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Exhibition Explores Migration

by Alastair Hamilton -

Migration is part of life for many people, including many who, over centuries, have made the move to Shetland. It’s often a very positive experience, but any journey into new territory can be accompanied by a mixture of hope and trepidation. Lucy Woodley’s current exhibition at the Bonhoga Gallery explores feelings around migration, and they range from the benign outcome of successful journeys to the fear and uncertainty, or worse, felt by those who’ve fallen victim to traffickers.

Lucy graduated from Gray’s School of Art in Aberdeen in 1992. Having studied jewellery there, she ran a successful jewellery business, based in the Highlands, for 20 years. These days, though, her focus is on sculptural works for galleries and private commissions.

The stimulus for this particular collection was her concern with the experience of refugees. As she explains in the notes accompanying the exhibition,

“…war, violence and persecution leave at least one in every 122 humans on the planet a refufgee, internally displaced or seeking asylum. Harrowing stories on television and radio about migrants and their plight moved me to thinking about the desperation that these people feel, which provokes them into making such life-changing decisions.”

She was inspired to consider man’s migration throughout history, concluding that, since the dawn of time, humans have moved to find food, shelter or company. The borders that migrants encounter may, she adds, be friendly, or they may not. The personal sacrifices that refugees make are symbolised in Sacrifice, below.

Looking around the objects on display, there are three recurring elements, namely a boat, fish and a black bird. They provide a sense of continuity.

The boat symbolises a journey, by sea or otherwise. The fish is an ancient religious symbol that pre-dates Christianity and represents faith or hope in the place where migrants seek to settle. The bird might seem ominous but suggests destination, in the sense that seafarers, including the Norse adventurers who came to Shetland, used them as an indication that they were close to land.

Some journeys are more successful than others and that’s reflected in the exhibits. Successful voyages are represented by the boat positioned as an object of reverence, as in Safe Haven, above. Unsuccessful ones are those in which the boat is abandoned, perhaps after an experience with unscrupulous traffickers, as in Road to Nowhere, below.

The key to the exhibition is the range of contrasting feelings that it seeks to evoke, whether positive – hope and anticipation – or negative: fear and trepidation. Stowaway (below) evokes a happy experience, the box lined with gold and the boat safely inside.

The stark, minimalist presentation of the exhibits serves to highlight their intricacy and underlines the austere or indeed tragic circumstances in which refugees find themselves. For example, Tidal 23 (below) is a statement on modern slavery, commemorating the 23 Chinese victims of modern slavery who died picking cockles at night in Morecambe Bay.

The exhibits themselves are beautifully conceived and executed, with an absorbing level of detail, as the example below from Safe Haven indicates. The materials used range from silver, cast iron and steel to cockle shells, bone, oak and copper-plated sea buckthorn.

Most of the exhibits are sculptural, but there are some photographic items, too, and more of Lucy’s photographic work can be seen on her photography blog. Prices for the items on show range from £175 for the photographs to £3,000 for the more complex sculptures.

The exhibition sits well in these Shetland surroundings, for not only have these islands have been welcoming migrants for hundreds of years but the strong maritime theme and the raven are also very much in tune with our heritage and traditions.

these islands have been welcoming migrants for hundreds of years

We’re fortunate in being able to experience a steady stream of work of high quality, such as the recent exhibitions incorporating work by Grayson Perry and Hans Holbein at the Shetland Museum and Archives. For its part, the Bonhoga Gallery offers excellent contemporary work from artists and craftspeople based both in Shetland and elsewhere.

It’s a pleasure, too, to explore the well-stocked shop and settle down with a cup of tea or something more substantial in the excellent conservatory café.

Posted in: Creative Scene

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