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J a n e t  M c E w a n

Talking Handbags

Talking Handbags was a collaborative project with three NE poets. Presented at Aberdeen Arts Centre 2005.

Talking Handbags was conceived by Douglas (John MacLean!) Cairns, a NE Scotland performance poet, (also known to many in a previous incarnation as Sid Ozalid), who invited two other poets, Hilda Meers and Steve Webb, and myself as a visual artist, to work together towards an evening event at Aberdeen Arts Centre.


Broadly exploring gender issues, I decided to play with the handbag as a symbol / metaphor for the often contradictory cultural views of woman : as both vessel and burden.

I gathered a substantial collection of bags , some of which were donated by family and friends, but the majority came from bin bags of goods  which even the charity shops didn't want, or were the remnants of jumble sales, which nobody wanted ... as they were possibly too worn or unfashionable. Many of the bags, which had obviously been used for many years, seemed to be drenched with memories, and though empty, it still seemed slightly disrespectful to open them. Others appeared as though they had been tossed aside after one evening's use. It was easy to construct narratives around them.

I wanted to honour the many women who had carried these bags and assisted by Douglas and Kathryn Cairns, suspended the collection of handbags on trees across a patch of local coniferous woodland, attempting to create a temporary shrine area. I filmed the process of installation and also a performance by Kathryn Cairns, as she tried with difficulty, and absurdly, to navigate through the woodland, carrying all of the bags. The films were included in the evening at the arts centre where I mimicked the forest intervention by installing a number of full size trees, which had been previously felled during forest thinnings, around the stage area and again hung a number of handbags from the branches.

Using Makaton sign language I also created a wall frieze of bags along the entrance corridor to the theatre, which spelled out the words " to have and to hold", which the audience could decipher using the Makaton alphabet card displayed close by.

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