toc writing commission
folklore, ferns and textiles - the importance of rural histories and black british culture in contemporary art
Figure 1. Pollard, I. 'Three Drops of Blood', 2022, detail of installation.
Image by Hare, A.
Ferns have long been given mythical and magical properties according to a myriad of folktales and popular culture. In West African folklore the fern presents as the symbol AYA, meaning resiliency and strength. It is said that the person adorned with the AYA symbol is someone who has endured adversities and overcome. In Japan, the fern known as Shida symbolises fertility, while in New Zealand it symbolises strength and enduring power. European examples include the burning of bracken which would bring rainfall, good fortune and luck or be used to ward off witches. In Sabine Baring-Gould’s The Shepherd's Daughter, ferns were imagined to restore sight that was once lost. (Baring-Gould and University of Connecticut Libraries, 1895)
The seeds of ferns in particular are given magical potential. Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1, where it is said that whoever puts out 12 pewter plates in a wooded area would receive a single golden fern seed and that the person or peoples who collect that golden seed would become invisible. The true nature of the fern however, is that it does not flower or bear seeds, nor does it require birds or bees to pollinate; instead it reproduces through spores. Continuing its prehistoric journey to find the perfect temperature, moisture and light. Once found it begins to germinate and becomes an entirely different generation of plant before establishing itself as a fern; the favourable place often being in the shadows or where flowering plants would struggle to grow. This migration of spores is likely the reason for the fern’s mythology around invisibility. This idea is nuanced in Pollard’s themes around invisible histories, particularly how the global majority have influenced British culture. This highlight of black figures in British culture is resumed from ‘Seventeen of Sixty-Eight’ (2019), specifically in the use of Duratrans in ‘Three Drops of Blood’ depicting black figures from historical books that are otherwise overlooked.
Conceivably, Black British people, including those who have historically lived in Devon, have had a similar existence to that of the fern of 18th and 19th centuries – and likewise the lace and bark boxes that appear in ‘Three Drops of Blood’. Like the migration of plants travelling across oceans and lands to become situated within rural Devon landscapes whether by choice or as part of Devon’s role in the transatlantic slave trade (Mackenzie and Stone, 1990) often becoming invisible or living in the shadow of more prominent imperial history but nonetheless finding favourable climates to grow into something new; this could be suggested as Black British culture.(1)
Those aware of Ingrid Pollard know that her work has always been overt in its positioning of global majority people, particularly black people in rural areas across Britain, alongside examining how black people have been represented throughout British history. Examples of such work include the photographic postcard ‘Wordsworth’s Heritage’ (1992),and ‘Seventeen of Sixty-Eight’ (2019) exploring the 68 UK pubs that feature ‘Black Boy’ in their name together, with prints, photographs and pub signs of black figures. Pollard continues to explore these themes with ‘Three Drops of Blood’, however, there is a subtlety to this examination of British culture that highlights the interaction between symbolism, ethnogeography and folklore, while also exploring class and rural industry. Pollard does this by delving into historical undercurrents of rural England such as the lace industry of Devon and folklore as well as collecting local oral histories from Northumberland such as being gifted the 19th century mourning bonnets alongside the mourning corset and matching skirt.(2)
Like global majority people and ferns, cloth and textiles have also become signifiers of travelling histories and, that lace in particular, has enmeshed multiple perspectives of British, African and Caribbean cultures into one historical narrative. This is reinforced in Christine Checinska’s ‘Aesthetics of Blackness? Cloth, Culture, and the African Diasporas’ (TEXTILE: Cloth and Culture, 2018) which discusses how important cloth is to people of the African diaspora and its representation of that history.
Whilst having practical uses, cloth plays a significant role in ritual whether everyday or ceremonial, secular or spiritual. It becomes saturated with cultural meaning and memory as crafting techniques and family keepsakes are passed from one generation to the next. Cloth can be cut, worked, embellished, manipulated, and transformed, then folded, packed, and transported across the continents—on the move just as the people that make and use it are on the move.
What roots these themes so poignantly in ‘Three Drops of Blood’ is Pollard’s narration of local imperial histories with personal, oral histories. Pollard’s use of lace denotes the craft of lacemaking, which became a thriving industry in Honiton, producing what is known as Honiton lace. Bobbin Lace, said to have been introduced to England as early as 1538 by the Dutch according to The Lace Book (N. Hudson Moore, 1937) became a prominent influence in lace designs across England. Honiton lace in particular, became more established in the 18th century and rose to popularity in the Victorian era with Queen Victoria herself commissioning Honiton lace to be used for her wedding dress (Dalen, B. V, 2019). Being the royal lacemakers rooted Honiton’s significance in British culture, however, the importance is its visual references to the landscape of Devon and the uniqueness of the motifs used to create it such as the Devonia Spray and Spray of Fern. The fern is important because Flemish lace motifs commonly feature curled fiddleheads whereas Honiton lace features a distinctive uncurled fiddlehead fern motif.
