Alice Anderson's Childhood Rituals prove hair-raising at the Freud Museum in London

By Katherine Mulraney | 28 April 2011
A photo of the outside of a tall brown brick house
Alice Anderson, Housebound (2011)© Alice Anderson
Exhibition: Alice Anderson’s Childhood Rituals, Freud Museum, London, until June 5 2011

The Freud Museum in Hampstead became the home of Sigmund Freud and his family after they escaped the Nazi annexation of Austria in 1938.  It remained the family home until Anna Freud, their youngest daughter, died in 1982.

Freud’s study is preserved just as it was in its lifetime, with his consulting couch and a loom belonging to Anna Freud.  She was a keen weaver, finding it both therapeutic and a way to relax and concentrate.

This house, and its association with dreams and weaving, provides an appropriate setting for Alice Anderson’s latest exhibition. Anderson has wrapped the house in her trademark tresses of red hair. Inside are dolls, with copious quantities of their hair formed into bundles, webs, ropes and sculptures.

Walking around the exhibition, the presence of so much hair – all the same colour and texture – is unnerving.  Uncannier are the dolls – delicate miniatures of the artist, made even weirder by the presence of the artist herself with the same long red hair.

Anderson’s work with hair is an expression of her childhood rituals. She is the daughter of an Algerian mother and an English father who separated when she was three. Her mother left England to live in France, and she forbade Anderson from mentioning the country or her father again.

Her mother would leave her alone for long periods, and Anderson invented rituals to calm her anxieties. She unpicked the threads from the seams of her clothes and wound them around parts of her body and other objects. Later, she began to use her hair instead of threads, and this ritual continues in her art.

Anderson’s art explores memory, time and family relationships. She says that her main medium is time: “When we replay childhood memories the act of remembering is fictional,” she suggests. “Biography is a story we tell, and as we tell it the memories change.

“I want to explore the emotional nature of time in the human mind, and how memories become something new. Sometimes we are convinced we remember something, but it is only something our parents told us.”

This exhibition’s main strength is that it brings out the ambiguities of power, a central theme examined through the relationship of mother and daughter.

“For me, power is like a character,” says Anderson. “In a mother-daughter relationship power is another character.  Family is where the power starts:  the family is a political base.”

Downstairs are Anderson’s “power dolls” – fetishistic figures made of the same red thread, on the wall, on furniture and hanging from the ceiling.  These are reminiscent of Voodoo dolls, and strangely sinister, as some resemble tiny trussed-up people, and one has little feet sticking out.

These dolls reflect the objects Anderson wrapped up as a child. “The power dolls have the power to protect someone. They represent power in a positive way: power is a positive thing. You believe in things, and you are calling power to come to you.”

In Freud’s study, the centrepiece of the exhibition is Anna Freud’s loom. A fragile doll of the artist looks tiny as it sits at the huge machine.

This doll is the “mother doll”, weaving dolls’ hair from “capsules” – balls of hair on the floor. The threads are woven into thick ropes of hair, and behind the loom the “daughter doll” is trapped.

“The dolls correspond to moments in time, sometimes trapped and sometimes delivered,” explains Anderson, calling them representations of “the umbilical cord, the connection between mother and daughter.”

“Things are always changing in life. The mother has the power to protect.”

Yet there is a fine line between being protected and being trapped. Around the exhibition hair is arranged like bars and as a spider’s web; the house itself is bound by red hair.

The mother may have the power to protect, but Anderson’s mother left her on her own for long periods, so she had to invent these very rituals for self-protection. Her powerful order to forget is central to Anderson’s work on memory. 

This exhibition is full of ambiguity, blurring past and present, memory and story, adult and child, use and misuse of power.  It fits very well into the house of the father of psychology.

  • Open Wednesday-Sunday 12pm-5pm. Admission £6/£3 (free for under-12s).
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