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Jan Donaldson

'Before the Silence'

My work explores objects linked intimately to identity. My fascination with identity and the uncanny includes the familiar notions of body beauty and the exploration of larger narratives, alluding to the drama and folly of human existence. Can an injured soul be disguised by physical appearance? Or does it reveal itself as broken beauty in the expressions of the face? I seek to recover a more sensual world, with all its shock, raw desire, clumsiness, illusion, and disenchantment. 

During the current pandemic, with periods of compulsory mask wearing, many of us scrambled to maintain our identity, adapting and adjusting masks in order to express our individuality. Equally, many people have been liberated by a peculiar anonymity that a mask can bring. 

I am not overly concerned with jewellery/objects being easily wearable…I like the notion that they can be uncomfortable, awkward and dominate or overwhelm the body…that they can act as reminders and attitude checkers. I do think it is important that there is reference to the body in some way. For this reason, I embrace the notion that jewellery/objects can have an extended life in the gallery setting as exhibited artifacts.

It is possible to wear the ‘Before the Silence’ mask, despite the fact that in doing so, it is awkward and deliberately uncomfortable. Like the original ‘Iron Maiden’, a medieval German instrument of torture - a female body shaped casket where the unlucky victim was slowly enclosed inside and immobilised.  I have used the metal plates as a metaphor for the metal casket of our own ‘iron maiden’, perhaps as an arbiter of successful womanhood.  

The ‘found object’ vaginal speculum attached to the mouth of the mask has to be inserted into the mouth and throat, not only uncomfortable, but rendering speech impossible…reminiscent of the ‘Scolds Bridles’ which were also medieval instruments of punishment. Designed as a form of torture and public humiliation, the device was an iron muzzle in an iron framework that enclosed the head, although some bridles were masks that depicted suffering. A bridle-plate was slid into the mouth and either pressed down on top of the tongue as a ‘compress’ or used to raise the tongue to lie flat on the wearer's palate. This prevented speaking and resulted in many unpleasant side effects for the wearer, including excessive salivation and weakness in the mouth.

Furthermore, the mask references the facial prostheses massed produced as a systematic remedy for war rehabilitation. As a direct design response to the type of violence and injury that characterized the First World War, and in the age before plastic surgery, masks were the most ideal solutions for veterans with faces scarred by war. In Paris, American sculptor Anna Coleman Ladd led the Red Cross Studio for Portrait Masks for Mutilated Soldiers, creating hand-painted copper masks, modelled on pre-war photographs. For a moment, there is a miracle as the veterans are reassembled to pre-war selves. Yet, there is no overlooking the uncanny, static condition of these metal substitutions. Seeing these disfigured men, called the “gueules cassées,” or “broken faces,” in France, as well as the masks that hid them, had a significant influence on culture. They were employed as a pacifist tool.

The bone and gold crosses, and the ‘found object’ Red Cross badge are emblematic of mending and healing, yet in addition, are an indication of forbidding and foreboding. The Red Cross badge is a symbol that reaches across wars and time and space, so very current as well as historical. (This badge belonged to my late Mother, who worked tirelessly for over 60 years for the cause.)

When the heart stirs with recognition - the uncanny and painfully precise vision where bleak realism meets the surreal imagination – the incisive and uncompromising gaze gets under the skin to witness the body with all its wounds and glory.

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