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Notes on the SURA exhibition

The SURA exhibition comprises a crowd of handmade dolls that are leaving their studios of birth and their maker parents for the first time. Born or made? Perhaps both. Words by the artists: Glen Calleja & Lori Sauer

SURA is an exhibition of about a few hundred dolls – sculptures in fabric, paper, metal, vellum and hair – stepping into the big world alone to meet others. Others being anything; mostly people but also, anything.

Photos by Giola Cassar

They themselves don’t know how they were created. Only we do. Perhaps that’s what they’re here for. This is what the exhibition is about: origins, parentage.

Our stories change.

The Venus of Willendorf calls to her descendants.

Her body of stories has been passing from generation to generation, coursing through a common bloodline, united in blood. Stories equal kinfolk, pregnant with memories and aspirations, fleeting thoughts, foggy or forgotten experience – a heritage brimming with tales. And emotions. Blood and emotional ties for forever.

Venus calls. Alliances form, reform, move sideways, disperse. Within our family live time and myth. We are the cause and the because. We are the new generation. We cannot be erased.

Photos by Giola Cassar

Ancestors equals futures

Attempts to create objects in our own likeness follow precedents set by those who come before. This goes a long, long way back. Sometimes these attempts turn into dolls. Clearly, whatever desire, impulse or reason we started making them with hasn’t been fulfilled yet for it hasn’t stopped reincarnating. We know it from somewhere else, from some other time. 

Dolls, universal and accessible, live on a plane that is both obvious and arcane. They come to mirror life, accompany you and me through life, to reveal our pasts, confirm our present and deliver wisdom to safeguard our futures.

Made as likenesses, revered as icons, dolls tread paths away from yesterday.

We’ve met before.

We’ve definitely met before. The SURA dolls wade through their fluid narratives in an attempt to map the edge of the worlds they come from. It’s an exercise in futility, perhaps, but transformative.

What we find are two related families, long lost cousins, meeting anew on neutral ground. This is point zero, the source of a new life. A new language is negotiated.  Stories are exchanged, parcels of memory and feeling. They talk in allegories, their explanations metaphorical, at once pleasing and disconcerting.

Dolls are shaman, benefactor, talisman and they tell you and me more than we think we know.

We are made.

The SURA dolls are sculptural bearers of repeated motifs; circles, knots, wound threads, wrapped bundles. Each component speaks of their makers, their physical parents. Their spiritual parents are another story altogether.

As composed objects, they’re living witnesses of every stage of their own generation. Unlike you and me, they saw themselves being made. They saw themselves being put together and reworked, over and over again in a continuous metamorphosis until their maker was satisfied with how they looked, how they spoke, how they behaved.

We are yours.

Some or all of the SURA dolls can only speak of where they come from or hope they came from. Some just don’t know. Others hope that their spiritual parents are kinder, smarter or funnier than their blood parents and there they find solace or discord. 

Once set loose they make new stories in new hands. The language they left home with changes. Their conversation assumes new rhythms and characters and patterns emerge. Dolls start speaking to each other in a language that is unfamiliar to their makers.

We are not just toys.

Total reset. Children must approach with care. The SURA dolls can be dark, moody, refined, untrustworthy, kind, insensitive, selfish, frivolous, short-tempered and foul-mouthed, intense, stoic, dangerous, delinquent, evil even.

Yes, these dolls are made for us to interact with. That doesn’t make them toys. Symbols? Perhaps.

Their powers are transcendent. Like children, if they like you, they speak to you and make it impossible for you to abandon or forget them. This extraordinary character is celebrated with each doll reincarnation across cultures and across time.

We listen.

We lean in close to hear cries, whispers and songs. Words might not always be familiar. But we share a mother tongue. We listen. We listen hard.

That’s what we’re made for.

That’s what these bodies are for. 

Photos by Giola Cassar

These SURA dolls are ready to do as they are told and lead their handlers forward. Their attention never wavers. The details of what they hear vanish into dust. Then deafness descends.

No one is better at keeping secrets.

No one is better at remembering.

We speak.

The exhibition at Spazju Kreattiv will be open between 13 April and 16 May 2021 – depending on Covid-19 restrictions.

SURA, curated by Elyse Tonna, features a collection of dolls by Glen Calleja and Lori Sauer, stories Clare Azzopardi and translated by Albert Gatt and a soundscape by Matyou Galea. The project supported by Arts Council Malta and Spazju Kreattiv.

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