Amgueddfa Blog

Have you ever walked past a painting because it seemed boring? What if you paused, spent time writing and let the words take you on an unexpected journey?

My research examines what happens when we write poetry in response to works of art. It doesn’t have to be ‘good’ poetry, or ‘rhyming’ poetry. It doesn’t even have to look like poetry. It is simply about slowing down and letting a different part of your brain take over – the part of your brain that ponders in ways you may not be aware of, translating impressions into words.

Over the last few months I’ve been running creative writing workshops with a group of people from Rhondda Cynon Taff. Each week we have spent time looking at one or two images from the museum’s collection, and writing poems in response. These poems will be posted on Instagram over the next few months. https://www.instagram.com/museumwales/

And I’d like to invite everyone to take part in the next phase of this project. You don’t need to be a writer. It doesn’t even matter if you hate poetry! We want as many people as possible to respond to the images and poems by writing a poem of their own. You don’t need to make it rhyme, or to worry about spelling and punctuation. Every creative response will be different, and each one will give us a new perspective on the work of art.

For each post there will be a few prompts to get you started. For example, you might imagine that you are in the painting, and begin by writing a simple list of things that you can hear, smell, taste, touch or see. You could pick out one or two items from your list, and use them as a prompt to begin writing something longer. Free-writes are especially useful. Begin with a theme, or a question, or a word, and force yourself to write without stopping for three or four minutes (time yourself using a stopwatch on your phone). This kind of writing can take you in some really interesting and unexpected directions.

The aim of this project is to encourage as many people as possible to take part, responding with their own creative thoughts and impressions. As more and more poems are written and shared, the project will become more and more interesting. Each response will give us a new interpretation of the artwork, a new way of seeing and understanding.

My research investigates whether this kind of thing might enable art museums to create a more inclusive, more diverse interpretive space, where every creative response is seen as a valid and valuable contribution to something much larger. I’ll therefore be contacting anyone who responds to the posts to ask whether you’d like to complete a Short online survey. This optional survey will help me with my research, as I examine the poems that people post.

So please do have a go at writing something in response to these incredible works of art, and let us know how you get on…

Rachel Carney is a poet, creative writing tutor and PhD student, based at Cardiff University with co-supervision from Aberystwyth University, funded by the South West and Wales Doctoral Training Partnership. She has an MA in Creative Writing from Manchester Metropolitan University and an MA in Museum Studies from Newcastle University, and has worked in the museum sector for several years. Her poems, articles and reviews have been published in numerous magazines and journals, and two of her poems have been shortlisted for the Bridport Prize. Find out more about her research here: https://createdtoread.com/my-research/

As part of our Swansea PRIDE Celebrations this year, we'll be delving into the fascinating history of the novelist and successful industrialist, Amy Dillwyn, and presenting a performance piece about her life on 16th July. Here's Prof. Kirsti Bohata of Swansea University to tell us more about her. To find out more about this and all our Swansea PRIDE events, visit museum.wales

Amy Dillwyn was a pioneer. That was, in fact, her nickname amongst friends: ‘The Pioneer’. A writer, feminist campaigner and successful industrialist (a very rare thing for a woman in the 1890s) she made the most of her public platform to advocate for women’s rights.  Through her writing and her public persona she showed women could be resilient, adventurous and clever.  She rejected feminine norms, eschewing any interest in the restrictive frills of women’s fashion (except for casting an appreciative eye over the female form). Instead she cultivated a genderqueer identity (in her diaries she once wondered if she might be ‘half a man’) and her Trilby hat, thick boots, practical skirt and her ‘man’s cigar’ became iconic symbols of her claim to autonomy.

Portrait of Amy Dillwyn. Image courtesy of the Morris family.

Though she described herself as a ‘man of business’, and held prominent public roles including Chairman of the Hospital Board, she found her entrance to centres of economic power (like the Swansea Harbour Trust) barred by those who objected to her gender and, one suspects, those who had been on the receiving end of her plain-speaking.  She did not suffer fools. Calling out hypocrisy, inefficiency and incompetence where she found it amongst the all-male committees on which she served won her respect in some quarters but inevitably made enemies in others. She was ousted from the Hospital Board just as she had raised the money for a new convalescent hospital, a debacle  given blow by blow coverage over several issues in the press[i].

