To my shame, I never knew about Bromley House Library’s existence, let alone the magic inside. But proudly it stands on Angel Row, like Platform 9 and ¾, among chicken shops, football merchandise and the sobering luminosity of Tesco.
My curiosity strings were tunefully plucked when I happened across an invitation from Tracey Kershaw to see her latest exhibition. And not just because of the location. Tell me about your mother... landed around Mothers’ Day, and smack-bang in a twenty-something era where I often find myself wide-eyed and whispering:
“My God. Me mam was right.”
I got buzzed in to the members-only building to be met with a mother, daughter and teacher – the artist herself. Tracey’s project has been going on for a few years now and comprises of her information compilations, textual and photographed, centred round “mother” and people’s perceptions of her. The idea was birthed after seeing the beginnings of her little boy growing up forced Tracey to ask herself questions about how well she was doing in her role as female caregiver.
Was your mother a good mother?
It’s such a loaded question, and one that was asked of several people in one-on-one, filmed conversations with Tracey. She took still shots of the moment she queried “Was she a good mother?” and placed the myriad of expressions along the wall. The pictures painted a thousand words and then some, with the line of faces peaking and plummeting from joy to disappointment.
“The concept of mothers can be such a controversial concept. I wanted to find ways of getting everyone involved – even those who had bad relationships with their mothers,” said Tracey. “That’s why I developed the box.”
Locked and sealed, “the box” sits beside a pile of pens, a wad of paper and a plush armchair. It has “Tell me about your mother...” etched into its side, and a hole for visitors to anonymously post their opinions of the woman who birthed them.
“It gives a more honest reflection of mother-child relationships. People say it’s a bit like a confessional,” Tracey explained as she began opening a big door to the back garden. Apparently one of only two gardens in the city centre, Bromley House’s rear end is something to be admired, especially with disclosure-adorned cloths pegged around it.
“It’s so people can have a wander round and stumble upon them, but also to reference domestic tasks. Tibetan monks hang colourful prayer flags out and let the elements take the text. That’s what I was aiming for – I wanted them to fade with the rain, dissipate in the environment.”
HAD A VERY FORGIVING HUSBAND! ! !
She has got hairy armpits.
MY MOTHER WAS PAINFULLY SHY AND PAINFULLY DISABLED. SHE WAS NASTY TO MY SISTERS. SHE BLAMED ME FOR HER DISABILITY AND SUCCESSFULLY GUILT TRIPPED ME INTO LOOKING AFTER HER EVEN THOUGH IT WASN’T MY FAULT. I FELT GREAT RELIEF WHEN SHE DIED.
She smells like poo but I love her as much as I love my dead pet frog.
She can hardly walk but she’s still alive in her head.
“There have been so many interesting comments that weren’t necessarily: ‘She’s my best friend, I love her lots.’ Some have been quite poignant, thoughtful, some quite poetic, some funny,” explained Tracey. “At the end of an exhibition, I’ll go home, open the box, and sit down to read some. It’s an emotional rollercoaster. I try not to edit too much, I just select the first ones I come to – again, trying to be more honest.”
Back inside, and the wall opposite the immortalised interviewees was filled with oval portrait photos of soft, kindly-looking women. “It’s a very sympathetic shape. There are links to eggs, and even precious lockets. I wanted to give them dignity.”
Using social media, Tracey had got friends from near and far to send her a picture of their mother. Based on the Russian folk tale My Mother is The Most Beautiful Woman in the World, this section of the exhibition, That is my mother... talks about the light we see our mam in – a warm glow. Tracey took further inspiration from the story of French photography theorist Roland Barthes - his mother’s death lead to a search for the perfect encapsulation of her which he eventually found in Winter Garden.
I caught some footage of a video Tracey made during the early stages of the project, 50 Things My Son Doesn’t Need Me For, where she writes out everyday activities on a chalkboard and rubs them out. So much thought and detail has gone into every aspect of this exhibition. Tracey is peering intently down many holes, unearthing new passageways as she continues on her journey. What she has created is quite moving, at times giving a huge sense of comfort and ease, at others, a nagging unsteadiness.
We made our way upstairs to another cosy place I could tell Tracey about my mother, and I was overwhelmed by the musty-smelling goldmine of Bromley House Library. A quick nosey and I was besotted – they do tours sometimes, so keep an eye out. You won’t regret it, all 199 years of the place is beautiful.
I’m going to be honest. I only knew the Sigmund Freud quote “Tell me about your mother” because of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, but it’s safe to say I gained a more sophisticated outlook on the subject from Tracey’s exhibition. It’s tempting for her to analyse the whole thing from a more psychological perspective herself, she says, perhaps on the basis of location. “The box has been to so many places now - from private libraries to outside Primark on a Saturday morning. It’s interesting to see what different people have to say.”
As the project is still ongoing, I made sure I made a little scribble for my own mam. Luckily for me, I could only write good things.
If you want to submit to the Tell me about your mother... project, hit up Tracey’s website.
Tell me about your mother... ended on Saturday 4 April 2015 at Bromley House Library.
Tracey Kershaw’s website
Bromley House Library website