Ingrid Pollard: Three Drops of Blood review – finding magic and myths among the ferns

Thelma Hulbert Gallery, Honiton
Race, botany and folklore are interwoven with sublime skill by the Turner-nominated artist to explore colonial attitudes to race and Englishness

With the opening of her survey show, Carbon Slowly Turning, at MK Gallery in March (now running at Turner Contemporary, Margate, until 25 September), 2022 had already shaped up as a major year in the career of photographer and visual artist Ingrid Pollard. Then in April she was nominated for the Turner prize, commended by a jury “struck by bold new developments” in her recent work as well as for the way she has “for decades […] uncovered stories and histories hidden in plain sight”.

In works ranging from The Cost of the English Landscape (1989), which connected romantic visions of the Lake District with references to the slave trade and nuclear power production at Sellafield, to Landscape Trauma (2001), where the geological structures of Northumbrian rock formations are writ large on vast photographic panels, Pollard has, for more than 40 years, reflected the inadequacy of simplistic narratives about England’s landscape and in contrast offered an artistic vision of engagement with the natural world that grasps, above all, its movement and complexity.

A new series of kinetic sculptures will, in this vein, crown her contribution to the Turner prize exhibition that opens at Tate Liverpool in October. Until then, perhaps the best evidence around that here is an artist who, at 69, is only now coming into the peak of her creative powers, is to be found off the beaten track, at the Thelma Hulbert Gallery in Honiton, east Devon, where a new solo show, Three Drops of Blood, brings together Pollard’s recent engagement with 19th-century botanical collections and East Devon’s history as a former world centre of lace-manufacturing with her own enduring concern with questions of race and the legacies of empire.

Curated by Devon-based Talking on Corners (AKA Ella S Mills, whose art historical research has focused on female figures of the British Black Arts Movements including Pollard, Sonia Boyce, Lubaina Himid and Claudette Johnson), the exhibition marks the culmination of two years’ research by Pollard across the county including at the Devon and Exeter Institution where, among other details, she unearthed folk histories of the fern. This element runs through the show connecting perfect reproductions of xylotheks – wooden boxes used for storing tree specimens – and classification-photography, with contemporary reflections by the Antiguan American writer Jamaica Kincaid on communing with people and plants in the Himalayas, and of ways other than colonial adventure of being in the world.

The fern, it transpires, is part of our ancient landscape, dating back more than 300m years, and predating even the advent of dinosaurs, to the Carboniferous period. Its reproduction was for centuries a mystery – no flowers or pods – inspiring beliefs of magical agency. It was said, for example, that anyone who held invisible fern seeds would be invisible too, and that by shooting them into the sun with an arrow on midsummer’s day, three drops of blood would fall and anyone who caught the drops would “gain knowledge of all things” and could keep the devil at bay.

Spirits soar … a portrait of an anonymous African, remade on black polka dot fabric.
Spirits soar … a portrait of an anonymous African, remade on black polka dot fabric. Photograph: © Ingrid Pollard

This poetic resonance in the title also points to the way that imagination, in Pollard’s latest work, emerges as the substance that holds so many disparate elements together, transfiguring and transforming. Where a younger Pollard’s sometimes harsh, often ironic, juxtaposition of images or text and image, might lead us headlong into a chasm of contradiction that can be discerned in the heart of Englishness and England’s cultural mythology, here she emerges as a master of synthesis and humanism. She draws out the invisible threads that connect landscapes and histories and establishes a sense of liberated being that moves freely within space and time.

Anonymous portraits of Africans, for example, are rescued from the pages of antiquarian books. While once these images may have spoken, through Pollard, to the violence of black voices erased by the colonial archive, here they are recast on black fabric patterned with white polka dots and become the centre of a visual dance that stimulates the eye and makes the spirit soar. An experience of transcendence is conveyed, bearing out Pollard’s own claim, in a text that accompanies the exhibition (drawing on a conversation with Sussex professor Divya P Tolia-Kelly), that this is “the most kind of dreamy piece of work” she’s ever done. Like a dream, it renders things forgotten and unseen and it lands with a sense of sublime restitution.


Ashish Ghadiali

The GuardianTramp

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