As a feminist campaigner, she wasn’t only interested in gaining the vote for herself – though she gave generously to the militant Women’s Freedom League and became president of Swansea’s branch of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) – she spoke up for fair pay and conditions for working-class women.  In March 1911 she shared a platform with trade unionists Mary MacArthur (1880-1921) and Margaret Bondfield (1873-1953), who later became a Labour MP, in protest against ‘sweated labour’. To an audience of striking dressmakers and the general public, Dillwyn argued that ‘Employers have no right to ... grind [poor people] down to take unfair wages or to make them accept unfair conditions of labour’ and called on Swansea to boycott the department store, Ben Evans. The campaign (which exposed illegal as well as unethical practices) was discussed in the House of Commons.

Trailblazer though she was as an industrialist and an iconoclastic woman who refused to have her behaviour (or dress) dictated by Victorian convention, Dillwyn’s most enduring legacy is her fiction and its importance to lesbian literary history.  Vigorous, feminist and bearing frequent touches of her dry humour, Dillwyn’s novels satirise the hypocrisy of her own class and she writes about social injustice from the perspective of the labouring classes.  Her abiding theme, however, is same-sex love and desire.  Sometimes this is overt: in A Burglary (1883) and Jill (1884) a young woman develops a ‘strange fascination’ and attraction to a woman just a little bit older (and richer).  Sometimes her plots are more coded, often involving disguise or cross-dressing: in The Rebecca Rioter she has a working-class man (based partly on Dillwyn herself[ii]) fall in love with an upper-class woman (while also fancying another man!) which suggests all sorts of queer, trans and bi-sexual readings.[iii] 

Olive Talbot with her father C. R. M Talbot of Margam Castle. From NMGW collection

The recurring subject or women loving women, and her interest in unrequited love between all sorts of people, can be traced to Dillwyn’s own life and love.  Aged 15, Amy Dillwyn fell in love with the 17-year old Olive Talbot (1843-1894), daughter of local millionaire, C. R. M Talbot of Margam Castle.  Amy and Olive were close friends, exchanged gifts, and stayed together in various houses and resorts. Though Amy laments that her ‘romantic… passionate… foolish’ love for Olive was met only with ‘ordinary’ affection, by 1872 Dillwyn referred to Olive in her diaries as ‘my wife’.  Olive remained the centre of Amy’s emotional and erotic world for at least the next 15 years (as detailed in her unique diaries which unfortunately stop in 1875 when Dillwyn underwent an operation) and probably much longer if the evidence of her novels (published during the 1880s) is taken into account. 

Though we don’t know exactly how their relationship progressed or ended – Olive spent the last years of her short life in London while Dillwyn was a semi-invalid in Swansea – the legacy of Dillwyn’s love and creative exploration of same-sex desire makes a remarkable contribution to queer Victorian literature. Her novels,[iv] along with her unusually frank diaries (held at Swansea University and currently being edited for publication), offer a compelling insight into queer life in nineteenth-century Wales. 

 

For more on Amy Dillwyn visit the Dictionary of Welsh Biography: https://biography.wales/article/s12-DILL-AMY-1845

Photographs of Olive Talbot are included in a collection of photographs by John Dillwyn Llewelyn, that are part of the National Museum of Wales' collection. Mark Etheridge, NMGW Curator: Industry and Transport provides an introduction to the collection here: John Dillwyn Llewelyn — Welsh Pioneer Photographer | National Museum Wales

You may access this and other photographic collections in our care here: Photographic Collections | National Museum Wales

 

The forced and thoughtless partition of India in 1947 created a unique rupture between the once coexisting communities of Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus as well as the spaces (home) inhabited by them. Hence, drawing the borders of the 1947 Partition resulted in the subcontinent inheriting ‘‘a geography of trauma’’ (Jennifer Yusin 2009: The silence of partition). Notwithstanding the almost 75 years that have elapsed, the South Asian subcontinent has been struggling to deal with this event. The trauma of this forceful sundering of geographies, communities and cultures resurfaces socially and politically not only between the partitioned nations—India, Pakistan and Bangladesh-- but has led to other upheavals even within the nations themselves, in the form of wars, terrorist attacks, communal riots and the million types of microaggressions between identity groups. 

The loss of home, land and community caused by the partition has been expressed through literary and cultural works throughout the last seven decades. These expressions of trauma and recording of memory, though specific to this partition and borders, are universal in that they represent the trauma and erasure caused by the drawing of every border, whether physical or socio-cultural. Hence, one could use the phrase “every border is a geography of trauma” to all borders that need crossing in order to construct an identity that liberates one from the patriarchal, nationalist forces, and limitations that restrict individuals and communities.

