Folkdays: Reviewing ‘The Selkie’

I was delighted when the wonderful Imogen Di Sapia sent me her book, ‘The Selkie: Weaving & The Wild Feminine’. At first glance, flicking through the pages, I was entranced at the beautiful craftmanship of the book itself. I would continue to be spellbound by the folktale, poems, and photographs contained inside.

I only had a basic knowledge of the mythological selkie, from Scottish folklore, before reading this work. I feel very fortunate that my real introduction to the tale was through the words and art of Di Sapia and her collaborators. Hear more about it below.

‘The Selkie’ is a beautifully-wrought multimedia piece, combining storytelling, poetry, photography and textiles. The work was produced originally as an exhibition, which was hosted by the ONCA Gallery in Brighton in 2018; the book was a companion piece to this exhibition. The various artforms form a ‘collective narrative vision’ through the notion of the ‘wild feminine’ and the mythology of the selkie, which sits at the centre of this project.

In her introductory essay, Di Sapia explains the genesis of the project. Following the birth of her second child and the perinatal struggles she faced along the way, the artist found weaving to be a crucial means of discovery and communication. The creation of wraps and shawls gave a renewed visibility to the lives and bodies of women whose position in life, through motherhood or other experiences, had left them feeling invisible. These themes, of ‘consent, entrapment, loss of freedom and abandonment’, are equally prevalent in the story of the selkie.

Following her introduction, Di Sapia provides the reader with the version of the folktale of the selkie. Stemming from northern Scottish mythology and folklore, a selkie is a being with the ability to shift between two forms: a seal, and a woman. In the rendering within this book, selkies come to land once a month, during a full moon. They remove their seal skins and take the form of women, of all ages, shapes and sizes, to dance upon the rocks. On the Orkney Isles, a mortal fisherman witnesses this transformation, and steals one of the seal skins, knowing it will keep the selkie in human form and bond her to him for a seven-year marriage. Though she is homesick for her life as a seal, she bears the fisherman seven children and remains dutiful. At the expiry of this bond, the fisherman refuses to free the selkie and hides her seal skin. One of her children brings the skin to her, and she returns to the sea.

Di Sapia’s rendering of this folktale is as beautiful as her textiles. The story begins with ‘once upon a time’, granting it the mystery of an unrooted moment in time. In traditional fashion, the folktale is didactic, with a lesson or moral: ‘for we all now know the story of what happens when we take that which is not ours…‘ It echoes the formulations of oral storytelling through its use of anaphora, with the repetition of ‘and so‘, ‘and then‘, and ‘now‘ at the beginning of paragraphs; through its second-person address to the reader (‘if you can visualise that‘); and in its use of a common folktale ending, whereby the life of the story is perpetuated through its transmission: ‘and so my tale is told, and now it belongs to you‘.

The textiles Di Sapia creates are what she terms ‘seal skins’: earthy in colour, and with the individuality of texture seen only in handwoven fabrics. The textiles are captured through still lifes set by Lisa Jahovic, and photographed by Michaela Meadow. Meadow, along with two other photographers Grace Gelder and Bronwyn Preece, were given seal skins to use in their own personal artistic responses to the theme of the wild feminine and the story of the selkie. Their photographs tell different narrative facets of the story, and bring different perspectives to the notions of womanhood and femininity.

Each collection, or ‘photo story’, is prefaced by a poem, written by the photographer themselves. I was enchanted by the variety in these poems, but also by their close connections to the central themes. Gelder’s poem, ‘Fragments of a Myth’ is precisely that: fragmentary. It is only five lines long, yet the words a powerful and speak with a kind of proverbial authority. Preece’s poem fascinated me for its use of word play between ‘seal’, ‘skin’, and ‘soul’. Each stanza is punctuated with the words ‘weave’, and ‘weft’, which echoes the sounds of the loom but also the rushing of waves on a shore. Meadow’s poem is a longer and more traditional free verse poem. Yet there is a momentum which builds within the poem, until each line is split into two clauses, which once again echoes both the loom and the waves.

The project as a whole fascinated me, both in the artistry of all its collaborators, and in the themes which tie the works together. Di Sapia writes how ‘weaving is by its very nature a medium for storytelling’; in a similar fashion, folklore and folktales are like to a woven fabric. Their themes might be closely intertwined, and have their set patterns, yet the products are rich, intricate, and ongoing. Reading and viewing ‘The Selkie’ offers an experience which embodies the texture found in any one folktale, or any one area of folklore.

My thanks go to Imogen for sending me her book.

Bright Moon, Imogen Di Sapia’s website

Bright Moon Weaving, Imogen Di Sapia’s store – you can buy the book here.

The Selkie: Weaving & The Wild Feminine exhibition at The ONCA Gallery, Brighton (2018)

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