I am in a wooden box. I am wearing an aviator hat and cocktail glasses, both clashing with my bright yellow life vest. I look straight ahead, and the flash goes off 4 times. Then, the velvet curtain is drawn back, I get out, and re-enter the world of superstition, prayer and everything in between.
Of course I am talking about the Pilgrimage event at the Wellcome Collection, the place where science and art met and fell in love. Greeted at the door by a woman made of clay, stricken with fear; a little further ahead, a man is frozen in time amidst a step on the ceiling. He is upside down; or maybe we are.
The event started at 18:00, and people were swarming inside, queuing for the booth, wondering around the magnificent Miracles and Charms exhibition. After getting my pilgrimage passport, I made my way to the photo booth, and a few snapshots later I was in the gallery.
The exhibition is divided into two themes: the first one is the ‘Infinitas Gracias’, with over 100 votive painting across the room, and artefacts from two sanctuaries close to the mining communities of the Bajío region: the city of Guanajuato and the town of Real de Catorce.
In its entrance, there is a mural of all the paintings, and it is striking to see their reversed evolution: initially drawn by professionals, they were gradually done from the family or person asking the favour, enriching the painting with a raw emotion, with a unique mixture of practicality (a request) and aesthetics (the visual appeal for the divine recipient). The space continues with more devotional artefacts, news reports, photographs, films and interviews, going much further than purely exploring the depth of the votive tradition in Mexico. It transcends that; when you are standing in front of the wall of the Señor de Villaseca church, with all the drawings and pictures and stories of the people of Mineval de Cata’ trusting their lives to their God, it is quite humbling.
Then you move almost seamlessly to the Charmed Life exhibition. Felicity Powell selected 400 amulets from Henry Wellcome‘s collection, to literally be the centre of the circle that she draws with 10 pieces of her own art. The amulets, ranging from simple coins to carved shells, dead animals and elaborately fashioned notes, live in harmony with her wax drawings on mirrors, films (including an MRI scan), haunting images that seem familiar yet definitely strange.
It is fascinating to think that the exhibition is effectively a collection within a collection; Felicity Powell is showing Edward Lovett‘s life collection, and creates a mystery around the objects and the man. A banker by profession and obsessive folklorist by nature, Lovett is a man that embodies paradox: a Chief Cashier at the Royal Bank of Scotland collecting nails, teeth and mole feet; marginal figure in the academic circles, popular in the curatorial ones; dismissive of the magic that the amulets held while making one for his soldier son against the danger of the World War I. Maybe the objects held a different meaning to him; maybe he was intrigued by the testament to how desperately humans need to feel that they have a small part in controlling life, health, fate, divine powers. How they try to please their God with shapes made of paint and water. Try to ward off evil with possessions that have nothing more attached to them but an intention.
I decided against taking pictures of the paintings, or the wall, or the space; the reason is simple: I felt like I was evading someone’s privacy. The objects were not mere items. They were stories.
You can not just see them as images, pictures, dried ink on paper because of the meaning attached to them; the purpose; the pain; the hope; the longing. The feelings of the person leaving the picture on the original location. That longing for things to change, for something to happen, for life to happen, things to come back to normal whatever that was. The longing. That breathless longing, that feels like your heart is racing out of your chest, as if you are in a car that is moving too fast and someone just hit the breaks. You see, it nice to see these objects as artefacts. Become anthropologists for the day, and examine that weird and wonderful species that paints pictures, or carries lucky coins in their pockets and have two hands and two feet and one heart and one brain. Let’s examine them. Like monkeys in while lab coats examining other monkeys. I observe, therefor I am different. Well, I am not.
There was a moment that I found the content of the exhibition overwhelming. It was as if the energy, hope and despair that the owners bestowed on the items is still floating above them, a cloud of unmet expectations and short-lived compromises.
These items are the silent witnesses to the deepest fears, passions and hopes of the people that once relied on them. Heart-warming, heart-breaking and absolutely fascinating.
A must see.