Roots of a Contemporary Alchemist
By Susan Moir Mackay
Mar 17, 2012 - 10:58:34 AM
A collection of human hair used in the artist's work. Photo: Susan Moir Mackay
Transforming Spaces opens next weekend – 24th and 25th March. The annual event that takes tour buses around art galleries in New Providence for a feast of art, has a twist this year. The organisers sent out a call for proposals based on the theme “Fibre”, specifically a re-imagining of indigenous fibre.
It seems to me that with every piece of art I make, I hit a moment where I curse that I ever had the idea! This moment hit me very clearly when standing in Port Lucaya on a cool dark winters evening, with my pink folder in hand, pen and a pair of scissors handy, as I approached a young woman sitting on a step busily typing on her laptop.
She is surrounded by others who, like her, are taking advantage of free wifi. They are not spring breakers or even tourists, but men and women who work on the cruise ships and have a moment to connect with friends and families online, whilst sitting awaiting their ride back to the harbour, and work.
It had only been a week between the end of Blue Green Exhibition and the deadline for proposals for Fibre. It was too little time to second guess myself and little did I imagine, whilst writing my proposal in bold type and a certain bravado, that this moment; approaching a stranger to ask for a piece of their hair, would happen.
The young woman is obliging, as is her male counterpart and I walk away from Port Lucaya clutching my pink folder, which now contains in two plastic sleeves with some miniscule samples of hair, (of Philippine extraction), I am excited and not a little bit daunted by the task ahead.
Hair Basket by Susan Moir Mackay of Grand Bahama. This work will be on display at the Doongalik during Transforming Spaces Art Exhibition in Nassau, Bahamas on March 24th and 25th, 2012.
Did I really say I would make a vessel out of hair?
My idea was simple. There are no pure indigenous peoples inhabiting Grand Bahama currently. Thus, all inhabitants could be argued as being a contemporary indigenous population. And the fibre….their hair, would be representative of the diversity of this community and combined to represent unity. Considering how each individual is intrinsic to the fabric of a society, I wanted to create a bowl – inspired by a quaich, which is a simple Scottish vessel - known as a communal cup, that can nourish all. (One must imagine traditionally this would be with whisky!) In conjunction with the bowl, it seemed necessary to document the genealogy of the participants to fully and truthfully express the complexity of Grand Bahamas’ population.
Setting the challenge of only using hair to create the bowl, I am ever so grateful to the 57 people who willing contributed their hair! (Plus 3 samples of synthetic hair – representing the ubiquitous weave)
The bowl is maybe not what I expected, but creating it and watching the varied textures of hair mesh to create a simple form was incredibly satisfying. I was intrigued and somewhat in awe of some people’s diverse ancestry. I named the piece Roots as it expresses succinctly the triple meaning included in the piece, heritage, hair, and connections.
Three pages of hair donated from many people in Grand Bahama and mounted on paper by artist Susan Moir Mackay for the upcoming Transforming Spaces Exhibition in Nassau. (SLIDE SHOW)
Hair, Thread, Ink and Paper
Frames (11″x 14″)
A nice idea….but is it art?
I have emotionally stepped back from work since the last show in November. There is something deeply disquieting about the strong reaction here to art work that does not fit some narrow parameter of realism and painting. This is not an uncommon situation, although fitting somewhere between the category of ‘contemporary and conceptual’ art work, (terms that seem strange and need an extensive explanation), my work has always challenged me to successfully convey to people, unfamiliar with contemporary art, what I actually do and why I do it.
Truthfully I have fought wildly with many (mainly in my own mind), justifying and explaining the history of art, and the context of contemporary and conceptual art, and the significance of process in an overly consumerist society. But somehow all that fighting has left me tired and not a little bewildered myself. I wonder if my inability to articulate what I do and why I do it, is because of the clotted arguments in my own head, tainting my words!
I have read books that talk a lot about the importance of intention. Intention creates the invisible structure from which things bloom. A clear intention, is vital to create a clear path, if at times meandering, to a clear outcome, that might look different from what is expected!
One might imagine that being an artist, my intention must be “to create beautiful art work”, or to “create work that people will like and want to buy” or “to copy nature with an uncanny photographic precision” or even to create “something beautiful that people can have in their homes”!
This is, I realise, why there is so much confusion, (if only in my own head), because my intention is somewhere else entirely!
When I look back on all the work that I have ever made since Art College, there has been one underlying intention and its nothing to do with beauty or selling.
My intention has always been to heal or transform or understand, to expose and illuminate: To offer a different solution.
Freedom Call Exhibition submission by Susan Moir Mackay
For Freedom Call, I painted the young black male surrounded by flowers as I wanted to portray a different image from the clichéd ‘angry black man’, when considering the history of slavery and emancipation.
Disparity Reality- Woman, I wanted to understand deeply the conflicting images and cultural messages of being a woman. And inspire through this expose, the possibility to make a different choice.
Every piece of art work in Crimson Room was a search for healing; it was an acknowledging and standing face to face with pain in order to understand and transmute it into something else, something more meaningful, deeper within me. And perhaps offer a different understanding of pain, its significance and our response to it.
Paradox: Taking the grey slime from my studio sink and still honouring its essence but longing to see its intrinsic beauty as presented in the piece Genesis, along with all the pieces in Paradox, where I searched to understand an element of life and found its opposite inextricably woven in its essence - Pain in healing and healing in Pain.
The artist's work for her solo Paradox Exhibition called "Implicit in the Pain"
Susan Moir Mackay's "Healing Center" for her solo Paradox Exhibition
My work is so often a crucible for me. I walk with a question, usually some aspect of the under belly of life, like Psyche Pollution, and whilst in the fire of the process, find elements of gold in the essence of our common human experience – Pornography being just another form of making love, after all.
That is my life work, that is where my passion lies. I am interested in life and being human and facing the supposed darkness of life and finding its intrinsic light and finding ways to express that very complex dilemma of being alive in a multifarious existence.
I have been called a mystic and a healer and a true artist, but I wonder now if I might be better dubbing myself, a ‘contemporary alchemist’ to explain what I do and why I do it.
An alchemist: The one who seeks to transform metal into gold. And in these times of chaos and confusion it is a simple intent to wish to transform the dross of ourselves and our lives into some spiritual illumination or intellectual gold.
So, with the hair that had strewn my floor and table from stitching hair to hair all swept up and my notes and questionnaires about the genealogy of 57 individuals folded into my pink folder for the last time, I understand that ‘my art’ has been in the twining and combining of those individuals that collectively contribute to this society in Grand Bahama and the revealing and documenting of their individual history: To offer a different way to see ourselves and perhaps catch a glimpse of a time when we understand that to be human means that each strand, each lineage, each individual has the right to be included in the fabric of every community and that the common cup is broad and diverse and can nourish us all.
My work will be shown at the Doongalik Gallery, Nassau.
Artwork by Susan Moir Mackay
About the author:
in Edinburgh, Scotland, Susan Moir Mackay is a professional artist with
a B.A. (Hons) in Art and Design from Edinburgh College of Art. She is
an impassioned advocate of art and has a deep abiding belief that art
benefits individuals and communities. Susan has travelled extensively,
observing art in all its forms and has invested much of her time to art
education projects, as well as developing her own art works and
Susan currently lives in Freeport with her two children, Fiona and Dylan. She can be reached at
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