Lemonade: Letters to Art

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Sonia Ward: Behind the Apron

Umbrella Studio Contemporary Arts, Townsville
— Holly Arden
A woman wearing a white apron sits at a dining table. Over her head is a pillowcase painted with the face of a young girl. We can only see the figures hands.
Sonia Ward, Behind the Apron performance, Umbrella Studio Contemporary Arts, 2024. Photograph: Amanda Galea.

28 February 2024

Dear Sonia Ward’s artwork,

RE: Your recent exhibition

I hope this finds you well.

I’m not sure how to start this, never having written to artwork before. Pleasantries like ‘I hope you’re well’ seem to be the usual opener, however, I don’t think you are that well, so maybe we just cut to the chase. 

I attended your recent opening at Umbrella but didn’t stay long because you made me feel extremely disturbed and so I couldn’t. This isn’t a letter of complaint or anything close. In fact, I think the artist Sonia Ward is very brave. I just thought you might want to know the affect you have on people. 

Here’s some context: Sonia was performing when I walked through the gallery. She was slumped at the head of a dining table. At first, I thought she was playing dead, her upper half twitching slightly as if she’d just been shot. She occupied one of six chairs around the table, which was dressed with a white cloth drawn, stained, and stitched with the image of a man’s naked body. The artist’s head was covered, masked, by a white pillowcase of sorts, the face of an elderly man drawn and painted on its front. Her body was encased in a white apron apropos the title of the exhibition, Behind the Apron. 

The whole scene was stillness, white drapery, a memorial. Five empty aprons adorned five empty chairs like a family of ghosts sitting down for their evening meal. Sonia proceeded to make her way around the other five dining chairs, unmasking her head from each pillowcase before donning the next: one with a small girl painted on its front, another depicting an older girl with ribbons in her hair. Each time, Sonia also took a fresh apron from the chair, tying it around herself before sitting. I found the whole experience shocking, like death being performed while so many people sat around and watched.

Why are masks so terrifying? They anonymise people, don’t they? They hide us. Covid masks, PPE, clowns, dentists, surgeons, Venetian Pantalone, the KKK. I can’t dissociate masks from some violence or malevolence. Sonia’s masked performance, with her body collapsed in various dining chairs, reminded me of that breath-taking passage from In Cold Blood (1966) when Capote sees the murdered Clutter family: “the head of each was completely encased in cotton, a swollen cocoon twice the size of an ordinary blown-up balloon, and the cotton, because it had been sprayed with a glossy substance, twinkled like Christmas-tree snow.”

Then I remembered that recent Netflix documentary where Sly Stallone is describing the hold his father’s emotional and physical abuse had (still has) over him; something to the effect of ‘you knew when something was up, just by the way he would slowly turn his fork at the dinner table.’

Here’s the other part that made me run: as this menacing performance was underway, Sonia’s colleague was documenting it on video. This individual momentarily turned away from her camera to advise that I could walk through the performance and around the table to see other works on the wall behind it. I couldn’t do it. As cliched as it sounds, I froze, began to shiver, and tear up. The videographer may as well have asked me trespass on someone else’s most traumatic memories, become a clumsy voyeur. 

It’s not that I didn’t relate. Of course I did. But what was Sonia asking of me? It was too much. Again, not Sonia’s doing. Isn’t that the implicit offer we choose to accept when experiencing artwork? And in this case, I had to decline. No more.

I came away from the exhibition fearing for Sonia as a relatively emerging artist and hoping she is prepared for the scrutiny of others if her most intimate memories are stitched into these artworks. It’s like ‘showing others the inside of your underpants,’ a phrase that often comes to mind. And there’s that Biblical saying about not throwing your pearls to pigs (which I may well have misused) (Matthew 7:6). I haven’t discussed the many other works in the exhibition because I mainly wanted to send Sonia my care and respect, and hope that she can safely navigate this tricky psychological terrain. I’d appreciate it if you could pass this on. 

Kind regards,

Holly

Dr Holly Arden is an artsworker and sometimes writer who wishes she had the headspace to write more.