It is my pleasure to introduce this unique exhibition of collages by Cathy Greenhalgh as part of the 2021 Royal Anthropological Institute Film Festival. This body of work is a response to the Covid-19 pandemic. During the first lockdown in Great Britain, from 23 March 2020, Greenhalgh started posting collages on Facebook in May, mostly on a daily basis, as a visual and verbal response to events in the pandemic.
Collage has been of perennial fascination to artists since the invention of paper, but intensified from the early twentieth century, with Braque and Picasso playing with ‘glued paper’ as part of Cubism, followed by the Dadaists and Surrealists, and later Matisse, with his paper cut-outs. Anthropologists may position collage punfully in relation to Lévi-Strauss’s concept of bricolage, an improvisational, emergent and playful form of knowledge that contrasts with the regulated and methodological epistemology of ‘engineering’. Collage exemplifies bricolage as a way of knowing and, by extension, being and making. Greenhalgh’s collages constitute a pandemic story, and each collage is an individual statement generated by a cobbling together of words and images.
It is particularly appropriate that this exhibition is being shown in the form of film. I first met Cathy Greenhalgh when we were both studying filmmaking at the National Film and Television School in the 1980s, she in cinematography, and I as a Leverhulme Fellow on the RAI-NFTS programme to train anthropologists in documentary. From the 2000s she participated in the RAI film festival and other conferences, strengthening the expanding conversations between film and anthropology. Having been inspired by her collages to invite her to collaborate on a panel for the festival conference, Mask: the Face of Covid-19, it then struck me that the collages themselves deserved their own space within the festival. In normal times this would have been at the Watershed in Bristol, but as we remain constrained by pandemic conditions, or what I call ‘long liminality’, the work is being shown virtually, reflecting the circumstances which gave rise to it.
27 February 2021
Film-making, teaching and writing are my normal means of engaging with the world. However, during 2020, collage or photo-montage not only became my modus operandi, but a vital modus vivendi. Migrating between my self, the new Covid world and south-London lockdown, making collages provided a daily means of processing what was happening. This centred on the inner world of the kitchen table, scissors, glue and magazine cuttings and the outer sphere of television news, radio phone-ins, social media, family chats and work zooms. What began as creative therapy developed into a visual anthropology chronicle, an ‘ars combinatoria’ diary of the pandemic. I used square silver cake cards, (10”x10”x 3mm thick). Dystopic humour, handmade dexterity and the serendipity of found images creating unexpected montage effects was both satisfying and calming. Later I used some online images and bought magazines from within walking radius of my home as well as donations via my street Whatsapp.
The collages cover aspects of communication, culture, economy, environment, health, people, politics, protest, and spirit, but are also personal. Spring lockdown activities, Summer uprisings and trauma, Autumn grief and conspiracies and Winter resilience and infection are incorporated. I use typical collage techniques of appropriation, juxtaposition and recycling for deliberate incongruity, shock, and occasional transgression as well as absurdity and humour. Narrative drive is propelled in a film differently to perambulating a physical gallery space. For these filmed presentations, I’ve concentrated on how one scans the collage images and makes associative links. There is no voice-over and the films are silent as this seems to offer time and more immersive contemplation of the collages. The words and images jump out in a social media manner. Viewers might wish to pause to read smaller text sub-stories and more subtle image contrasts, though the text is often deliberately jumbled and cut-up.
RAIFF 2021 is the premiere of this work