/ARCHIVE — 2012
/Suzen Green — the mummers party
THE MUMMERS PARTY combines theatrical staging with sculptural knitted installation in an invested exploration of cultural identity, folklore and craft practice. Referring to the traditional folk practice of mumming, a lively and often drunken affair made popular in Newfoundland & Labrador, the figures of THE MUMMERS PARTY are not rowdy – they are haunted. Pulling inspiration from David Blackwood’s iconic The Mummer’s Veil print works, this exhibition explores the tension between comfort and oddity, humour and unease - a commonly felt sentiment by those who have witnessed or experienced mumming first hand.
SUZEN GREEN is a Newfoundland-born visual artist based in Calgary. Interested in craft history and cultural identity, her textiles-focused art practice also includes performance, video, installation and drawing. She holds a BFA from the Alberta College of Art + Design and an MFA from Concordia University.
During my first year of art school, I lived not far from the college with two other students in a little white house. I lived there for eight months, and never had a key; the house was always kept unlocked. Sometimes, we would arrive home and find our pal Chris taking a nap on the couch, but the house was never broken into, and we never had any problems. To be clear: this was 2001 in Calgary and not a small town where leaving doors open or keys in the car is normal practice. Perhaps an uncommon experience for most people living in urban centres, those eight months stand out as a time in my life, when I practiced an exceptional level of trust in my house and the surrounding community.
“Mummering” is a practice that relies on a similar extension of trust and neighborliness. A Newfoundland custom dating back to at least the 1800s, mummering involves groups of community members, with their identities disguised, paying nighttime visits to their neighbours during the twelve days of Christmas. Mummers are often invited into a neighbour’s home to provide entertainment in the form of song or dance, and rewarded with food and (alcoholic) drinks once the host has guessed their identities. An analogous practice might be Hallowe’en trick-or-treating, where for one night conventional rules about safety are relaxed, and costumed children are allowed to accept candy from strangers. The practices of mummering and trick-or-treating both rely on an extension of trust that bypasses conventional boundaries between domestic and public spaces, strangers and neighbours.
Suzen Green’s sculptural installation, The Mummers Party, delves into the terrain of trust, neighbors and mummering to take a closer look at the boundaries between these things and how they are negotiated in an increasingly globalised world. While traditional mummers’ costumes can include everything from nightgowns to rubber boots, lingerie and cross-dressing, Green’s knitted lace forms extend the traditional mummer’s face covering i to the floor, to resemble a classic bed-sheet ghost costume. Representing vaguely human forms, the costumes suggest bodily presence, but conceal details that might identify who or what is actually in there. Appearing as a ghostly party, they exaggerate the potentially dangerous or frightening aspect of mummering: inviting disguised and unidentifiable strangers into one’s home.
Green’s ambiguously shaped mummers are distinct from yarn-bombing, another contemporary use of knitted covers in art and popular culture. The typical yarn-bombing maneuver involves a custom-knitted covering wrapped around an object or sculpture in a public place. These coverings are installed covertly as a form of “gentle” urban graffiti and usually fit snugly on the object to effectively draw attention to the thing being covered. Green’s knitted mummers, in contrast, outline a vague form to conceal more than they reveal. Whereas yarn-bombing can rely on a played-out contrast between cozy, domestic knitting and unfriendly urban space, Green’s knitting challenges this binary by presenting crafted objects with less cozy or comfortable associations. Like Green, a displaced Newfoundlander herself, these mummers are distant from their original cultural context and the community that understands who and what they are.
Green’s mummer forms also bear an unmistakable similarity to burqas, garments worn by some Muslim women that have been at the centre of debates around immigration, multiculturalism, and religious freedom. In France, a recent ban on wearing the burqa in public spaces was ostensibly based on the grounds that the garment oppresses women. Some feminist groups have come out in support of this view, but Amnesty International has opposed the ban for the way it “violates...rights to freedom of religious expression.”ii The burqa, as a garment that conceals the person beneath it, has become a target upon which to project unreasonable or exaggerated fears about immigrant populations and integration. These fears are made evident in the fact that women who defy the French ban may face fines or “compulsory citizenship classes, at which they will be taught how to behave as upstanding citizens in a secular republic.” iii Clearly, mummers and burqas belong to different cultural traditions and histories, and the conflation of the two in Green’s installation raises important questions about the often-equivocal restrictions and permissions that govern public space, social interactions, and trust.
Mummering has received extensive academic attention, much of which is tied up with efforts to document and preserve Newfoundland’s unique folk heritage. iv In earlier analysis, mummering has been described as “...a ritual of social behaviours in which the act of disguised visiting serves as a renewal and affirmation of social ties.” v In this view, like trick-or-treating or leaving the house unlocked, it is through extensions of trust that traditional mummering reinforces a sense of community. More recent analysis has considered mummering in relation to the commercialized promotion of Newfoundland’s tourist industry. As a nostalgic “symbol of regional identity,” mummering is positioned as a response to “losing a precious way of life due to modernizing forces.” vi Green’s mummers draw upon these various associations, and link traditions of regional community trust-building with dialogues around how diverse cultural practices enter and negotiate processes of globalisation. Although the ambiguous and concealed forms of The Mummers Party might at first provoke reactions of mistrust and xenophobia, they also reinforce the fact that community-building is frequently based on extensions of trust that may require us to reach beyond our established comfort zones.
i Diane Tye, “At Home and Away: Newfoundland Mummers and the Transformation of Difference,” Material Culture Review 68 (Fall 2008): 52. Tye describes how the traditional mummer’s mask “was often a lace curtain from the bedroom or kitchen window.”
ii Jonathan Lam, “Burqa in the Balance: The Principles of French Universalism Revisited through the Legislation to Ban the Burqa in France,” Creating Knowledge The LA&S Student Research Journal Volume 4 2011, Depaul University:18.
iii Peter Allan, “French burka ban descends into farce,” The Telegraph, 17 July 2011. Accessed online August 25 2012 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/france/8581980/French-burka-ban-descends-into-farce.html
v Ryan Davis, “The Newly Veiled Face of Mummering: Reinventing Tradition and Conserving Culture,” Newfoundland Quarterly Volume 104 #3 December 2012, 44. Here Davis is summarizing John F. Szwed’s 1969 text “The Mask of Friendship: Mumming as a Ritual of Social Relations,” in Christmas Mumming in Newfoundland.
/NICOLE BURISCH is an artist, critic, and cultural worker. She has a BFA from the Alberta College of Art and Design and an MA from Concordia University. Her recent work focuses on contemporary craft and craft theory. Based in Montreal, she works as Production Coordinator at Centre Skol. She is one-third of the Ladies Invitational Deadbeat Society and one-fourth of The Brick Factory.