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Review: Cauldron Born: How Long I Have Thirsted to be a God Among Men

1 July 21 words: Kelly Palfrey

We take a look at Amelia Seren Roberts' latest work, on display at Surface Gallery... 

Amelia Seren Roberts - Surface Gallery. Photo by Tom Platinum Morley

Cauldron Born: How Long I Have Thirsted to be a God Among Men is an impressive display of craftsmanship and storytelling. This vibrant exhibition explores the relationship between Welsh folklore tales and their anglicised retellings in The Black Cauldron and The Chronicles of Prydain. Artist Amelia Seren Roberts uses traditional Welsh quilting methods and materials to reclaim the heritage of both stories; each quilt is painstakingly hand stitched and features a central emblem surrounded by a decorative border that is typical of a Welsh quilt. 

When entering the exhibition, I was struck by just how detailed each work is. Every single stitch had been carefully planned and meticulously sewn to create elaborate designs, that each tell a different story. I also very much enjoyed the way the exhibition was hung. Roberts did not simply hang each quilt on a wall, instead she opted to display them on stand alone frames and decorative brackets which allow the audience to walk around each quilt and observe them from both front and back. This makes for an engaging and interactive exhibition that reminds us that these quilts aren’t simply works of art to be displayed, but also practical 3D objects that have a use outside of the gallery space.

Perhaps my favourite work of the entire exhibition is the Mustard Sateen Wholecloth Quilt, a small but striking yellow quilt that confronts you as you enter the space. You’d be forgiven for thinking that this sunny looking piece tells an upbeat or happy story of Welsh heritage; it doesn’t. It tells a sinister story of the appropriation and suppression of Welsh folklore, traditions and culture across hundreds of years. Attached to the intricately stitched piece is a small wooden plaque that features an illustration of Arawn, a character from The Chronicles of Prydain who is portrayed as an evil sorcerer and ruler of the Land of Death. His character is based on Welsh mythology; Arawn was a skilled magician and fair and just ruler of Annwn, the Welsh ‘Otherworld’. The demonisation of his character in the anglicised re-interpretations of these tales speaks to the much wider issue of the attempts to disparage Welsh culture, which Roberts also comments on in this quilt.

Photo by Tom Platinum Morley

Alongside the illustration of Arawn on the small wooden plaque, Roberts has inscribed ‘W N’. These two simple letters represent hundreds of years of suppression of the Welsh language, standing for ‘Welsh Not’. The Welsh Not was a device used to force Welsh school children to speak English. Any child found to be speaking Welsh was handed a small plank of wood to wear around their neck. This was then passed on to whichever child was next caught speaking Welsh, with the last child wearing it at the end of the school day receiving punishment from the teacher. As a Welsh person myself, I found I connected with this quilt the most; it is a subtle yet striking commentary on which aspects of Welsh culture were seen as acceptable. The language was deemed inferior but the folklore was acceptable, once it had been anglicised. It’s powerful stuff.

Quilting has a long history in Wales and is closely linked to the social history of the country. It is an intergenerational practice that sees folktales and personal stories of love, loss and life stitched into a quilt as a way to pass on knowledge, stories and skills. The intergenerational nature of quilting is cleverly highlighted by Roberts through the inclusion of a quilt created by her mother, Ruth Roberts. The Traditional Welsh Triquetra Wholecloth Quilt tells the story of Ruth Roberts’ relationship with her husband, who is English, through emblems such as a daffodil, a rose, a traditional Welsh lovespoon and an English shield. There is something very beautiful and moving about the inclusion of this quilt within the exhibition. Amongst quilts that tell stories of anglicisation and at times suppression of Welsh culture, it serves as a poignant reminder of just what can come from an equal appreciation and respect of both cultures. 

Photo by Tom Platinum Morley

My only criticism of the exhibition is that it is not necessarily clear in the accompanying text that Ruth Roberts is the mother of Amelia Seren Roberts. I feel that this is quite a key piece of information and should be celebrated loudly. Knowing that the quilt was created by Roberts mother brought so much more depth to the exhibition for me; it reinforced that this is an art form that is deeply intertwined with Welsh culture and heritage and it made the reclaiming of the characters from The Chronicles of Prydain and The Black Cauldron through traditional Welsh quilts all the more impactful.

Cauldron Born is an exhibition that strikes a balance between being enchanting and challenging; is a credit to the highly skilled artist and craftswoman Amelia Seren Roberts. With every stitch, Roberts is challenging how Welsh folklore and culture have been altered and re-presented for an Anglo-American audience. The exhibition raises important questions about how we engage with different cultures and the impact of anglicisation of these cultures. How do we retell stories from other countries without diminishing their heritage, and more importantly, should we retell them?

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