Sonja Kielty, Curator of exhibitions has written a blog giving insight in the recent Circus-themed exhibitions at Cartwright Hall.
The exhibition Cupola marks the celebration of the 250th Anniversary of UK modern circus in 2018. The exhibition showcases the work of local aerial circus company Skinning the Cat who toured internationally 1988 – 2002 and could often be seen performing in Lister Park as part of the Bradford Festival.
Skinning the Cat lived in Manningham and many of the artists involved to make their shows were from Bradford. These skills included set, prop and costume design, performance, photography, graphic design and marketing. As well as practicing trapeze above the heads of footballers in Manningham Sports Centre, Skinning the Cat created their work as members of Bradford arts studios in Thornton.
Becky Truman, artistic director and aerialist for Skinning the Cat has created sculptures that explore audience and artist engagement through the circus experience, past and present in Yorkshire. The exhibition parallels a Skinning the Cat costume displayed at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, which marks the company’s role in the creation of contemporary circus. The exhibition includes amongst others, the costume which worked as a duo on the trapeze with the one displayed in the V&A.
The exhibition was kindly funded by a Grants for the Arts Award, Arts Council England.
Installation of the Exhibition
After meeting with Becky Truman and Jenny Wilson, Irregular Arts, a good year or two beforehand, it was brought to our attention at 2018 would be the anniversary of Circus in the UK. I personally loved Skinning the Cat as an art student here in Bradford in the 1990s, nights out on travellers sites, seeing members of this amazing troupe practising early in the mornings on ropes on trees in Bradford 7. They travelled around Europe, with babies, a strong group of incredibly physically fit young women, putting Bradford right there on the international map.
The Sculpture Court in Cartwright Hall Art Gallery is the ‘Cupola’. Immediately Becky knew she wanted to recreate the aerial experience of her skill set within the heights of this double story Edwardian building, the space overlooked from a second floor balcony.
And so it began, scaffold, trapeze, costume. Belted and roped, Becky’s team revisited their agility and talent to hoist mannequins, masks and built the original structure that was once used for Skinning the Cat performances.
Now a lecturer in sculpture at Bradford College, Becky’s artistic skills continue. In order to explore the audience reaction from the performer’s viewpoint, Becky created stunning fibre glass relief panels with her students. Ears, mouths, hands subtly surround the Court, unnoticeable at first, the eye taken immediately to the colours, sequins and sheer scale of the installation. They then become apparent, the same hue and hint in colour and texture as the marble sculptures so familiar around the building. They were heavy structures, BMG technical staff built and installed specific walls for them in order to withstand the weight.
Adjoining Cupola in the Sculpture Court we wanted to celebrate all of circus as part of the 2018 250th anniversary
For 25 decades the wonderful amazing art and entertainment form known as circus has thrilled, delighted and enchanted audiences all over the world.
But what do we know about its history and development and the many stories of dare devilry that were found in the circus ring?
From the founder of Circus himself, Philip Astley, an equestrian from Newcastle under Lyme, to the real life daring young man on his flying trapeze who gave his name to the leotard, learn the secrets of the ring, the lifestyle and the stories of the circus, the identity of the original human cannonball act in 1877 and when the big top was invented. Come and discover the part played by Berry’s of Bradford, the designers of choice for the leading British Circus families whose posters proclaimed the coming of leading shows across the United Kingdom and see examples of their work across the years.
Social history objects from Bradford’s museum collections are included plus some items on loan by private lenders, Baccara Smart (granddaughter of Billy Smart) and collector of all things circus and contemporary illustration by Emily Sutton,
Posters on loan from the National Fairground and Circus Archive.
533 guests joined us for the opening in November with aerial artist, sculptress and costumier Becky Truman in her lunchtime talk about ‘Cupola’, ‘Skinning the Cat’ and the audience response to this age old gathering of dare devilry and entertainment.
Guests viewed the exhibitions to a backdrop of sounds and smells of the excitement of the circus with accordion by former Chumbawamba’s Phil Moody, circus made popcorn, candy floss and roving circus characters – body painted by Bradford College’s Events and Make Up students. VIP thanks were given by Professor Vanessa Toulmin.
Related events and activities continue, amongst which have been:
Mask Making with artist Becky Truman half term drop in (see the video below)
As part of the Friends Lecture Series, V&A Talk: Aerial Icons with Cathy Hail (Curator of Popular Entertainment from the Theatre & Performance Department of the V&A) examined the history of aerial performance over the years.
For International Women’s Day in March 2018 the lunchtime talk ‘Women in History’ was introduced by Dea Birkett, Director of ‘Kids in Museums’ and ringmaster of Circus250, joined Professor Vanessa for an illustrated talk on the charismatic and trail blazer women who have defined circus over the past 250 years.
For some more fascinating tidbits and info, follow these links: