What Care I for Etsy? Italian Magic and Memory Shrines of Plastic
When I was five years old I didn’t need an altar to pray at. I didn’t need to pray at all. My shoulders, which barely reached the top of the freezer, were free from the weight of the world. I would spend afternoons sitting on the brown lino-covered floor of my Nonna’s kitchen, duly arranging fridge magnets that bore the face of Jesus and the holy saints and dreamily listening to grown-ups speaking their half-decipherable language. Nonna, my Italian Grandmother, now watches my careful arrangement of those magnets whenever I visit her on the South coast. The faded gold-rimmed items resonate, calling important things to me across the new, modern kitchen and for all their hideousness, they are a sacred touchstone. The king of Nonna’s collection of artefacts is a plastic dish depicting a blue-eyed Jesus that bewitched and ruled me throughout the years of my childhood. It once hung in the porch of her house along with wooden crucifixes, a black ceramic cat and a marble doorstop in the likeness of two biblical naked wrestlers. These things, along with a great trove of family photographs, were and remain the charmed signifiers of my heritage. They inform my thoughts, my tastes and my entire belief-system through their kitsch and ominous appearances.
That revered plastic Jesus plate, in a ceremonial act of progeny, was at one point passed into my possession, along with silver rosaries, communion books, painted gold icons, yellowed photographs of weddings and daytrips to Brighton seafront from the 60’s and a selection of window stickers that say, ‘For the Jehovah’s Witnesses: Do not knock. We are Catholics.’ Among these relics are engagement rings, baby teeth and holographic posters of the Virgin Mary. As a child I’d visit Nonna and gaze up at a great glass cabinet filled with these things and wonder about their significance. Years ago, behind the glass, they were steeped in familial Italian magic. The faces of distant relatives were knowing and powerful, made more so by the china beasts, holy saints and crystal glasses that propped them up.
These important items, the plate, the rosaries and the photographs, now take pride of place in my own collection of memory shrines and serve as powerful personal tributes and familiar icons to draw inspiration from. The peculiar pieces of art and tat represent something vital, provide a familiar and mystic aesthetic and fuel my self-belief. I doubt that I view them in the same way that my Nonna did, but the idea that their distinctive appearances hold the powerful influence of family ghosts, past prayers and strange stories makes them special. I feel a visceral connection to these things and respect their ability to channel significant memories and generate imagined ones. Though I could hardly call myself religious I suppose I find myself repeating aesthetic rituals that I’ve learned from the tenor of Roman Catholic imagery and find myself creating new scenes in the likeness of Nonna’s porch and the revered glass cabinet of treasures.
Google the word ‘shrine’ and you’ll be met with definitions that span the length and breadth of history. These detailed explanations shed light on the importance of meditation, faith, ancestral respect and the visual influence of memory. A quick search will also proffer the invasion of ‘Tumblr’ culture, ‘Instagram’ shots hashtagged #fleamarket, and the regal couture at the helm of the trending sensation that is Catholic-chic. This digital inquisition of the commercial and historical world of collectors strangely affirms the importance of my personal shrines. The items adorning my space hold meaning, are portals to my personal history, and those catholic-chic statues crafted by today’s illustrators and luxurious shoots for global fashion houses that appear in an online search seem creatively influenced, as I am, by the very same meaning. As I look at my shrines it seems that art’s appropriation of bizarre junk and familial iconography seeks to reproduce the spiritual inspiration that odd family objects bequeath, for public consumption. In many ways I count myself lucky that I have my own touchstones to refer to, that my Nonna’s kitchen is home to those plastic fridge magnets, and that each element in my collection holds a history that stands to influence a generation of trending images. These heirlooms, icons and garish plastic relics may well be gratuitous tat but both their uncanny, electrifying power to link the past and present, and cheerful awareness of their own bad-taste aesthetic defines them as pivotal, edifying and undeniably sacred clutter that no reproduction can match.
Words and Photography by Emily Beeson