Between sleep and wake Lives Dora Unfurling her thoughts like swash Or a thousand doll houses Too many jumpers all with loose threads
Between the lime and moss Dora’s perch sits between shades of evergreen Shards, like an aphoristic sneeze Undaunted by cauliflower white spots petalled as if signalling by semaphore
Dora never touches the ground epiphytic as a library book As and when onset gets her keeling body like floss in a toe The plush stools cup and curl her thoughts Intruding letters overcompensate Leek dots from finger tips
Flowers, frivolous and opaque, Hide themselves like a bicycle bell. They, like many, Cannot control other’s admiration, Their assumption, How they dilute the image of you in their minds, And try to print you like a pattern, Like wallpaper. But flowers are not wallpaper, They are seeds, That crushed can nourish, That wild can overtake, That allowed to can be the whole damn system, Every cog, And every beauty in between.
The reputation of the ‘flower’ precedes the thing itself, yet it has few synonyms in the English language. Perhaps the flower’s popularity doesn’t necessarily denote a multifaceted understanding of it. Flowers are ubiquitous, mythologised on the one end as symbols of misbehaving women during the witchcraft trials and imagery for love and hate in fairy tales, and on the other end classified by the Victorian practice of Floriography and through the science of botany.
Yet, from the flower children of 1960’s America to women holding peonies as feminist protest in present-day Mexico, flowers have shown their potential as more than apolitical figurines. Beyond the pen, the courtroom or the computer, the flower retains a ‘usefulness’ as a social symbol, as a form of non-verbal communication, or as a way of questioning what being ‘useful’ is through its connection to rest, thoughtfulness, and playful environments. By launching a ‘flower festival’ through Assemblage, we can think playfully about the flower as a visual medium for reimagining social change.
To think of a flower manifesto might be to explore aims and objectives in a different way, to approach a manifesto as a constellation of poetry, collage, creative writing, and as a digital space assembled from a central floral focal point.
To prepare for the Flower Festival launch, Assemblage headed down to member Elena’s Whitechapel art studio to discuss flower manifestos as a way of collecting ideas about what we might want the festival to look and feel like.
We first went around the group and collected a floral stream of consciousness, asking ‘what comes to mind when you think of a flower?’. The theme precipitated answers of such a range that it felt like we were developing a collective flora. Members had strong personal associations to plant life, discussing buttercups and childhood, the gentle disappointment of receiving flowers, and decorating their kitchens with blooming vases. Ideas dropped petal-like onto the page, with conversations about preserving flowers, resin, and plastics departments, to debates about the temporariness of flowers, flowers in protest, and flowers as resource or medicine.
We collected these flower themes and came up with our own flower manifestos, thinking about what we might want represented through the festival. Our manifestos materialised into a collaborative zine, each page filled with collage, ink, and mark-making, creating a mood-board garden. Contained within the pages were libraries in bloom, evergreen vines growing out of technicolour dots, DIY lyrics overlapping hydrangea.
We hope to reimagine the flower as it stands today, helping us to consider the multiple branches of what a floral future might mean. Our flower manifesto is moving and growing and will be shaped by the events and artworks that develop in the next two months.
Keep up to date through Assemblage’s Instagram for info on upcoming activities, including a ‘flowers and feminism’ poetry workshop, a ‘this will get you lost’ flower tour, creative writing and design, and lots more. And of course, daisy stickers!
A superhero- singular, ‘a fictional hero having extraordinary or superhuman powers’. We tend to imagine superheroes as typically lonesome, cape billowing in the wind, eyebrows arched in a pensive state. We don’t see the power of invisibility that is held by the endless groups of people caring for the ‘hero’, such as the foster family, the friends that embrace their ‘outsider’ position, the community making it possible for them to act ‘heroically’.
A similar notion characterises the ever-elusive ‘artist’, either completely out of view or totally centre stage, the concept of the extraordinary artist and their muse denies the existence of a creative community making ‘art’ possible. It denies the caring, learning, and teaching that happens collectively, giving way to a cycle of ideas.
Through an Easter Sunday spent at the Foundling Museum’s ‘Superheroes, Orphans & Origins: 125 years in comics’ exhibition, followed by a themed workshop, Assemblage Youth Collective spent the day distilling the assumptions around what the term ‘superhero’ means. The Foundling Museum’s history as a hospital for the care of abandoned children, founded by Thomas Coram in 1739, set the perfect stage for an exhibition around care identity and comic book hero histories, the exhibition focusing on how orphans, adoptees and foster children are depicted within comics and graphic art.
