Celebrating gypsy culture in East Anglia
PUBLISHED: 09:05 08 October 2012
ROS GREEN looks at an international showcase detailing the history and traditions of gypsy art and crafts, the first exhibition at a new gallery at the Museum of East Anglian Life.
With the theme of home at the heart of the Museum of East Anglian Life’s latest addition it’s very fitting the first exhibition is Gypsy Revolution UK, showing a selection of works by internationally acclaimed artists Delaine Le Bas and Damian Le Bas.
The beautifully refurbished Abbot’s Hall exhibition space at the Stowmarket museum has just re-opened with a mission to shine a light on a wide variety of different homes in East Anglia through the ages.
Permanent exhibits include once detailing life in a psychiatric hospital between the 1830s and 1990s and Come Dine With Me, a dining room table set for a select number of regional luminaries over the last 200 years, including Robert Ransome, the creator of the revolutionary self-sharpening plough, and Lady Eve Balfour, founder of the Soil Association.
One of the most poignant exhibition rooms, however, is Home on The Road: a small, multi-mirrored room that contains a huge floral tribute in the shape of a Gypsy wagon.
This tribute was made for the funeral of Danny Buckley, a respected member of the local Gypsy traveller community: a community that until the last 20 or 30 years played a key role in East Anglia by providing much of the itinerant labour for the wheat and fruit harvests.
Home on the Road offers a completely different perspective on the notion of “home”. Not only does it explore the idea of family unity, with everyone living, travelling and working together, it examines what it meant to be constantly on the move. And with that, the freedom of being able to up sticks whenever or wherever you liked: something now virtually impossible given the shortage of legal stopping places.
The Museum of East Anglian Life already has strong connections with the local Gypsy traveller community thanks to its extensive collection of traditional wagons, one of the finest collections in East Anglia.
It has also previously hosted events such as the Gypsy Arts Festival, to showcase traditional and contemporary Gypsy arts and crafts.
One of the key aims of Home on the Road is to create a space where the community can speak for itself and tell its own story. This is reflected both in the collection itself and also in its presentation — especially the contemporary installation pieces contained within it, created for it by artists Delaine Le Bas and Damian Le Bas, members of the English Romany and Irish traveller communities respectively.
Both artists have been involved with the museum since the very first Gypsy Arts Festival in 2006, when they took part in the Second Site Exhibition: an exhibition which later travelled to the Venice Biennale (2007) as part of Paradise Lost, the first Roma Pavilion. Since then, they have been travelling non-stop, running workshops and exhibiting their work all over the world, from Finland and Israel to Germany and Hungary, with Delaine about to head off to the Gwangju Biennale in South Korea.
So what’s their joint exhibition Gypsy Revolution UK all about? Delaine explains it’s part of an ongoing project which presents material spanning the last 12 years, including works from the Second Site Exhibition plus pieces of new work by both artists.
To call it a retrospective would be a misnomer though. The exhibition is anything but that. Rather it’s a “cry to arms”, marking the continual battle fought by both artists to challenge the often stereotypical, damaging misrepresentation of their community. The works presented reveal the sheer range and diversity of Damian and Delaine’s artistic practice: everything from paintings, collage and fabric to photographic works; including some of Delaine’s fabric works that formed part of the installation she created for the Latitude Contemporary Art 2011, which was based on witch hunts, with reference to Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins.
One of the exhibition’s key recurring themes is recycling and reclamation, both in the use of the materials and by an intellectual reclaiming of who their community is.
While everybody thinks they know what the word “Gypsy” means, in reality few people know anything at all about the community itself.
Delaine explains: “My works are the struggle to escape the stereotypes, which is why I use symbols that the viewer thinks they understand: Union Jacks, Disney characters, children’s animal motifs, nursery rhymes and traditional embroidered cottages. I take these familiar images, retain their democratic nature, and then create a shift in their meaning.”
Damian’s work is no less confronting. Like Delaine, he frequently uses old discarded items to create his work, his focus once again on issues of identity but with a powerful added emphasis on notions of family and belonging.
He says: “I like to give old works a new Gypsy Dada life. For instance, at the first Gypsy Arts Festival in 2006 I bought two old Flatford Mill prints by Constable in the museum’s charity shop. I reworked both prints in 2007. The mill prints have now found their spiritual home again in the exhibition.”
■ The Museum of East Anglian Life is in Iliffe Way in the centre of Stowmarket. It is open daily 10am-5pm until November 10, admission £6.90 (£5.90 cons), £3.90 children, £19 family, 01449 612229, www.eastanglianlife.org.uk ■ Gypsy Revolution UK runs until November 10.