Ellen Lesperance: Will There Be Womanly Times? (at Hollybush Gardens)

If you’ll let me, I’d like to start with an argument about a feeling. Or its absence, I guess. Since the Cold War was declared complete, we have forgotten to fear the bomb. It made sense for Hannah Arendt, back in 1954, to write that ‘everybody has become frightened [of the] conspiracy between man and the elementary forces of nature’ – the harnessing of atomic fission for martial ends – but who can honestly say they’ve lost much sleep lately under the shadow of the mushroom cloud? They’re still there, in those silos and submarines, but at most they push through the soil into daily life infrequently, fugacious flowers emerging briefly as a budgetary issue, a fiscal extravagance, or a symbol of the backwardness of an army still fighting new wars with old weapons. We don’t feel that fear anymore is all.

Perhaps it’s unfair to talk about memory. We haven’t forgotten to fear the bomb, my generation, so much as never learned how. We’re oblivious to it. Our parents diligently practised their duck and cover, gossiped in the playground in the language of megatons, payloads, airbursts, non-proliferation agreements and ballistic missiles until they rolled off the tongue like nursery rhymes. I don’t even have to picture it; I have the evidence. Dug out of my grandfather’s papers, after his death last summer, a photograph of my grandmother handing out CND leaflets on her high street, accompanied by two miserable uncles in a pram and an aunt in mittens and a bobble hat. Given their ages and the weather, it can’t have been long after the 13 days of the Cuban Missile Crisis. A neighbour gives them plenty of space as she takes a leaflet. Some women stare into a shop window. Those women staring into a shop window are reflected in another shop window. In bed children will wonder if the bomb will drop oblivion on their heads.

Our parents didn’t want that for us. They wanted us to go to sleep at night. So when I walked round Ellen Lesperance’s Will There Be Womanly Times? at the Hollybush Gallery, I failed to recognise the possibility of total human annihilation under the stratospheric parabolae of nuclear warheads. That permanent fear, dressed in the clothes of normality, that our parents knew (know?) so well, for us has become period costume, placed out of the way in a display cabinet alongside Napoleon’s bicorne hat. This nonchalance is, of course, untenable on a factual level. Those weapons still exist, are ageing and under-protected; the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, first ratified in 1988, the year of my birth, has been allowed to lapse; the Doomsday Clock, maintained by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, rests patiently at 100 seconds to midnight. Now and again our great statesmen remind us that ‘this is still a serious issue’. But I learnt that nuclear annihilation was history, I still haven’t tasted it on the tongue.

So when I look at an archival record of organised resistance to that fear and its machinery, I don’t know how to recognise what I see. When Lesperance asks the question ‘will there be womanly times?’ I can only hear it in the key of progress, not survival. The question, however, has been truncated. Taken from a feminist protest song, it presents a choice not a conjecture: ‘shall there be womanly times or shall we die?’. The song was written by women at the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp. Started in 1981 by Welsh women who had marched from Cardiff to RAF Greenham Common to protest cruise missiles stored there, over the next two decades the camp was joined by many more women, either temporarily or permanently, who organised creative, militant and direct protests undermining the security of the base and posing a constant challenge to its proper operation. They sang and they tore down fences, they knitted and they made roadblocks. They did it as women, but also as black women, as mothers, as lesbians and queer women, as socialist and anarchist women, as women of faith and no faith, as women together. Helen Thomas died doing it in 1989, run down by a police van.

Ellen Lesperance Violet is for the Goddess (2020) Gouache and graphite on tea-stained paper, wool sweater hand-knit by the artist 106.75h x 75.56w cm © Ellen Lesperance. Courtesy the artist and Hollybush Gardens, London. Photo: Eva Herzog

I want to say it again: this is about survival. And womanly times are not only the preferential ouster of a patriarchal system of oppression, but the only possibility for species-survival. In the gallery are display cabinets presenting jumpers, gouache patterns documenting their design through complex superimpositions hang on the walls. An empty jumper in a display case. What body will fill this? In an alcove to the side is a slideshow with photographs from the Peace Camp. You begin to recognise a pattern: each slide shows a woman, wearing a jumper you have seen in the gallery. The artist, Lesperance, has been building this archive for nearly a decade. Whenever she finds an image of a jumper, she collects it, begins to reconstruct its pattern, then remakes it herself, re-knits it by hand. Repaints it in Gouache on a detailed, hand-drawn grid, tea-stained. As far as Lesperance is aware, no originals survive. In re-knitting them, Lesperance saves them from oblivion, allowing them to ask their questions of us again.

A jumper is not a simple thing. It takes time to make, weeks, months if the pattern is complex. Who will wear it? It must fit. One of the two jumpers in the exhibition, ‘Violet is for the Goddess’, has a moon on the back, its face an image of tranquillity, lips pursed in a near-smile, eyes calmly looking, yet to speak. On its front (unseen) there’s a rich, summer tree on a cut lawn, a sea in the background, its branches reaching up to a waning crescent, somehow nearer to us than the clouds that crowd its night sky. On one sleeve a rainbow band, flowerbuds, on the other check, Greek key, zigzags. In its complexity is nestled the simple fact of attention, of an idea that had to be followed through from start to finish. This took its maker time, and so it took Lesperance time. She has saved it. Made it an object of our attention.

When you wear a hand-knitted jumper, you are embraced by the labour of another, you wear it as an emblem of that labour and that love, even when it is your own. It is made for your body, and to show the world you are held by it. At the camp, one of the chief tactics employed by protesters was to weave toys, children’s clothes, family photographs, wool, slogans, banners, symbols and signs into the chain-link fence. To re-knit these jumpers now, decades later, is to recognise this labour and its permanence, that their fight, if we are able to bear it, can continue to hold us and to hold back the violence they rose against. We still swim in the sea of that violence, much as we might have forgotten that fact, or never learnt it in the first place. Who is this jumper for? The women of Greenham Common have told us: ‘Here’s the answer, join and sing / There will be womanly times, we will not die.’

One thought on “Ellen Lesperance: Will There Be Womanly Times? (at Hollybush Gardens)

  1. As one of the Uncles in the picture I take exception to the use of the term ‘miserable’ merely ‘pensive’ would have have better recognised our anticipation of the long struggle to achieve UND!


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