The exhibition room itself felt like stepping into the pages of a comic book: plush with baby pink polka dots, strawberry red and electric blue walls. The display held vintage comics, contemporary pieces specifically commissioned, and graphic art from all over the world. Personally, I was struck by the originality of contemporary artist Bex Glendining’s piece, Begin Again, a digital illustration designed specifically for the exhibition, exploring themes of growth and emotion in new environments. The mesmerizingly vivid blocks within the piece could be read in any order, playing with the idea of sequential art and questioning how we order time and space. This mirrored the Foundling Museum’s approach to the conversation around care, where they replace the term ‘care-leaver’ in the descriptions with ‘care-experienced’ and ‘care identity’, expanding ‘care’ out to include different spaces beyond the foster home.
Reactions to the exhibition informed the creative work that followed. Assemblage founder Tasch led a workshop centred on designing and crafting our own superhero symbols, playing with the concept of superpowers. A member of the collective, Justin, considered how powers could move beyond the visual: ‘one of the things I took away from the pieces on display was that power can be much more internal and metaphorical as well – it’s resilience, it’s accepting change, it’s staying focused, and all of that. I took the basic motif of a wing/wave shape to symbolise that ability to ride out changes’.
Other members thought about how the illustrations on display distilled classic depictions of a hero, and of a foster child. Hannah took inspiration from Lisa Wool-Rim Sjöblom’s drawings, that ‘focused on ‘the harsh othering that can and often does occur as a result of being an adopted child’ and ‘her use of muted, selective colours, and the textural quality of her pieces that looked almost tea-stained’. Hannah’s symbol played with conventional notions of femininity, merging bright pinks with geometric shapes to capture ‘the endless realm and range of what a woman looks like and can achieve’.
Tasch drew ideas from Lars Horneman’s illustrations of warrior queen Zenobia, impressed by how the comic ‘combined traditional feminine and masculine emblems to constitute a sense of power, breaking with more classic representations of superheroes and superpowers’.
During the workshop, I led a brief talk about how poetry writing could help inform our symbol-making. Poetry is how I care for myself and expressing feelings and observations through creative writing helped us to expand out our symbols beyond the visual, thinking about how we might symbolise our identity through sound and smell, noticing how it has changed and been informed by others.
As I made my own notes for my symbol, I wrote, ‘writing is drawing’, as I felt the bends of the letters grate against cardboard, my illegible handwriting resembling squiggles more than words, prompting my own technicolour symbol to express how what may seem directionless can fulfil an emotional or creative purpose. The exhibition itself is based on an original work commissioned by the museum in 2014, where care-experienced poet Lemn Sissay made a poem that is sprawled over the museum’s walls entitled ‘Superman was a Foundling’.
The idea of being found, instead of being made or being new, sits at the heart of the Museum’s themes and Assemblage’s workshop. Member Josh captured this through his fascination with the characters in Taiyō Matsumoto’s illustrations in the Manga series Tekkonkinkreet, who wear clothes made from found materials, emphasising how we can re-use objects and surroundings to create new identities. Similarly, member Amy’s symbol played with the recycling logo, expressing how creativity and identity exist as ongoing processes.
We continued re-imagining superhero and superpower tropes in the reflection portion of the session. Usually, evaluations after workshops can feel quite clinical, but by discussing the session in real-time, the participants created a comfortable space to share thoughts and feelings. Luisa explained how her drawing of tear drops symbolised her connection to her own vulnerability and how she cares for her friends, and Tasch drew inspiration from the raindrops in her emblem to consider how judgements and moods, like the weather, can change and flow.
As the sunshine warmed our journey home, we were left thinking about the ‘everyday superpowers’ that mark our identities, and how care becomes an ongoing and collective experience.
Begin again, Go home, Do not pass Go, Do not collect £200. Don’t leave a note, Await orders, For the next time, For the last time? No, settle in, Make roots, Don’t look back, There is nothing to look for, You might not like what you find. Only forward matters, Look to the horizon, The city you protect, Backwards always falls through. The mask is warm, It has no past, No name. The mask is yours, The mask doesn’t wonder, About before, Or about after. Be alone in the moment, Untouched, unmoored. Then, now, later. Wonder, wander, Wonder, wander, Begin again.
On Sunday 27th of March, I headed down to the Foundling Museum. On this bright, crisp day I was off to do some art with the Assemblage Collective.
I was v excited, it felt like it’d been years since I did something creative – in reality only months, but to me anytime without creating something seems to be longer than its relative time span.
