Thursday, 27 August 2009

Delaine Le Bas

delaine le bas photographed by tara darby
photograph shown courtesy tara darby

The work of Delaine Le Bas has haunted me for some time now. It is vigorous and frenetic, urgent, direct and unapologetic. At times it is dark and disturbing, but then there are flashes of pure childish joy. These two qualities play together through her work like children toppling through emotions, joyous then suddenly nasty, jokes that go too far, games which end in tears. Of course I was initially drawn to her use of textiles, but the work is so broad. Installations are frequently claustrophobic, crammed with kitsch, with clutter, a mesh of work, life, history and emotion. There is no separation between paint, objects, stitching and writing - it seems that all elements are a part of each other, every edge is blurred yet so many edges are jagged.

Gynaikonotides, 2008, The Fabric of Myth, Compton Verney

Gynaikonitides is a work that references Greek mythology. Roughly translated, it means 'women's quarters'. In the 5th or 6th century BC Greek homes were split into two and (naturally!) the men had the best quarters. This piece references the tale of Philomela. The tale is of course a tragedy, of heartbreaking loss of innocence, of violence and gruesome acts. Revenge is finally taken and tragically the life of a baby boy is lost. This installation is a narrow room, strewn with balloons and drawings, leading to a child's cot. Webs or strings hang from the ceiling, falling across your face making you want to push them away whist at the same time compelling you to move further in and look at the detail. This is claustrophobic, yet the strings are flimsy and weak, evoking threads of time and history, neglect and intrigue. What happened to the child in the cot, was the mother forced to an act of cruelty? Who by? Who to..? The birds are singing, some find it restful, others find it menacing.. what is their significance? In the tale of Philomela the characters were eventually turned to birds but were they ever free or were they forever tangled in the webs and strings of their behaviour? Childish balloons feel foreboding. Dolls are taped, restricted, trapped. Does this relate to the innocent life that was lost or do they refer to the child that was killed - an innocent child cruelly taken.

Gynaikonotides, 2008, The Fabric of Myth, Compton Verney

In the piece The House of the Juju Queen, I feel more claustrophobia, a recurrent theme in Le Bas’ work. The emblems and motifs here are childish, simplistic, often cheap and tacky ornaments, which bring to mind a person’s history from childhood to the tokens they (we) collect throughout and hold onto for the emotions we imbue them with. It has a bride as the central figure, masked and hidden as she purveys her reflection, which is the one thing missing from the cluttered setting. Is this speaking of sadness or of mystery? She sits like an innocent at an altar, faceless but for an animal mask, shrouding her humanity and making her….what? Shy? Brutish? Scarred? Mysterious? The Juju House was a West African house of superstition, a place full of entities, of witchcraft and magic. What I really love about this piece is the same mist of superstition and mystery yet the familiarity of the tokens and memento’s. Each doll, each ornament or scrap of fabric speaks of a whole history of a whole identity and generations of stories and experience.

The House of the Juju Queen, 2007/2008
courtesy Galerie Giti Nourbakhsch

Delaine Le Bas’ son Damian James writes of this piece:
Le Bas recasts the sensationalist presentation of the ‘Juju house’ with reference to her Gypsy identity, taking objects invested by her people with emotive power and positioning them in circumstances that echo historical trauma. String lengths hanging like snakes-cum-cobwebs create a delicate claustrophobia, simultaneously enticing and warning of those who spin them, hidden out of sight. The stark and jerry-built shack of the shanty town tells fairy tales about real people: prisoners; adventurers; victims; aggressors; travellers; children.

The House of the Juju Queen, 2007/2008
courtesy Galerie Giti Nourbakhsch

The small mannequins that inhabit these spaces remind us of Alice in her Wonderland of sweet-yet-twisted imagery, and the freakishness of some children’s toys highlights the ambiguities of innocence. We are directed to the true horror that some children face everyday, living on the street, living as child soldiers.

The House of the Juju Queen, 2007/2008, installation view
courtesy Galerie Giti Nourbakhsch

Dolls in white dresses recount the pain behind the malice of Miss Havisham. In the ageless doll arrayed in wedding lace, Le Bas finds echoes of child prostitution in Victorian England, reminding us of Oscar Wilde’s observation that England is “the native land of the hypocrite”. (Damian James Le Bas)
Sun, Bun, Gun, Run, 2008
courtesy Galerie Giti Nourbakhsch

Childhood is a recurring theme - see the work Sun, Bun Gun, Run? above. I asked Delaine Le Bas of the significance of this and in her words...
Sun, Bun, Gun, Run ? On the streets isn’t this what is happening? For many children there is no ‘childhood’ and at the other extreme in the West it is seen that children are like ‘mini adults’. What is going on? Child slavery, poverty, labour, soldiers, prostitution, for all the so called advances in the world why is so much glossed over. All of that potential being crushed.
I wouldn’t say that motherhood and marriage have influenced my work but they have made me
question many things about the world we live in.

