-Khas, living in a remote valley region, near the Tibetan frontier. They spent two years among the Peuple des Femmes Nuages, from 1907-1909, observing the life, customs and religion followed by these women who had assured the position of responsibility since the majority of the mensfolk had been lost in an accident during a caravan trade excursion in the mid 1800s.

This social arrangement was reminiscent of the ancient matrilinear societies that Mary learnt of during her honeymoon in Mexico. These notions were reinforced by the theories of the Swiss anthropologist, Johann Jakob Bachofen, with his image of the great Goddess - Mother Right. In turn, these influences were vital to the development of Mary’s own ideas, finally leading to the conferences on women and freedom that she gave at the end of her life during which, incidentally, she met Frida Kahlo.

 Amongst the belongings on show are garments and spiritual artifacts that played a vital role in the chamanic rituals of the community. Beautifully embroidered clothes are laid out, alongside bright, beaded jewellery, strange masks and embelished carved bones and amulets.

The enigmatic expressions of richly-dressed women and young girls in the tinted photos catch our attention whilst handsome males likewise stare out at us. These men were some of the passing foreigners, pilgrims, and individuals from neighbouring villages, welcomed to the community by the women which had renounced the constraints of patriarchy, with its basis in mariage, and set sexual codes and norms.

This glimpse of the serendipitous existence of Mary and Adèle, their incredible experience of such a wealth of beauty and culture around the world amazed me, in all my naivety.

The rich history of these women was such a perfect tale, with its amazing chance encounters and air of faded exoticism truly charmed me to believe it was more than a mere ‘story’. Having finally realised that this was ‘just’ an artistic fabrication, I wondered why it should matter that this was fiction rather than fact.

Myself in the background as an unintentional 'cloud woman'...
This universe certainly brightened and inspired mine on a dull Sunday afternoon, so the invention of these two characters was surely legitimate and above all, desirable. Ultimately, the artistic aims of the exhibition’s creator, Béatrice Meunier, are realised not just as we are drawn into this illusory world, weaving make-believe with threads of reality, but afterwards too, as we try to find the sense of the whole experience.
My princess who has long grown out of fairy tales, but still looking for a story...

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