Susan Stockwell: “Hidden Histories, Untold Stories”

Warrington Museum & Art Gallery: dates tbc

Susan Stockwell’s work is exhibited across three spaces in Warrington Museum & Art Gallery. I’ve written before about this museum-of-a-museum and the issues raised by this structure, and really admire how they’re actively seeking to confront this. Stockwell – who’s practice often with social issues – is an ideal partner, and Hidden Histories, Untold Stories is an interesting project. Whilst pointing towards major critiques of colonialism, it never offers easy answers. It instead raises questions for the audience to contemplate for ourselves.

(C) Jonathan Turner

Stockwell’s taken a slightly different approach in each space. The largest scale work is, appropriately enough, in the Large Art Gallery. “Armada” is a series of shopping trolleys, each filled with a different object selected to speak to social history. There’s books of atlases and a collection of globes, the latter of which glow enticingly. They’re tools with which people have traced the routes along which the contents of other carts, including sugar and cotton, historically travelled.

Armada’s” intentions of pointing out of the importance and impact of colonial trade are obvious – but in execution, its message is fairly softly delivered. There will be those who would say it should be more directly critical of the enterprises it spotlights; but I think it offers a different kind of accessible dialogue. The art which has traditionally hung on these walls has only ever reflected one perspective: that of white British superiority. Getting audiences who are used to this message to think about the systems and industries which created wealth and justified this attitude is an important starting point.

Elsewhere in the gallery Stockwell has brought artefacts out of the museum’s archive to literally give a place to those at whose expense this attitude came. The most significant objects she’s selected are unquestionably the museum’s Benin Bronzes. Their very presence here is enough to raise eyebrows, given how Benin Bronzes are central to so many repatriation and decolonisation debates1 – which Stockwell is obviously aware of. So with all of these in mind, it’s inevitable that we view these looking for them to say something ‘big’.

(C) Jonathan Turner

In fact, what Stockwell has recognised is that one of the most powerful things to do with these pieces – at least while the conversations about what should be done with them are ongoing – is to give them space to be properly appreciated. Apparently this is the first time they’ve been displayed in the Large Art Gallery – the “art” space of the museum. To be looked at as art, rather than curio, is what they deserve. Consequently there’s not a load of writing contextualising them. They’re simply, rightly, given space to be admired on their own merits.

So then to into the World Stories gallery, the busy space into which many cultures are squeezed, and in which the Benin bronzes would likely have sat in another time. Now its interest is as the second space Stockwell has inserted herself into. The most obvious is where Native American artefacts have the company of Stockwell’s childhood ‘Cowboys and Indians’ toys. The Cowboy, tall and straight-shooting on his horse, makes perfect sense invading indigenous space. Though the jumble of ‘Indian’ bodies feels very uncomfortable, almost voyeuristic, like they might be insensitive to the real suffering they echo. But then – isn’t this whole space voyeuristic and insensitive anyway? Looking at the curiosities of civilizations from around the world as an amalgamation of ‘other’? Compared to the soft approach of “Armada” this feels like a sledgehammer of a point, but it certainly kicks you out of any feelings of easy curiosity.

For me, the most interesting item in the whole exhibition is Stockwell’s “Money Dress” in the Cabinet of Curiosities space. It’s a Victorian-style garment made entirely out of world currencies, which on the one hand it’s quite easy to read – textile, money, Empire. But Stockwell’s text on the piece suggest this wasn’t her original – or at least, only – intention for the piece. In the notes, she explains that ‘the piece is based on the idea of female territory and power being enabled by economic independence‘. It’s through a feminist lens that the notes for this dress have been chosen and arranged, with those featuring female figureheads defining the trimmings. The rest of the dress is fabricated from currency featuring male leaders, their faces turned in.

(C) Jonathan Turner

Lots to talk about there, but there’s something which seems a little jarring about this simple wish for female empowerment here. “Money Dress” stands facing an echo of “Armada” in shopping baskets – one of which is filled with bobbins of thread. Together with “Sail Away”, Stockwell’s small boats made of money and maps (originally exhibited in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall), the central role commerce – and fashion’s place in that – has played in the development of international relations is made plain.

So it seems surprising that the dress’ intentions to claim ‘female territory’ don’t really seem to question at whose expense that comes. Women might not have been able to be independent economic actors in the colonial structure, but that’s a far cry from saying they weren’t complicit, that they didn’t benefit from its bounties. Would the missions of Catherine Routledge – the explorer upon whom the style is apparently based – been possible if she didn’t come from a society who saw cataloguing the world as their right? Meanwhile, sitting at the foot of the dress is a Sowei mask. Though beautiful, the forces of history – the forces which made dresses with this quantity of fabric possible – have stripped the mask of its ritual, ceremonial and social power. If there’s meant to be an equivalency of power dynamics here, it’s a false one. This apparent blind spot is surprising in a collection of work which otherwise feels like it has a good awareness of these issues – and in which textile has been a pivotal symbol.

On the other hand, the dialogue it raises about the ubiquity of the colonial system, and in who’s name it was undertaken, is the richest and most complex in all of Hidden Histories, Untold Stories. And that is what this exhibition does very well: asks questions without necessarily making judgements. It confronts history authentically: raising awareness of all its varied threads which have become woven into this museum, and this town, without forcing us into an opinion. It offers enough for those invested in the issue of decolonisation plenty to consider, whilst being open enough to let a wider audience into the conversation.

All images courtesy of Warrington Museum & Art Gallery (C) Jonathan Turner

1: Warrington Museum & Art Gallery have blogs about these specific pieces and the Benin story here and here. This New York Times article is also a very good look at the controversial history of the pieces.

Leave a Reply