I love you, you love me?, 2008
courtesy Galerie Giti Nourbakhsch

Another important theme is the reference to the fact that Le Bas is a Roma Gypsy. Her work not only deals with the prejudice against the minority that is the Gypsy community and the sensational media headlines and campaigns against them, but also prejudice in the broadest sense.
refusing exclusion, exhibition view at Prague Biennal 3, May - Sept 2007
courtesy Galeria Sonia Rosso

Here Delaine talks about her background and the way this informs her work; As a child I lived in 2 worlds. I did go to school but it was never a priority of any kind and I spent great amounts of my time with extended family who were variety of characters and who all lived in interesting environments. From when I was at school I knew this was not the same as everyone else but I have always embraced this difference. I was never afraid to speak up about my family or how we lived (we’ve lived in trailers, chalets and houses). It was problematic when I wanted to go to art college . I hadn’t been to school much so my attendance record was appalling and they did not want to give me a place because of this but I argued my case. Also no one from my family , immediate or extended had been to college (I am the eldest of five and the only one to have finished any secondary school education). The idea of ‘losing you’ to the wider community was also heavy in the air so I was allowed to go but with very strict conditions. Which meant that while at college I was living two lives at once almost. I met Damian at college and became pregnant which for my family was not seen as being problematic as having children young is not seen as being a problem plus living in large family means that everyone helps out with caring which enabled me to continue at college easily.

l-r, Damian Le Bas, Delaine Le Bas and Damian James Le Bas, photographed by Tara Darby

There are definite roles within the community for men and women and it is hard as a woman to have a ‘career’ as such, so for that I am unusual. But I could not do anything else other than what I do. For me it is about creating the work, as for labels and boxes, tear it off and jump out of it. I was born what I am, I feel I have worked to be able to do what I do, which I love and I have many supportive people around me. The work is multi layered and tackles all of the issues not only myself and my own community deal with on a day to day basis but many other people everywhere. I feel my works deal with issues generally of ‘difference’ or being an ‘outsider’ in what ever form that takes and that it should be something to be celebrated. I also try and deal with the issues of the pressures that exist both from ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ a community when you make a decision to do something different. There can be prejudice everywhere even where people would like to think it does not exist. And Fairytales, read the original versions and they deal with the harsh realities of the world.
'lil bit of evil', 2006, mixed media
courtesy Galleria Sonia Rosso

I’ve always found sewing a particularly easy and transportable way of working. You can be working a really large piece of work but it packs down small and you can take it with you anywhere to work on it. The idea of it also being seen as ‘women’s work’ but how this can be used in a subversive way to communicate all sorts of messages. By it’s nature it naturally seems to draw people to it only then for them to be confronted by imagery and words that make them think about issues that they would not expect to see in something that maybe looks so ‘pretty’. Sewing is something that I can do at anytime, if the TV is on or even if I am in company. I work with different sorts of sewing machine and hand embroidery by it’s nature and the speed with which you can work machine embroidery can be aggressive but equally when I have cut or slashed works to hand sew them together is almost like stitching a wound which has all sorts of other connotations. Sewing is something I have always done, it’s just part of my own everyday experience. I feel I am in an extremely amazing position with the people that I work with in that they encourage me and have complete faith in trusting me with the works I produce. Paradise Found was my first solo at Sonia’s gallery. I sent a number of pieces to the gallery and also produced works while I was there. The space that I am working within is very important to the whole overall look of the show and so I almost have to immerse myself within the space as it takes form. The title came form the idea that The First Roma Pavilion, Paradise Lost, Venice Biennale 2007, was an amazing event for our community and it had been ‘Found’ and we were reclaiming our identity. It also relates to the idea of beauty in the ‘cast off’ and ‘found’ object.

Farewell My Lovely, 2008
courtesy Galerie Giti Nourbakhsch

About ‘Farewell My Lovely'; ‘Farewell My Lovely’ relates to two friends of ours called Zac and Reg who died in a boating accident. Zac had only recently before the accident had a ship tattoo, one of my dolls also has a panel on her back stitched about this ‘We Loved and Lost Them’. So the prettiness of the shells and the idea of the sea but also the power of it which as with most of nature is under-estimated greatly.
living together, MARCO, 2009 photograph
courtesy MARCO, Vigo, Espana. Enrique Tourino