Our current project, Refugee Wales, which collects the stories of Sri Lankan Tamils and Syrian refugees in Wales, too, resonates with the issues raised by the 1947 partition and both of these topics are part of my research projects for my PhD and my post-doctoral work.  When I had the opportunity to chair a session named South Asian Transcultures at the 17th ECALALS Triennial Conference (28 – 30 June 2021) I focussed specifically on two papers, Devika Karnad’s “Identity Across Borders: Tracing a South Asian 'Transcultural' in Indo-Anglian Women's Fiction and Susan Rajendran’s “Challenging Aesthetic Borders: Postcolonial Narratives and Literary Innovation in Sri-Lankan Writing”. In them I found resemblances to my previously mentioned projects.  

Among the two papers, Devika Karnad covered the issue of trauma caused by borders (between India and Pakistan), and the literary imaginary that allows the characters to think beyond borders and inhabit spaces that were once common heritage of all communities that have now been rendered inaccessible due to national and international politics that emerged from the partition.

Devika discussed two Indian English novels by two Indian female authors. They are, Difficult Daughters (1998) by Manju Kapur and The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (2017) by Arundhati Roy. Both the novels represent a ‘transcultural’ conception of identity that spans across borders in South Asia, geographically as well as socio-culturally. These literary imaginaries explore the “capacity for embodying the transitory through its ability to move fluidly between the past and the present” and between the borders created by multiple identities, at a time when identities have been rigidified through decades of ‘partition-wars-terrorism-communal riots’ discourses and rendered further impregnable through the majoritarian discourses that rule these nations today. Devika’s discussion of these two novels, while laying bare the aberrant situation of the partitioned South Asia and the socio-political turn these nations have taken, also exposes the shallowness of the politics of “identity harvesting” (Manuel Castell: The Power of Identity, 2011) by the ideologies and demagogues who rule South Asian nations today. Devika’s presentation was a critique of the politics that feeds on borders, identities and the apparatuses that sustain them.

In a similar vein to Devika’s choice of texts that focus on the transgression of borders despite the current trends of majoritarian identity politics, Susan Rajendran also examined “how early to mid-twentieth century writers in Sri-Lanka aspired to construct a Sinhala identity through artistic and literary production” that defy the majoritarian identity politics. Covering the works of two authors: Martin Wickramasinghe (1890-1976) and Ediriweera Sarachchandra (1914-1996), Susan tries to prove that these two authors used disparate literary traditions “to explore the commonalities of human experience in a manner geared to local sensibilities”. While the authors used Buddhist themes and Sinhala folklore to construct a Sinhala identity they also guarded against nativist attitudes and tried to foster a transcultural approach. 

As the Refugee Wales project progresses, we realise that in Sri Lanka, the postcolonial effort at nation building has focussed predominantly on political and ideological discourses about “preserving the ‘purity’ of Sinhala Buddhist culture from Western influence as well as perceived threats from the Muslim and Tamil minorities” as Susan has argued. This was a majoritarian ethno-religious-linguistic project where the minorities and their culture(s) were to be downgraded, then erased. This was an exercise at guarding and harvesting identities for political power by excluding other stakeholders. We know what it produced: ethnic strife that resulted in a civil war which lasted of and on for over five decades, rendering a huge population into refugees. Against such a dominant cultural and political discourse Wickramasinghe and Sarachchandra, through their art and literature, try to construct alternate responses to the vexed question of national identity and highlight the possibility of a transcultural/transnational identity. Given Sri Lanka’s fractured national identity caused by majoritarian politics and ethnic conflict, if any national reconciliation must happen, a new national imaginary is essential. This could be found especially through works such as the ones produced by Wickramasinghe and Sarachchandra. 

South Asian identity politics is as much a legacy of the colonial rule as it is the outcome of ethno-religious-linguistic ideologies’ identity harvesting power game. When the power transferred from the British to the native elites there were efforts at building multicultural, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual nation states. Struggle for power and resources eventually gave way to majoritarian rule that discriminated against minorities resulting in conflicts. In Sri Lanka, the conflicts morphed into civil war. In India, Hindu majoritarianism is on full display today where discrimination and the persecution of minorities and Dalits have become systemic. It is only a matter of time before this could morph into violence and a war of secession as happened during pre-partition days. At such times focus on cultural works that can offer a counter narrative that helps people imagine transcultural/transnational identities is a valuable effort.

These two papers, as they try to offer a transcultural imaginary, also help us with insights into what line of exploration in our interview process could shed light on the area of our research in the Refugee Wales project.

