Enlli: A Learning Aid

by Iwan Bala

Enlli: A Learning Aid
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Artist's Statement by Iwan Bala

You who are in the traffic of the world: can you guess the thoughts of an islander.
Brenda Chamberlain

These are words expressed in Brenda Chamberlain's book 'Tide-Race' (1960) which is a diary of her time on Bardsey Island from 1947 to 1960, and my first edition copy includes her own illustrations. She was an admirable artist and poet, twice winner of the Gold Medal for Fine Art at the National Eisteddfod in 1951 and 1953, and in my work for this project, I have collaged into the image, copies of her drawings which I sought to emulate. I realise, that my task was to read and comment visually on Fflur Dafydd's novel, 'Twenty Thousand Saints' of 2008 . It seemed to me that the novel is a modern fiction that (whilst being a great televisual or filmic opportunity) was about those who came to the island rather than the island (or its people) itself, the 'Enlli Profundo' . Brenda Chamberlain immediately came to mind as someone, an artist and poet, who had decided to live on the island while it was still very much a place 'other' than the mainland. The fascination that this island holds, is well expressed in the novel by Fflur Dafydd, yet I somehow feel that it reflects contemporary issues transplanted to Enlli, rather than the involvement of time, history and memory, which, though touched upon, are not fully realised. This might be deliberate, to show Enlli as a microsmic Wales, where local culture is subsumed for the ascendancy of a hegemony from beyond its frontiers. Fflur Dafydd is concerned with 'the traffic of the world' that Brenda Chamberlain abjured during her residence on Enlli. I understand how the island 'stands in' for Wales in the political discussion, my work over decades has suggested a similar view of Wales as an island always on the horizon. An ideal state that is permanently at a distance, un-reachable. The island of Gwales (Grassholm) in its usage in Y Mabinogion has been a recurring theme, which is discussed at length in the book 'Hon, Ynys y Galon' (Gomer 2007). Much of the symbolism of these earlier works are re-introduced in 'Enlli; A Learning Aid', the island at a distance, the stylised black boat/cauldron, the ladder.

Despite the distance of time (and indeed, of political agenda's) between Brenda Chamberlain and Fflur Dafydd, there are themes that re-occur, in particular the excavation of hidden truths or of lies. As a place of mythical memory, Enlli could not fail but to be the inspiration of uncoverings. The very fact that it is still a difficult place to get to (I tried twice in 2017, but the hidden tides were against me) makes that an enduring fact. However, to compensate for my lack of lived experience, I approached a trusted friend, the poet and writer Sian Northey, who recently completed a writer's residency on the island for some words that I could also add to the 'map' or 'learning aid' that I was trying to construct. She generously sent me all she had written, as yet unpublished. From a poem called 'Rhwng Dau Gae yn Enlli', (Between Two Fields in Bardsey) I chose the closing lines;

Yma, lle mae esgyrn yn y pridd, mae'n hawdd mynd o un cae i'r cae nesaf.

My literal translation would be:

'Here, where there are bones in the earth, it is easy to go from one field to the next field'

These deceptively simple lines encapsulate for me the feeling I wanted to bring forth in the artwork, they refer to the presence of the dead in the continuing existence of the living. How the world we inhabit, can easily slip into the time of before and vice versa. It is a theme that has dominated my practice for several decades, one I am also researching now for a doctoral thesis. My concern with what I have defined as 'custodial aesthetics', is the use of contemporary practice to delve into a past (a forgotten, yet real, history) that might inform the future. I feel this a necessity, in particular for a minority culture, whose history is ignored or derided. My work has propagated the idea that Wales is itself an island, with much of its history buried or submerged, Enlli, is therefore, not only a microcosm of cultural memory in itself, but also a metaphor for 'All that is Wales'.

In the image, I have sought to create a revealing of the layers of history that echo the layers revealed by archaeologists, a theme in the Fflur Dafydd novel, that I assume to be an unearthing of the history of Wales that still lies buried, whilst also being an examination of post-Devolution Wales. Within the layers, the water's current, the shifting earth, there is movement. But there is a sense of an almost unbridgeable gap between two worlds, linked only by words of poetry, and the fragile ladder that writing provides. The ladder in the image leads to the boat/cauldron of rebirth, that might take us to the promised land.

Celtic artists of the past were wont to hide animals in their intricate designs, in this instance, so have I.

Acknowledgements: The estate of Brenda Chamberlain, Sian Northey, Gwyn Jones of Plas Glyn-y-Weddw for sourcing maps, charts and information. Also thanks to Kirsti Bohata, who visited the island and sent me her photographs, a few of which were printed and are collaged into the work.