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> > > Review: CoolTan Arts: 'The Winter Edition'

13 December 2012

'Marley the Ghost Visits Scrooge', ink on paper by Liz Innes. Photo by Eva Megias Almagro and Siobhan Gallagher

'The Winter Edition', the second in a series of exhibitions exploring the life, work and heritage of Charles Dickens, is showing at Southwark Cathedral until 14 January 2013.  Nicole Fordham Hodges attended the private view, which illuminated a dark December night.

Michelle Baharier, CEO of CoolTan Arts, introduces this atmospheric evening with marvellous theatre. Wearing an impossibly sparkly dress, she stands in front of Vasily Nilich's accomplished, moody portrait of Fagin. She speaks of her own Jewish traditions: Hannukah, the Festival of Lights. She throws some golden coins into the audience: the tradition is that if you give money away, it returns three times over, she says.

Dickens himself, she tells us, experienced manic depressive episodes from the age of twelve. She goes on to explain thinking behind CoolTan's project:

'CoolTan Arts chose to develop this Dickens project to re-evaluate where we are more than 150 years on from the Lunacy Act. Dickens himself campaigned to improve the lives of people with mental distress. Today CoolTan Arts would have made a great stopping point for Dickens as he could have joined and supported us in our work.'

The deeply resonant theme of light in darkness runs through this exhibition, which has been sensitively curated by Dani Berg. The artwork is mostly monochrome: monoprints, pen and pencil drawings, linocuts. There are just a few hints of oppressively bright colour. Liz Innes 'Mudlarks' (ink on paper), for example, where a surreal yellow light illuminates the side of a wall as the lit mudlarks search the dark Thames' beaches under a dark sky. Similarly, in 'Marley the Ghost Visits Scrooge' (ink on paper) Liz Innes draws attention to the darkness with an eerily yellow candlelight.

Eva Megias' silkscreen print ' Quotes from Night Walks by Charles Dickens' reads:

'The Wild Moon and Clouds were as restless as an evil conscience in a troubled bed, and the very shadow and immensity of London seemed to lie oppressively upon the river.'

The darkness of Dicken's world is of course an externalisation of the 'evil conscience' of Dickensian London with its inequalities and oppression of the poor and disadvantaged. Vasily Nilich's lovely pencil drawing 'Dicken's characters' depicts the palour, sadness and abandonment of  three child characters. Their eyes are closed or gazing glassily as a stern Fagin looms over his three victims, looks straight at us. An open purse spills its coins on the floor like an indictment, a dark shadow of Michelle's earlier gesture.

As CoolTan participants Karen Unrue and Lu Firth perform from Dicken's lesser known Christmas Novel 'The Chimes', they reinvent the story, putting new words into the mouths of the oppressed and poor who, as Dickens writes 'are always being complained of and guarded against.'  This rewriting of the same old story of oppression is what CoolTan is about.

It is obvious that CoolTan are enjoying their creative encounter with Dickens. They share both his social message and his lust for life. The puddings in Dani Behr's monoprint 'Victorian Puddings', for example, are pert and joyous. This exhibition has a light, open touch, like Dani Behr's plate of open oysters: 'Oysters' monoprint. It is not overstated.

In Pat McGuigan's 'The Shard and St George the Marytr' (ink on paper) the spires of the ancient and modern buildings are simply presented side by side, leading us to draw our own conclusions. What has changed since those times, and what remains the same?

This is a taboo/ prejudice busting project: it is not introspective art but wide, engaged and out there. The newspaper which accompanies the exhibition 'Dickens News' has been published in partnership with Southwark News and widely distributed by them. This is more than inclusion. CoolTan are the front runners here. They write their own story, and are the first to step forward and give: light in darkness.

Still to come in the 'Dickens News'  series:
The Ragshaw Edition, Morley Gallery. 1 Feb – 13 February 2013
The Underground Edition, Dickens Museum. 18 Feb – 23 June 2013

More information can be found at


CoolTan Arts

14 January 2013

Please come along to the next exhibition in the Dickens News Series 'The Ragshow Edition' at Morley Gallery, 61 Westminster Bridge Road, London, SE1 7HT.

The exhibition runs from the 1st-13th Feb 2013, with a special private view on the 7th February, 6-8pm, opened by artist Maggi Hambling.

The exhibition showcases both the textile and visual art work of CoolTan Arts Artists. Textile and batik pieces explore and contemporise Dickens characters, from Miss Havisham & Nancy, and will look at all levels of Victorian dress. Also showing are a plethora of prints, drawings, paintings and written work examining Dickens life and work.

Nicole Fordham Hodges

18 December 2012

My own feeling is that Michelle probably spoke intentionally of her Jewish traditions in front of the portrait of Fagin, to provide an ironic contrast between this monstrously exploitative character and the generous, soulful nature of Hannukah. I should have been more explicit about this in my review, though, ( sometimes I forget people can't read my mind) so thank you for your comments Joe.

There are many monsters populating Dickens, 'Christian' ones too - what about Bill Sykes for example - but it is noteworthy that there aren't any other, more sympathetic portrayals of Jewish Characters ( that I know of) within his novels.

It would be good to have CoolTan's thoughts on the dark side of Dickens himself - and there are of course two more exhibitions to go...

Thanks again for your comments Joe

Joe McConnell

13 December 2012

Looking forward to going to this.

Hope Cooltan managed to evoke some of the darker side of Dickens himself. That would make a break from the largely sycophantic adulation elsewhere in the arts establishment throughout 2012. Fagin in Oliver Twist is a vile study in anti-semitism rivalling Shakespeare's Shylock. Although it's reflective of the centuries of oppression suffered by Jewish people in most western countries, it does not excuse the miserliness of thought here in such a talented writer. George Eliot's Daniel Deronda and James Joyce's Leopold Bloom in Ulysses are among the few positive portrayals of Jewish people in English literature, pre-1920. Dickens was a great author but we shouldn't pussyfoot around his racist streaks. The depiction of a black man in America in Martin Chuzzlewit is also vile. And Dickens passes for an abolitionist but the more you read about this aspect of his life the more you see that he did not believe in equality.

At a time when equality is being trampled on right, left and centre, can we not be a bit more cynical in where we choose our heroes from?

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