On working with children; Mostly when I show work is when the most interesting conversations take place. Many adults say they find some of the figures especially disturbing where as the children seem to embrace them. I think this is because they have no ‘Fear’ to a certain point. So their honesty and openness is continually something to be learnt from. Their freedom with use of materials is amazing. In workshop situations the one re occurring theme is the so called ‘best artists’ in the groups get the least but every other child thrives with the freedom and they create the most amazing, imaginative and often thought provoking works. I feel this says a lot about how we educate children and that many more are being failed because of lack of self esteem and encouragement. (Delaine Le Bas)

living together, marco, 2009 photograph
courtesy MARCO, Vigo, Espana. Enrique Tourino

When I first saw Tara Darby's portraits, I was struck by their warmth. People often find Le Bas’ work hard and confrontational, yet these portraits were so full of softness and intimacy that I really felt I wanted to use them and find out more. So I contacted Tara Darby, the photographer and she so kindly allowed me to show them and also generously answered my questions. This clearly confirmed my instincts that she had such an evident connection with Delaine Le Bas and the photographs are a fantastic document of the warmth that Delaine Le Bas provokes from people.

living together, marco, 2009
photograph courtesy MARCO, Vigo, Espana. Enrique Tourino

So I asked Tara;
How did you come across Delaine le Bas?
I was commissioned to document the making of "Room", Delaine's first solo show at the Transition Gallery by art director David James. He did not want to produce a conventional catalogue to accompany the show.
delaine le bas photographed by tara darby
photograph shown courtesy tara darby

Is she a friend or were you introduced? We were introduced. After meeting David and showing him my work I went to meet Cathy Lomax and Alex Michon at Transition. They also liked my work so they gave Delaine my number. We spoke on the phone and her and her husband Damien came over to my flat in Hackney for a cup of tea on a Sunday afternoon and left at midnight. We just clicked straight away.

delaine le bas photographed by tara darby
photograph shown courtesy tara darby

Were you already aware of her work? No

It is always fascinating (to me) to see photographers portraits of artists, can you explain what you hoped to present about Delaine in these photos? I wanted to capture as much of Delaine's spirit as possible- her inspirations, the way she works, the way she dresses. . I wanted the pictures to feel intimate, unstaged. . to be real. Because most of the pictures were shot like this I also wanted to shoot some formal portraits of her where I removed her from her environment. I wanted these pictures to be iconic, for the viewer to really be able to stop and stare at her face, to feel her intensity. My favourite portrait of her is the one that is on the back of "Room" which was exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery.
l-r, Damian Le Bas, Delaine Le Bas photographed by Tara Darby

Is there anything about Delaine that surprised you as you spent time with her? Mostly the volume of work that she produces from such a small room. Her working space is packed full of material, dolls, car boot treasures but she knows where everything is and is super organised.
delaine le bas photographed by tara darby
photograph shown courtesy tara darby

Can you tell me what you took away from the project and your time with Delaine? A bond, a friendship that will last forever. Delaine has been a huge inspiration to me, she is utterly unpretentious, completely her own person and a lot of fun. The project could not have worked if there was not an instant connection between us as I was living in her house on and off over a period of a few months. It was a collaboration in the purest sense of the word.
photograph by Tara Darby

Whilst trying to track down Delaine, I contacted Cathy Lomax of Transition Gallery. Not only is it a fantastic gallery with exciting new artists and projects, but Cathy was incredibly open and helpful. I’m so grateful to her and highly recommend that you spend some time looking through the website. You may be aware of their magazine, Garageland which is available to buy on their website and I one day hope to own a limited boxed edition of Room, including an original drawing and embroidery by Delaine Le Bas.
living together, marco, 2009
photograph courtesy MARCO, Vigo, Espana. Enrique Tourino

This piece is written with enormous thanks to the kindness and generosity of spirit from Delaine Le Bas, Tara Darby and Cathy Lomax.

delaine le bas photographed by tara darby
photograph shown courtesy tara darby

Galleria Sonia Rosso
Galerie Giti Nourbakhsch
Witch Hunt at Aspex 5th September - 1st November 2009
Preview with Performance by Delaine Le Bas and Mike Rogers Saturday 5th September 2 - 4pm
Artists Talk Saturday 10th October 2009 at 4pm

Damian James Le Bas - to see more of his writing please click here.
He also has work in Granule Summer 2009 edition available from Borders.

Delaine will be showing with Damian at Dvir Gallery in Tel Aviv in November. They have been curated for this show by Claire Fontaine.

The installation The Walls Can Be Invisible is still showing as part of Living Together (curated by Xabier Arakistain and Emma Dexter) at Museo De Arte Contemporanea De Vigo, Spain until late September.

Delaine is also included in the forthcoming book Sixty: Innovators Shaping Our Creative Future by Thames and Hudson (ISBN:9780500514924) available from October 2009.
image courtesy tara darby


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