Behind the Mask
Life hasn’t been kind to Columbina. It’s not easy being a stock character in the Italian Commedia Dell'arte, the tricky, flirty one, the one who makes sure that everyone else’s romances work out while her own relationship status is stuck on “it’s complicated”. The lovable, funny girl who stays perky and witty even when Harlequin’s eye wanders or Pierrot is in a sulk, she fights off the dirty old men who want to sample her charms without asking and still she smiles. She is literally the only one on the stage with any sense so why is she still a servant in a ragged frock? Life’s not fair for the Little Dove in her cage
When I first started work on my version of Columbina, she was equally “stock”. I chose her for the cloth doll I was to make under the guidance of Susie Martin at my very first workshop at the Embroiderer’s Guild this time last year. She would simply be a clothes horse for the patchwork gown I wanted to make with the little diamond templates my good friend Andrea gave me…oooh Harlequin I thought, I’ll make a Venetian Carnivale dolly who hangs around the streets having her picture taken with tourists (I’ve never actually been to Venice…this is just how it is in my imagination!), a puppet with no real personality or story, just a dress up doll. I collected stock images on Pinterest, read all about The Commedia dell'arte on Wikipedia and got ready to make a start.
I worked on Columbina in my spare time as I also was working on my Votes for Women piece, The Unfinished Quilt. That work was saying something, it had meaning and suddenly it didn’t seem right to be working on a vacuous costume doll with no personality at the same time as a political, feminist work. I’d moved on and Columbina now needed a voice!
Initially my story for Columbina was going to be all about her voice. In the early days of Commedia dell'arte, female performers weren’t allowed to speak and could contribute to the story through dance alone. I’d watched Mary Beard’s lecture “Oh DO Shut up Dear” on iplayer and read her book Women & Power: A Manifesto discussing the female voice…or rather the silencing of it by men through history and thought Columbina would be the perfect figure to express that idea. I would shut her up, patch her mouth like a stitched scold’s bridle.
But I didn’t like it, it didn’t feel right, me and Columbina weren’t getting on and after a long period of not seeing each other we thought we’d better sit down and have a chat. I removed the patches, reworked her mouth and started to listen to what she had to say.
Columbina is insecure, she would like to be brave enough to take off her mask and tell the people in the audience that she is not happy. She doesn’t think it’s fair that she sweeps and scrubs and makes people laugh with her carefree smile and sharp wit while all the time she is objectified and unfulfilled. She is smart, she could write plays that would make the audience members really think about their own lives instead of gawping and braying at the human Punch and Judy show she performs in each night. She would like to inspire other women and girls to break free and take control of their own lives.
But Columbina is scared. She feels frustrated but safe behind her masks, her real one and her “stock character” act which is so easy hide behind. She is embarrassed by her tattered clothes, her weird face that makes her look a bit like a piece of 17th century stumpwork and is just as grubby, tattered and worn. Her unruly hair that always has a halo of split ends no matter how many pins she puts in it. She tries to conceal her too long arms with huge sleeves and her mismatched legs beneath her skirts. Columbina doesn’t feel that she is good enough, pretty enough, educated enough, rich enough, connected enough, well turned out enough, confident enough or young enough for people to take any notice of or even like very much. Columbina thinks that it's best that she stays in her cage, stays predictable, doesn’t rock the boat or upset anyone, does what’s expected of her…at least for now.
Cloth Doll on Wire Armature