I hadn’t been to the Foundling Museum before. I was surprised to find it tucked to the side of a park I visited lots as a child, always one of my favorite ones – Coram’s Fields. Coram’s Fields – even hearing the name of it brings back the sensations: a rush of cold air against flushed cheeks, legs straining to run up the ramp dragging the swing in arm, and then jumped onto it so it could zip wire me across the field. The soft feel of goats, who would like and nibble my hand and I would shy away only to place my hand back in between the gates again. Splashing and getting soaked through in the fountains, while my family ate strawberries and mini sausages on the grass. How vast it had felt, but looking into it now, it was so much smaller.
Unknowingly, the emotional journey had only just begun.
When I arrived, Tascha (Assemblage Collective’s founder & director) and the assembled Assemblage members greeted me.
Tascha explained what we would be doing and gave us a presentation on the Foundling museums’ history.
The Museum opened in 2004. I had been playing on the fields between 1995-2002.
Before being a museum, it had been the Foundling Hospital and had taken its last child in the 50’s. The hospital had been established by Thomas Coram (1668-1751) in 1739 to care for babies at risk of abandonment. Coram, a philanthropist, campaigned for seventeen years before he received a Royal Charter from King George II to found it. A statue of him stands outside, and the fields are still named for him.
The instructions for attending had been simple – bring a piece that you have an emotional sentimental connection to.
We sat and introduced our pieces and then headed through the galleries. I kept my heart open while we walked through, I knew the emotional response I would have would be the thing to inspire the art I would produce back in the workroom.
When I found out about the tokens, I felt an obsession take hold.
In the first few decades of the hospital, the parents who left children were instructed to bring a token with them to deposit with the child, to act as an identifier. Each child was written into a register, given a number and then a new name – usually after someone famous or inspirational, think Julius Ceaser, Shakespeare, Cicero etc. The token was placed alongside the book or was written in the form. If parents wanted to claim the child back, or more likely needed to prove they hadn’t murdered the child, they could return citing the token as a steadfast identification of the child’s heritage.
The children rarely, if ever, saw these tokens. They remained sealed unless a claim was made.
Weeks later, writing this, I still get an uneasy chasm, the sense of a rupture inside. This was what I used for inspiration.
The sentimental objects I had brought with me – my first filled sketchbook from 2012, a wolf inlaid zippo lighter I had left on a rock in the middle of the sea in St. Ives (and managed to retrieve!), and a necklace inherited from my grandmother – they were all personal to me. Sentimental because of their meaning to me, and if I passed them on, it would still be the connection to me that made them so poignant.
Others had made art around the tokens too, such as David Shrigley. See below.
Back in the room, I found the things I needed to bring the visualisation of the feeling I was having to life. Some paper, glue, pens etc. which had been provided for us.
We scanned our objects – I used the gold teddy necklace from my nan – and printed them out. I worked onto the paper creating this:
A freeform automatic writing on the front, and a flowing design on the back with added phrases and words. I then created an overlay, so the sentimental reminiscent memories and exploration in the automatic writing were only caught in glimpses. I wasn’t sure if I was the object talking, or the memories. I quiet like the ambiguity of it. The line between objects we bring life to with our memories, and our memories giving us life.
The layer on top hides some of the words, so only some phrases can be seen.
To me, that represented the chasm between the parent and the child, between the reality of each of their lives. How the child must have wondered about the life they would have had if they were in the flow of time still, not ruptured, renamed and rehomed. How the tokens would have meant a different sentimentality. About how the object and the child must have felt out of time and place. There was a lot of complexity in my feeling, and I hope I expressed some of it, but it was/is difficult to get into words.
The piece reads
‘A chasm. Washed gold. Dark, deepness, subdued, abated. Memory, history, what if it had been another life, another time? What if I’d never known it come to me? What if she had given it but it had not been received? Sentimentality in the chasm, liminal and stranded, straddled and inaccessible. What if I had not been me? A shell – captured and refilled, excavated of who I should have been. A chasm. Rippled. Ripped. Disrupted. Disrupted. A rippled timeline. Julius Ceaser in the 20th Century. Shakespeare in the 17th. Who are you? Are you – Am I – in the gold chains, those tokens of love, in the moment coveted treasures and chained to me? Are you in my objects – real and psyche? Am I disrupted? I am taking you with me. And we are going nowhere. Looking up to you. looking down at me. Golden sunbeams and an unconscious stream of warmth and love passed down through time. love through a chasm – untouched. It does not touch me I am nameless and overnamed, over imbued with promise because I am you. These are memories. I am my nan. I am my mum, my great grandmother, my friends my enemy my father other father, I’m family.’
