I was lucky enough to catch the brilliant ‘Miracles and Charms‘ exhibitions at the Wellcome Collection in London this weekend in between sessions at the Historical Materialism conference. ‘Miracles and Charms’ is actually two exhibitions, about belief and healing in London and in Mexico. Wellcome Collection is one of my favourite places in London, it’s as if someone made it especially for me, to indulge all of my geekiness under one roof.
The Infinitas Gracias exhibition, mainly composed of ex voto paintings, was amazing. Mexico has a rich artistic history, and for me on of the most intersting things about ex votos is how accessable and non-elitist they are – anyone could commission or paint their own, detailing the moment when a Saint was invoked to save the day – often but not always in medical emergencies. The paintings range from very simple to very elaborate, always showing the saint(s) to whom the piece is dedicated appearing above the scene of the crisis is a puff of smoke, with the story written down at the bottom of the page. The pictures appear in churches and shrines as public testimony to the power of the saints, and the exhibition showed how this tradition is continued and adapted with public offerings, prayers and testimonies gathered from a church in Jalisco also on display.
The ex voto, and the variations of it’s modern form, are an art form that anyone can create and are never intended to be commodities, to me this is why they’re so fascinating, they’re so different from the elitist, exclusionary art that seems to dominate elsewhere.
Next door, the Charmed Life exhibition shows Felicity Powell’s response to the amazing range of folkloric objects collected around working class areas of London in the not-so-distant past, used for luck, protection and healing. Glass beads to prevent bronchitis, red coral charms for good health, and loads of other awesome amulets and charms kept in pockets. Powell’s own work in response to the objects is also really beautiful.
Charmed Life was really intersting for me as it showed how prevalent folkloric and magical ideas about health and healing have been in London in the recent past, normally in anthropology (or maybe this is just me), magic and healing is something I associate with ‘the Other’ to a certain extent, but clearly this isn’t at all accurate.
Both of the exhibitions do a brilliant job of looking at the art, beliefs, creativity and innovation of ordinary working class people both in London and in Mexico, and are well worth a visit.