Similarly, the doily is renowned in British culture and adopted into Caribbean culture. The doily has become significantly shaped by Caribbean influence through the received nationality of Britishness and politics of class. (Checinska, 2018) Evidenced by the featuring of doilies in The Caribbean Living Room originally created in 2018 by the Afrikan Caribbean Kultral Heritage Initiative (ACKHI), BK.LUWO group and Museum of Oxford. The Caribbean Living Room is set to reopen marking the 70th anniversary of the docking of the SS Windrush which is exhibiting until 2023. This is also supported in the Museum of London and Culture Mile short film series ‘Our Stories: Reflecting on Black British History in Four Objects’ (2020) which sees writer and poet Adisa Stephen-Ezeocha reflect on the crochet doily and its importance in his own family heritage and childhood in England. Stephen-Ezeocha reflects on how common the crochet
Figure 2. Jamaican Doily, 19th Century, The Nuttall Collection, Gift of Mrs. Magdalena Nuttall, 1908. Metmuseum.org
doily was in Caribbean family homes and its significance as part of the special front room or living room. He goes on to say that Caribbean people who came to Britain were immediately placed into the working class so the living room became the symbol for culture, taste and class within black British culture. This could speak to the idea of personal, oral and visual accounts of life that are noteworthy within black culture but due to a lack of historical recording are hard to argue, and therefore becoming an invisible narrative of itself.
Figure 3: Pollard, I. ‘Three Drops of Blood’, 2022, detail of installation. Image by Hare, A.
There is a thread of travelling, collecting and connection moving through the work that is evidenced in Pollard's reference of the fern as both a native and non-native to British landscapes and its significance in myth, magic and symbolism. In West Africa the fern also known as AYA is a pronounced symbol while in Celtic shamanism they are a symbol of luck.
Uncurled fronds of male fern were gathered at Midsummer, dried and carried for good luck. All ferns are powerful protective plants and faeries are especially attracted to them. (Conway, D.J., 2011)
What is compelling about Pollard’s ‘Three Drops of Blood’ at this particular time in contemporary art is how Pollard has again re-energised the narrative on the untold stories and culture within the rural landscape of England. The use of the Adinkra symbol AYA alongside the theme of fern folklore also speaks to what could be seen as the strength and endurance of both the global majority and working class’s ability to collect and connect narratives that are seen as separate from imperial history but may be reflected as the underpinning of it. Pollard asks us to look at
who and what is shaping British culture in a non-judgmental critique. Her work prompts us to revisit Paul Gilroy’s 1993 Black Atlantic concept; a concept that seeks to move beyond cultural nationalism and instead making connection and exchange of personal and local accounts the most prominent and effective way of re-telling an inclusive history. Gilroy’s notion that various histories are in constant back and forth, influencing and being influenced by each other to create new narratives speaks clearly to the work in Pollard’s ‘Three Drops of Blood’.
The thread of travelling and connection is also echoed in the use of bark boxes also known as Xylotheks which were popular in the 18th and 19th centuries as a visual way of collecting and recording indigenous seeds and plant life while travelling. Referencing the Devon and Exeter Institution’s own collection of Xylotheks, Pollard develops yet another thread that could denote the idea of connecting multiple narratives. The collapse or complication of the local and the global can be deduced from the image depicting the Merina Men of Madagascar in 1899. The use of a ripped map piled within the bark boxes and the boxes themselves produced from British wood such as oak and cedar. Cedar also being used by workmen as a natural insect repellent, repelling both tick bites that are prominent in the natural landscapes of Devon and clothes-moths.(3)
What should be considered even more important about Ingrid Pollard’s work as evidenced in ‘Three Drops of Blood’, is how essential it is to take a second and third look at history, to incorporate personal and collective experiences that underpin the larger context of history. There are accounts of history that aren’t written into books but exist in illustrations and visual language such as figure 4. There are glimpses of worlds that are unknown that are passed on through stories, cloth and natural landscapes. What Pollard has done with ‘Three Drops of Blood’ could be seen as a much needed and welcoming hand into the critique of how and what rural histories and local cultures are explored and push the conversation around race and British imperialism forward in South West
England. ‘Three Drops of Blood’ is a gentle reminder that multiple narratives, languages and truths coexist and that by dissecting it and injecting diverse narratives we can create something new and robust.
1. It is important to note however, that Black British history did not begin with the transatlantic slave trade however due to a lack of historical recording it is difficult to argue exactly when a majority of black people lived in the UK (MacKenzie and Stone, 2013).
2. In conversation with Ingrid Pollard at the opening night of ‘Three Drops of Blood’, Pollard mentioned being gifted the textile artefacts featured in the exhibition.
3. In conversation with Ingrid Pollard at the opening night of ‘Three Drops of Blood’, Pollard mentioned Cedar being used by construction workers as a natural tick repellent. Cedar wood and Cedar oil is used as a natural insect repellent. It’s most notable for repelling clothes-moths and is commonly used in wardrobes and drawers.
Ashanti Hare is an artist, curator and writer based in Plymouth. Hare explores the duality of life as both a human being and spiritual entity. Combining digital manipulation, folk craftsmanship and writing, Hare often explores the boundaries between cultural identity and spiritual entity through sensory experiences that include tactility, scent and moving image. Their ongoing research is motivated by underlying references to pop culture, witchcraft, literature and music. Hare’s current research explores how colonial history, particularly in the South West, and cultural identity intersect. Spiritualism and folk practices serving as the foundation for research, Hare seeks to create a body of work that focuses on the intricacies of dual heritage, particularly how Caribbean and African spiritualism intertwines with British history. Through the use of traditional craft practices such as textiles and ceramics, Hare creates tapestries and sculpture that retell Caribbean and African folklore, spellwork and history while reflecting popular culture specific to Black Britishness. Using the South West as the backdrop for this research, Hare seeks to invite new conversations around contemporary ideas and attitudes to spiritualism and occult practices within art spaces.