FINDING GOD IN ALL THINGS
By David McMahon, Communications Manager, Society of Jesus in Australia
You don’t have to be a dummy to get a starring role at an exhibition, but it can help. So when Hellen Bakhoff, owner of the Linhay Gallery in the Clare Valley town of Auburn, was mulling over the best way to display historic vestments, it was suggested that she might want to display the items on dressmaker dummies and mannequins.
It was an idea that Fr Kieran Gill SJ, parish priest of the parishes of Sevenhill-Clare-Manoora-Riverton in the Archdiocese of Adelaide, readily embraced.
In the final week of the exhibition, which ran from 4 November until 3 December, Hellen explained her initial thought process. “I realised it would be a great way for people to get up close to them and examine the beautiful work in a three-dimensional way. I have a friend called Kay Inverarity, a costumier who lives in Adelaide. She suggested using the mannequins and even volunteered to lend us some of hers.
“In May last year, which was History Week in South Australia, I was talking to Fr Kieran and I knew he was concerned about the most appropriate way to store and preserve the vestments at St Aloysius’ Church in Sevenhill. So I invited Kay to come up from Adelaide and we both went to Sevenhill to look at what was there and she advised Fr Kieran on the best way to store them. At the time, we also talked about the possibility of doing this exhibition to mark the 175th anniversary of Sevenhill and that was very exciting to me, as it was to Kay.”
Was that when the idea of using tailors’ dummies and mannequins was broached?
Hellen laughs. “Yes, it was at that point when she volunteered to lend us the mannequins. But it’s not the first time I’ve used them in my gallery, because I’ve actually done two of Kay’s historic costume exhibitions here before. In addition, I’ve also used them for local exhibitions that I call ‘treasures from your wardrobe’ – old things like wedding dresses and items that families just held on to for a variety of reasons. So yes, we’ve done a few costume exhibitions here in the past.”
if you’re going to an exhibition of vestments, or any kind of apparel for that matter, you generally expect to see them as a static, two-dimensional display on a table, rather than exhibited three-dimensionally, on life-size mannequins. Was that central to Hellen’s plan?
“Yes, it was,” she says. “I like this kind of presentation and yes, people have been shocked when they come through the door and they see mannequins and dressmaker dummies. Generally, they don’t expect to see them in a gallery. Everything on display is three-dimensional except one item, a beaded stole that is on a table.
“Before we opened the exhibition, I drove all the items from Sevenhill to Auburn in my car, and Fr Kieran followed me. It’s a short drive, about fifteen minutes. When we got here we unloaded them together, with great care. Even before we started, I mentally knew which items would go on each mannequin because I’d had a few weeks to think about this, as well as where they would be best placed within the gallery.
“Kay actually suggested the baptism scene and the mannequins there are dressed in reproduction costumes, with an original doll under original baby clothes. So that tall mannequin was always going to be placed there, in that particular position for that specific scene. When it came to the Corpus Christi canopy, I followed the idea from Fr Kieran’s photograph that showed how it had been displayed at Norwood a few years ago. And the smaller male mannequin was perfect for that, because the taller one would have been looking over the top of it!
“The intricate embroidery on these vestments was really a highlight of the exhibition. That was a key element in how I decided to display them, deliberately enabling people to see them up close, which is unusual. The way in which the vestments have been displayed on the mannequins means that people have been able to stand there and study the intricacies of the work at eye level or just below, rather than bending down to try and study the details if they’re under a glass display table. It was so rewarding to see people gazing at the beautiful work.
“Interestingly, these vestments seem to have very little written history and I always want to know more about items like this. I actually did a course on ecclesiastical embroidery when I was at university. I was doing needlework and graphics and my understanding of this subject was not as deep as it is now but it certainly has come full circle from 50 years ago!”
Fr Kieran, who spoke at the opening of the exhibition, was full of praise for Hellen’s vision. “She did a great job in setting it up in that distinctive style by using the mannequins, as well as the way she set up the baptism scene, which looked really striking. It’s not the first time that these historic vestments have actually been on display. There was one held at the Sevenhill church and then in 2019 there was another exhibition held at Saint Ignatius in Norwood, to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Norwood parish.
“Normally, the vestments are all stored in large drawers within the Sevenhill sacristy. Volunteers from the Sevenhill Altar Society have supported that for many years. We also have the Clare Altar Society and those volunteers have also assisted there for many years and have cared for the vestments.
“Parishioners have been very pleased to see that the vestments have been put on display and we’ve received positive comments from many people who were there. It’s also been reported in the Plains Producer as well. It’s interesting to think that these vestments have so much history and that people have now been able to see them on display, on the shoulders of mannequins. It’s almost like an exhibition of living history.
“Because of the way Hellen visualised the exhibition, you could really see the detail on all the symbols – the pelican, the Lamb of God and all the other intricately crafted symbols. On the canopy you can see the Sacred Heart of Jesus, as well as the IHS symbol of The Society of Jesus. When people are able to view these at such close quarters, they can really see the craftsmanship, the attention to detail and the dedication that has gone into creating these beautiful designs.
“The embroidery, we think, all came from Austria in the mid 19th century. There’s a lot of history in each design. We don’t have an itemised record of them, piece by piece. Not all of them necessarily would have come out with Fr Aloysius Kranewitter in 1848, but a lot would have come out in subsequent years and decades as more Jesuits came out here and developed the mission.”