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In Our Own Image?

Article text
USW Publication
I’m drinking coffee from my mug and looking out at the view of Mynydd Eglwysilan framed by the living room window at home. The mug, bought at the gift shop of the National Museum Cardiff, is decorated with a black and white image; a photograph of striking miners taken one wednesday in november 1910 at Tonypandy in the Rhondda Valleys. On the bookshelves nearest the window the same image can be seen on the cover of the book In the Frame: Memory and Society 1910-2010 by Dai Smith. On the wall next to the bookshelf hangs Painting About A Landscape No.6 created by Ernest Zobole in 1998 representing the magic realism of a landscape that emanates a mile or so from where the photograph was taken. Surveyed from a personal twenty first century perspective I can only consider In Our Own Image? in relation to all that I find around me.

Images, when viewed through the prism of time, do not portray one moment; rather they establish the historical context of their making. In Our Own Image? offers over a century of painting, photography and sculpture made in and of south Wales, perceptively woven together and examined by art historian Ceri Thomas. His singular and rigorous commitment to the visual culture of south Wales is extended here to not only provide a renewed focus on specific works, but also map the dynamics of ambition, education and patronage within a society transformed by the rise and fall of its industrial prowess.

Of course, we shouldn’t abandon the past. Indeed, In Our Own Image? embraces and celebrates it. It also reminds us that there is no going back. Walter Benjamin pointed out that the first sight of something is irretrievable and that familiarity leads to that thing vanishing ‘like the façade of a house as we cross the threshold’. The works of those represented here provide us with the opportunity to reimagine what they imagined, and to consider how the world around them shaped what they made.

It has been a pleasure to assist Ceri Thomas in bringing together bodies of work that form the newly transfigured art collection of the University of South Wales from which many of these works are taken. His illuminating text starts with reference to the doomed steamship Titanic. The rusting hulk provides us with one way of conceiving the significant and richly textured past of south Wales. It can never be fully visible yet through the darkness it is possible to glimpse details that suggest a bigger structure. The works offered here provide a glimpse of the components that helped shape a society that we can now only imagine.

The view framed by my window has changed little in the last century whilst much beyond it has. Robert Ballard’s book The Discovery of The Titanic contains the first flash-lit colour photographs of the fragmentary remnants of the Titanic looming out of the darkness. The book sits on the shelf just beyond Zobole’s Framed Painting About A Landscape No.6.

© Paul Cabuts 2014