I want to turn this into a poem and lift some of the main lines I like out. I may return to it later!
I loved making it. I took it with me to the pub after, and when Chelsea scored someone knocked a pint over it (luckily I wrote in archival ink!), and it makes me like the piece more. Its imbued with its own life and memories now, a living thing out in the world. I hope to go and make more pieces like it. Assemblage Collective is making more around identity and sentimentality, and I’m eager to see what they do and how I can take part.
The Fitzwilliam Museum’s newest exhibition, The Human Touch: Making Art, Leaving Traces, is very timely – opening on the 18th May when it was finally announced that we could hug our loved ones once again. The exhibition looks at ‘touch’ in a broad sense, offering a non-chronological exploration from ancient Egypt to the modern day. It includes a range of works: from artistic depictions of touch, evidence of the artist’s touch and objects that were designed to be touched. The exhibition opened with a fragment of ancient Egyptian painting where fingerprints had been used to create texture on the hide of a deer – a ‘trace’ of human touch from thousands of years ago.
I thought the curation of the exhibition worked well, offering the viewer a wide range of information over a broad spectrum. From Early Modern sketches of the anatomy of the hand, to contemporary uses of the clenched fist as a symbol of power, the exhibition encouraged you to make connections across periods and geographies. Two of my favourite artworks were William Hogarth’s Before and After (1730-31) – humorous pendant pieces showing the hesitant beginnings and flushed aftermath of a sexual encounter. The bright blush on the cheeks of the young lovers in After really evokes a sense of the excitement of another’s touch and the vitality of the human body.
Most interesting to me, however, were the objects that were made to be touched. Especially stunning was the display of illuminated manuscripts owned by Cambridge collections. Exquisite in their use of colour and gold leaf, the exhibition reminded us that these devotional items were made to be touched and worshipped from.
Although most of the artwork on display was predominantly of European origin, it was also refreshing to see some inclusion of non-Western objects. In particular, a nkisi from the Congo was displayed as an example of an empowered figure that needed spiritual activation by hammering nails into it’s torso. This alone, however, felt somewhat disappointing. It would be great to have included a bigger range of African spiritual objects that involve this similar activation, such a Vodun bocio – a similarly empowered object which involves wrapping or binding.
Where this exhibition falls short, however, is its intangibility. With most objects kept behind glass, there was a sense of these artworks being very removed from the viewer. Of course, frequent touching of museum objects, which are often very fragile, would cause them great damage. But, there have been attempts in other museums to include a more tactile experience for visitors. York Art Gallery, for example, has several objects of textural interest which can be touched. Although it is important to work on improving the conservation of objects, museums could perhaps look into balancing this with a more sensual experience for visitors that might involve touching.
In current times, of course, this would just not be feasible. Although we are hesitantly stepping out of lockdown, restrictions remain. In museums where you still have to sanitise at the door, follow a one-way system, stay two metres away from everyone and wear a mask – the possibility of shared touching is definitely still off the cards. Perhaps this is why, although interesting and enjoyable, The Human Touch was missing something. The hushed space, dim lighting and predominance of objects in glass cabinets created a rather sterile environment. I overall felt that the exhibition was a rather frustrating experience of being encouraged to imagine the power and potency of touching, whilst being limited to only sight.
You can read more about the exhibition and find out how to visit here.
Emma is an MA student studying History of Art at the Courtauld Institute of Art, and a recent graduate of the University of York. She is interested mainly in eighteenth and nineteenth century art and the construction of culture and identity. She also loves curating, and when she is not writing essays you can usually find her in a gallery!
Peeking out over an inescapable mask, I see once more, Women draped over ornate couches, Done with the world and its confinement, And its clothes. I see once more, Disembodied faces meeting unhinged shapes, Unsure, they attempt to devour one another. I see once more, Unlikely creatures emerging, As if willed by the vacuum of imagination. I see once more, Ambiguous structures, Soaring while more solid words explain little, Of what, perhaps, Should not be explained. I see once more, The collective embrace merge, With joint resistance, Forever twinned in a fleeting, nonchalant glance. Feeling nill, I wonder if I am measuring effort wrongly.
As the lockdown eases and shops open again, we enter a somewhat new normal… Take a moment. Did that happen? It’s surreal, a little absurd and even — at times — horrific, so how are we going to wrap our heads around this? How much of that change are you feeling? What will you do, what will you be? Where will you go? This April, we at Assemblage hope you can let yourself look around you. Take a deep breath. Enjoy what you can, in the present. Today and tomorrow will be different.