Sometimes I feel completely overwhelmed by the doom and gloom in the world. Daily we are bombarded on social media with news and images of such intense savagery and cruelty that I am left reeling in disbelief. I am forced to wonder what chance we, who try to bring peace, love and light into the world, have against the darkness that lurks within the human heart? As artists, it is our task to make comment, to make visible the invisible and I am reminded of a textile artwork that I made in 2006 where I addressed the issue of forgiveness, the lack of which I believe to be at the root of the current world malaise.
The artwork comes in the form of a battle jacket and although this is not a new work, the message it contains is universal and will be relevant until the end of time. I share it with you now, along with the statement as it was written back then:
1.50cm x 50cm
Dyed cotton fabric, beads, rusted metal, string. Machine embroidery and appliqué
The making and hanging of ‘Surrender’ symbolizes the process of forgiveness. It represents a conscious decision to lay down ones arms and give up the fight. It is about facing the wounds and letting them go.
The subject of ‘forgiveness’ is an interesting one. Intellectually I understand it and can see the sense in forgiving those who have betrayed and hurt us, but there is a big difference between understanding it and being able to do it. To fully implement ‘forgiveness’ is difficult. To start with, in a perverse kind of way, it feels so comfortable holding onto all those wounds and resentments as they reinforce our ‘victim’ status and our overwhelming desire to be right. They become an extension of who we are, the way we define and present ourselves to the world. To let go of them is scary, as what would we be without them, and what would we have to hold onto? Apart from which, how does one let go and forgive?
I had been pondering on these things for some time, when I unexpectedly inherited an anthology of poems by Thomas Moore (c.1800). Browsing through this volume, I came across an ode that he had translated from the bard of antiquity, Anacreon, 6BC. The ode was about love, and as I read it, I began to feel the mists of confusion that surround the issue of ‘forgiveness’, beginning to lift. The more I thought about it, the more I realised that over the years, as we suffer the trials and tribulations of living, we subconsciously use our wounds to build up a strong protective layer of armour around ourselves, a layer we foolishly hope will ward off pain, past, present and future. Anacreon’s poem made me aware of how we fight to keep love out for fear of being hurt, when in fact it is the lack of love, or our refusal to love, that really creates the pain. As I began to examine my own life, the idea for a ceremonial unclothing began to grow and with it the process of forgiveness began.
During the making of this work, I received many insights into the human condition. As I worked, the image of the cross began to emerge, without me being conscious of having put it there. I saw not only the cross, but the crown of thorns, both of which symbolise ‘martyrdom’, our reward for being so good and right, whilst everyone else is wrong. I realised how many of us travel through life seeing ourselves as martyrs, as victims, gathering rank and status (the military ‘pips’ on the shoulders) as we go. The flower image also began to appear, and made me think of growth and the desperate need we have to try to shine and grow, despite the weight of our emotional baggage. In reality, however, true growth and blossoming comes only when one is brave enough to remove the armour and say ‘ I’ve had enough of this. I’m not fighting anymore.’
As I observed the battle vest materialising before me, I was initially frustrated that it was so full of gaps and vulnerable areas. Then I began to see the message it contained. In our desire to protect ourselves, we foolishly believe that keeping a record of wrongs will somehow prevent further pain from coming in, when, in fact, all it does is deepen the anger and add to the burden. Our protective coverings are nothing but a flimsy illusion, as real protection comes from within, from having a strong heart and a self esteem that says, ‘I’m OK, I feel good and I can hold my centre irrespective of what comes my way.’
The white feather is my symbol of freedom, and coincidentally, the symbol of cowardice in battle. To me they are one and the same. True freedom comes when we step out of the battle and start making choices that will lead us to a happier and healthier life.
Poem by Anachreon 6 BC
As I sit here now, reflecting on what I have written, it occurs to me that all of the above applies not only to the individual, but to groups and nations as well.
Detail of the white feather. Machine embroidery
This work recently featured in the catalogue for the international Conscience of the Human Spirit: The Life of Nelson Mandela Exhibition, curated by Marsha MacDowell, curator of the Michigan State University Museum.