Well you know how it goes, you kind of half volunteer. The newsroom of the Jubilee Journal is languishing in post-print mode. The excitement of the rumble of the presses and pre-press frenzy is over for another week. And the words urban baskets limply enter the conversation and before I leave I am on the case, basket or otherwise.
As we approached Bonhoga I realised the dull pang of hunger was lurking. This public opening was from five till seven, so there was no chance of “You’ll have had your tea then?” Bonhoga Gallery exhibitions were putting on urban baskets; tradition recycled. Chicken in a basket, was that a possibility? A hungry man is an angry man, about to do a review. Luckily there were nibbles at least to lay down a bed of impartiality. Arriving at the gallery one is met by an incredible rusty sign, maybe attempting “to say something” but just managing to look dreadful. Beside is a, well, dodgy mysterious contraption, half windmill, half trailer. Not sure what that’s meant to mean if anything, maybe mobile wind turbines is the suggestion. Well it’s a new angle on that tired debate anyway. Bonhoga, or as some call it, Bon hugga, is one of Shetland’s premiere gallery spaces, and offers shop and restaurant facilities. It’s often frequented by the “culturally adventurous”. Your first impression at seeing this large building, at the head of the voe, is that there will be large rooms, within. This is misleading; the opposite of Dr Who’s Tardis. Formerly the Weisdale mill, the building’s walls were made very thick to ensure the grain was kept dry, resulting in small rooms. So as gallery space it is not ideal, but its setting and character are unique. Like Quendale mill in the South Mainland it would be truly wonderful if mill wheels could be re-instated as attractions but this opportunity has probably been and gone.
Now baskets in Shetland, we think willow “kishies” (in fact now made from rattan sourced from south-east Asia). These baskets were used extensively in the past in crofting and fishing. Who can forget the images of women knitting while carrying precarious loads of peat on their back? Using very much materials of a pre-industrial age. Ewen Balfour is known for having a liking for weaving in the basket department. I used to have a basket by the fire for wood and peats made by someone from Voe. This is about my knowledge of baskets, but all this was about to change after entering the basket zone of Bonhoga.
Lois Walpole’s exhibition is a retrospective of 20 years work of “tradition recycled”. The available materials in the basket makers immediate environment are crucial. Synthetic and post-consumer materials mean that there is a continuation of traditional skills, often man made materials offering durability and colour which can be marketed as fair trade products.
Downstairs in the restaurant, a taster of the larger exhibition up in the loft space can be seen. Some of her more restrained works are here and in the glass cases a collection representing baskets of the world. Recycled materials are incorporated in this truly international display. Baskets from Senegal, West Africa, made from njodax grass and plastic from old prayer mats. These are mainly smaller pieces but do prepare you for the wow factor up the stairs, but maybe not for the ingenuity of the materials and originality of the pieces. These are more functional and made from materials readily available, an element of necessity being the mother of invention can be seen in bowls from Tamil Nadu made from polypropylene strapping tape.
Up the stairs for the quirky stuff. I have to say basket is a loose term, there’s bowls, big laundry baskets, dishes, wall sculptures, even a strange neck tie without the neck. All the materials have had a previous life; Lois states that she has become a designer and maker of functional objects that are also art works, sculptures even. She ceased buying materials to make baskets some time ago and has never had to look for them, they are everywhere. As for the materials there’s an amazing array of stuff, a fruit bowl/basket made entirely of wine corks. Corrugated cardboard, synthetic raffia, juice carton and tetra paks. There’s quite a bit of drinking paraphernalia: champagne and beer muzzles, crown caps, ring pulls and tins. It put me in mind of the tenants of a flat in Aberdeen years ago where one wall was covered by tastefully arranged ring pulls from Shetland “red roses” forming a massive galley. The drinking strain to complete this work of art was considerable. Little did they know they were before their time in producing a recycled craft work. If I remember rightly they were more back peddlers than recyclers!
Lois will be running workshops this weekend with the hope that some of her magic rubs off.
It means anyone can produce baskets, which cannot be made by machine, don’t cost the earth, are functional and could be pleasing to the eye. This is a very accessible and cheery show which will also raise a smile. It runs till 1st May. My lasting impressions of the show apart from the inventiveness must be the sustained concentration and time taken on these objects, with not a machine involved.