On the 30th June 2021, I chaired a session entitled “Identities in the Muslim Diaspora” for the 17th EACLALS Triennial Conference at Cardiff University 28th-30th June 2021. The session included presentations by PhD researchers from UK universities at different stages of their research. In line with the conference’s theme of Transcultural Mo(ve)ments, the papers topics ranged from Palestinian diaspora fiction, the cultural productions of “Home” in contemporary diasporic fiction and the concept of third-spacing in the narratives of the female Arab-American writers. Despite the uniqueness of the approaches to the fictional texts the researchers analysed, they all hit upon themes relating to cultural dislocation, diasporic experiences, and the clashes of the encounter between the Western and Eastern worlds. In their analyses, the presenters examined how the authors/characters’ ethnic, bi-cultural and individual identities, in the texts they analyse, are shaped by political, ethnic, cultural and gendered factors.

These topics raised a question about the role of fiction writers as historians and in our case, at the Refugee Wales Project, as oral historians who respond to and who present a record to the future generations about a history of displacement and violence that led to issues of belonging, identity, race, memory, and trauma. I was particularly interested in two papers: Haleema Alaydi’s “Rethinking Palestinian Diaspora Fiction” and Anas Alhaisony’s “Forging British Asian Identites: Interrogating Cultural Productions of Home” as I found them closely related to our approach at the Refugee Wales Project.                                      

Having lived in the refugee camps in Jordan as a Palestinian refugee, Haleema Alaydiexamines the role fiction plays in producing new understandings of the Palestinian’s refugee identity and of shifting the refugee narrative from the trauma story to that of strength and resilience. These questions resonate with the issues we, in the Refugee Wales Project, are trying to respond to as they have been emerging from our interviews with both the Syrian and the Sri Lankan refugees. Haleema’s previous position as a Palestinian refugee and her current research on Palestinian fiction, amid a critical period in Palestine’s political history resembles my previous situation as a PhD researcher of the Iraqi Fiction of War in the aftermath of the US occupation to Iraq. Also Haleema’s involvement with interviewing refugees, as part of her research, is similar to mine, as a previous asylum seeker myself now interviewing Syrian refugees for the Refugee Wales Project. This synergy brings about questions that concern empathy and the subjective/objective position of the researcher in dealing with the research subjects who are witnessing an ongoing political upheaval back home. 

I was also interested in Anas Alhaisony’s examination of Susheila Nasta’s definition of home not as that ‘where one belongs [to], but [as] the place where one starts from’ (2002). This concept of home made me reflect on the way Khalid, one of my Syrian interviewees, refers to his new life and that of his family in Wales as: “This is our society now” (Refugee Wales Interview, 2021). The idea of “home as the place where one starts from” brings a series of related ideas in terms of the “two-way approach to integration” which, Noor, another Syrian participant suggested while reflecting on her experience of resettlement in Cardiff in 2016 (Refugee Wales Interview, 2021).  I believe that such an approach would facilitate resettlement and makes refugees feel more welcomed, accepted, and less isolated and would pave the way for Wales to be a true Nation of Sanctuary.

I’ve always loved an insect. There’s something about them and their family in the bug world that has fascinated me since childhood. They are just so contradictory in every way. So familiar and yet so alien. So oblivious to our existence and yet vital to it. Equally freakish and beautiful in their variety.

It’s no wonder I was drawn to the insect drawer in the Clore Discovery Centre. A huge selection of my favourite creatures in the world, encased in clear plastic, enabling amateur entomologists like myself to examine them without danger of them flying off. And I mean flying off because all insects have wings. This, along with knowledge of the three segmented body, and the two sets of wings, is important information. With this information you can recognise the difference between insects and their cousins, the arachnids, arthropods, or bugs.

These differences are not always easy to spot. The largest group of insects are beetles (making up 40% of all animal life on the planet) who sometimes hide their wings beneath a hard shell, preferring to bumble along like colourful tanks, seeing humans as another obstacle to climb over. Some beetles’ wings have hardened, leaving them to trudge the undergrowth, but even huge beetles like the Hercules beetle (which is bigger than some birds) can fly when it needs to, although maybe not very gracefully.

These things can all be seen in great detail when our insects, frozen in time, are placed under the high-powered microscope in the Clore Discovery centre. You can see the defensive spikes on the hugely powerful legs of a locust, the iridescent beauty of a butterfly’s wings or the all-seeing compound eye of a common fly which makes it so difficult to swat. If you stray to the arachnids drawer you can even see the individual hairs on a tarantula’s leg.

Insects’ beauty might be debatable, but their sheer variety makes them endlessly fascinating. Even those who find them terrifying, when given the opportunity to examine them safely, may find themselves softening to the insect world. You may even find yourself discovering a new favourite.