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1. (A)moral Compass

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1. (A)moral Compass

True North started with an image of the Iberian Peninsula on a map. In trying to elaborate ideas that are prevalent in this exhibition, curator Ken Pratt was drawn back to old maps and sea charts, struck by the shape of the peninsula.

With its position in relation to the rest of Europe, almost surrounded by sea, Spain reads almost as a depiction of the compass on one of these old charts: North, South, East, West. Most of the historical narratives about Spain’s relationships with the South, East and West are now the stuff of school history lessons around the world today, certainly within the Western canon. Yet, save for a few dramatic episodes, its underexplored relationship with “the North'' reveals equally complex histories. In fact, perhaps it is these very complexity and nuances that have resulted in it being underexplored, not easily summarised in a “big data” reduction of history. 


This is perhaps ironic: Spain’s northern coastline is arguably its longest and certainly the case since Spain lost control of what is today Portugal. Not surprising then that the exchange of ideas and culture between Spain and the North is ancient and expansive. But, it’s in the 16th century that the waters become muddied. The apocryphal histories of mighty Spain’s efforts to quell rebellion in the North, to bring burgeoning Protestantism back in line and to renounce heresy in favour of Catholic orthodoxy, become amplified. Popular narratives repeated even today developed almost contemporaneous to the unfolding of events of the time.

Much of what shapes contemporary transhistoricism is the focus on the histories of  struggles for religious supremacy between European Catholic and Protestant states. Romanticised folklore foregrounds the alliances between France or Spain and the Catholic inhabitants of Scotland and Ireland, for example, the notion of “the auld alliance” in the case of the former or legends such as those of “the Black Irish” following the Armada in the case of the latter.

In True North, none of the invited artists illustrate, argue, foreground or overtly elaborate these discussions in their work—though we sometimes see direct or indirect references to the historic cultural exchange and power dynamics operating between Spain and the North. We catch glimpses of the rich layers of exchange down through the centuries, whether through the modes of painting, aesthetic fashions or folkloric tales that travelled or a shared sense of a common antagonist, sitting, like an ungainly slug, on the southern half of Britain, a proto-colonial power base wrapping itself up in a particularly English form of Protestantism and the mythologies emanating from it to political ends.


True North is another reading, not one only of the military might and Catholic majesty of Spain nor the aspirations of the English power class, but rather stories of deals made between merchants and cultural exchanges; the movement of goods, people and ideas. And, filtered down through the ages, it is also one in which we need to reevaluate the traditional story told by men—history stories with click bait appeal to boys—with a female gaze, correcting cultural histories whether through a contemporary lens or a revisionist approach of the role of women in the traditional version; one that does not only feature mythologised royal figures. 

When my cousin was a toddler, she was aboard a working freighter that ran aground on the notorious Skeleton Coast of Namibia. They sat there, stuck on the shoal for a few days, without any power while the authorities tried to work out what to do. According to my aunt’s account in the aftermath, they survived on Rice Crispies, tinned peaches and champagne, cooled by hanging it over the side of the ship in nets.


"Eventually, the wives and children were airlifted off the flagging vessel as the risk of it breaking up in rough seas became more likely, the crew remaining onboard awaiting the salvage vessel.


"My infant cousin was amongst the first airlifted off the ship. For nearly a year after that, her favourite game involved us crawling under the dining room table while she reenacted being airlifted strapped to the chest of the doctor, part of the RAF helicopter rescue team, in an old-school lift chair. I thought it was so cool. I was more than happy to join her game.” 

True North is a reconsideration, a meditation, that is impressionistic and intuitive rather than didactic or dialectical, even where its cultural historical guts spill out. It is also the curator’s most personal exhibition to date, unapologetically sailing close to the wind. Because, after all, those raised on the ocean, tend to read maps according to the bits that are blue, not the bits that are brown.

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