For most of us today, cutting and pasting is what you do within and between word-processed documents, spreadsheet cells, presentation slides and website pages.
For Mary Evans, it is her technique. She uses a knife on double-layered doilies (“one would be too thin”) in a series of twenty ‘Willow Plates’, which she produces six at a time, so as “to avoid repetition”. She creates a similar scene, but enlarged, in the site-specific installation ‘Held’ stuck along an entire wall of the Tiwani Contemporary Gallery.
She spends three hours making more than four hundred gingerbread figures. This last medium, contained in the title, ‘Gingerbread’, is homely, the characters traditionally benign, but she has arranged the bodies in a slave ship.
It is also a figurative reference to the migration of people and cultures. Evans’ own story is one of moving back and forth voluntarily between Nigeria and the United Kingdom, but a more sinister, more prevalent theme in her exhibition is the forced movement of the slave trade. Many of the figures in ‘Willow Plates’ and all those in ‘Held’ look static, in anticipation of an impending departure from coastal west Africa. Only the suspended woman in ‘Willow Plates’ and ‘Recollection’ could pass as mobile.
Some of Evans’ landscapes (beaches, arches) could be romantic, except that the recurring woman hanging from a tree, wrists tied together, reminds one that, unlike Rob Ryan, there is no tender “Everything that is supposed to be in heaven is already here on earth” illusion here. Even when Ryan uses a round ceramic tile, the closest shape to Evans’ ‘Willow Plates’, his ‘Every Beat of My Heart’ is unambiguous.
Again in contrast to Ryan, there is no space for pleasant social interaction, apart from in ‘Liverpool Street’ – and even there, it is limited. Often the figures are alone, sometimes in crowds, sitting, leaning, arms crossed. The silhouetted women could be “Bond girls” if they were not held in vaults, ready to trap rather than be trapped. No equivalent to Elsa Mora’s paper-cut head and shoulders, covered in foliage, with two bird-headed human figures sitting on huge leaves, the higher one stretching out a hand to the lower one.
‘Mirror Image’, “the closest I ever get to painting,” says Evans, has four couples staring at each other, distinctly black in origin, based on their hair and features, but painted in the colours of precious and semi-precious stones. Three have streaks running down their necks. The fourth is a lush emerald green, though it appears deep royal blue in my photograph and on Tiwani’s web site.
Each self-reflection is identical, but a different tilt of the head or hairstyle distinguishes one couple from another. A cut in the paper in the red-brown couple on the bottom left could be a mascara’d eyelash.
Vibrant colour is also used in ‘Willow Plates’. Underneath the doilies is an electric blue background rather than the lighter blue of Chinese and later Dutch tiles or pottery.
Affixed to the plates in ‘Recollection’ are copies of newspaper cuttings, portraits, drawings and photographs. There are women with their breasts showing, and women and men in western dress, including a freed, educated slave who wrote a book and whose dandy look contrasts with the poorer man on the plate to his left.
In the second row is an article about a runaway “negro boy” slave “of the Congo country, about 15 or 16”. A promise of a £2 Sh 15 award. To the left is perhaps another fugitive slave.
There are children atop a barrel in tatty clothes. A sleeping boy. Can there be poetry in poverty if there is also freedom? I have just cut, re-arranged and pasted letters, leaving one out on the way… just as Evans deliberately leaves so much unsaid.