Visit the Embroiderers’ Guild NSW during December January and you’ll have an opportunity to view works by students who are taking part in some of the different courses offered by the Guild, from the Creative Correspondence course to the Introduction to Embroidery Course and the Contemporary Stitch and Design Course (CS&D).
I’ve chosen to write about three of the works from the CS&D course, including my own as I felt that they were thematically related.
The first is Kimberley Odewan’s embroidered dancing shoes. Using Hans Christian Andersons’ fairy tale “ Red Shoes” as the starting point in her design journey, she made and embroidered a pair of shoes in order to showcase the historical struggles of women and the warnings, often subliminal, that women absorb through their daily lives ensuring that they know their place in society and don’t kick over the traces both real and imagined. The other shoe shows how far women have come, in spite of the obstacles that society has placed in their way.
Photo caption: Kimberley Odewan’s Dancing Shoes depicting the subliminal images women receive that ensures they ‘know their place’ in Society. Photo credit: Suganthi Singarayar
This is Kimberley’s artist statement:
I explore the struggle for women as we strive for gender equality. The piece highlights the concerning stories in historical fairy tales where we reminded girls of the importance of knowing their place and towing the line. I then rewrite the story in a modern context, depicting how we as women are charting our own path, even if there is still a way to go.
The right shoe (the left when you look at the photo) depicts the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale “The Red Shoes”. It’s a grim tale about a girl who dares to wear red shoes and pursue happiness and ends up paying a huge penalty for her “vanity” by having her feet amputated. It’s a warning tale to women reminding them about who is in control and not to rise above their station. You see the girl dancing with wild abandon as the twisted dark forest engulfs her. The silver chain represents control. The word “know your place” has been stitched on the sole of the shoe.
The left shoe (the right when you look at the photo) represents the modern Red Shoe movement which calls on women to help each other to rise up and chart their own path. I have included the forest that still exists to some extent but with new growth representing the changing conditions and hope. The golden path leads to a beautiful tree dripping with “the fruits of our labour”. Along the path you’ll find some red triangles representing family planning and reproductive health services, and purple books for education which are crucial to obtaining gender equality. The dotting of purple throughout is a nod to the suffragettes and “Chart your own path” has been stitched on the sole.
The second piece is by Lesley Groombridge. She embroidered the dress that she wore at her own winter wedding in February 1970, to show the plight of young women in 1960s England who were forced to give up their babies when the babies were born out of wedlock.
The dress was made for her by a friend and is made from moire taffeta with a collar and cuffs made of “strings of feathers”. The complete outfit included a cape and hood which were also trimmed with feathers.
This is her artist’s statement:
IF YOU WANTED A BABY YOU SHOULD HAVE GOT MARRIED FIRST.
This work focusses on the experiences of young unmarried pregnant women in 1960s England, who were sent away to have their babies in Mother and Baby (M&B) Homes, and then forced to give up their babies for adoption 6 weeks later.
When I became aware (in the early 2010s) of the appalling treatment of these young women in mainly church-run M&B Homes, I felt both angry at the lack of compassion shown to these women, as well as deep sadness for what they had to endure.
My goal in this work was to visually represent their emotional journey from rejection by their families, their humiliation and punishment in the M&B Home, their fear and loneliness when they gave birth alone, through to their despair at being separated from their baby.
I see this as a journey of increasing emotional pain, culminating in grief and anguish on Adoption Day. My approach was to increase the size of each figure to match the increase in pain and, through more open and ragged stitching, to communicate her emotional disintegration. My chosen substrate was a 50 year old wedding dress – the one thing that could have changed the whole story.
My influences for this work are Clara Lieu – Falling: Emerge series of drawings expressing extreme emotional pain; the collaged narratives of Alice Kettle – Thread Bearing Witness and Rosie James – Ripley Wedding; and the stitch style of Michelle Kingdom – Even Now .. Even and The Descent of Beauty – semi dense straight stitching.
The final piece is my own work “Where were the men?”
TUAM – The piece is a lament for the men who are never mentioned in any current news stories about children who were taken away from their unwed mothers in the 1950s, 60s or 70s. My immediate reaction is always: And what happened to the men? Where were the men? The women did not get pregnant by themselves.
I had that same reaction when reading the book, “Blood on the Rosary” by Sue Smethurst and Margaret Harrod, Simon and Schuster, 2019. In the Epilogue, Margaret Harrod says that as she was writing her book a new scandal involving the Catholic church was unfolding on the other side of the world.
The bodies of 796 babies were exhumed from a mass grave under a playground on the site of a former Mother and Baby home run by Bon Secours nuns in the Irish town of Tuam in County Galway.
Overall, “Up to 7,000 children died while in the care of the Bon Secours nuns”.
If that many children died in those homes, imagine how many survived and had no contact with either parent.
Imagine also, the treatment meted out to those children – the ones who died, the ones who lived, and their mothers.
What an absolute unmitigated nightmare and tragedy with long lasting and serious consequences for all involved… for the men, the women and the children, brought about by attitudes of the Catholic church and the mores of the time.
This is not the church of the Jesus who supposedly said: Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 19:14