The White Lady of Camberwell appeared at the top of Denmark Hill, abutting Camberwell Green at lunch-time on Sunday, October the 8th, 1995. My girlfriend and me were getting into a mini-cab waiting by the pavement where The White Lady stood.
As the white Toyota pulled away with us on the back seat, my girlfriend turned and said ‘Did you see that?’ I nodded; we continued to observe this rare phenomenon as it melded into the tumult of a hot day in South London.
Dressed in a white bridal gown and bonnet, her skin entirely painted over with face paint, the only clues as to her identity were the colour of her eyes and the shape of her face/skull. Golden sunlight played over this surreal apparition which must have left it’s impression on anyone who witnessed it.
‘Alison’ as the White Lady of Camberwell is allegedly named, made a truly artful appearance against the mean streets of South London. Camberwell was once the nation’s poorest borough. My evangelizing cousin and her husband resided there, ‘doing God’s work’ as lay preachers with St. Michael’s Church, St.Ockwell.
Anyone could be forgiven for thinking the whole borough is as pleasant as the leafy enclave where my cousin lives: Myatt’s Fields. Take one step left or right from such charming oases with their Victorian/Regency buildings and you are in ‘Beirut’ (as some locals call it). The Old Kent Road or the North Peckham Estate can be dodgy if you are on foot.
Alison’s statement comes under the umberella of outsider performance art, if it can be categorized; in my opinion it supersedes anything Gilbert & George have done with their ‘Singing Sculptures’ or Bruce Maclean with his ‘Poses for Plinths’. The difference being, Alison (apparently) didn’t go to a big name art school (St. Martin’s) to get her act together.
It is good someone could do such a thing in Camberwell without censorship or harrassment, but would it be the same today? The cultural equivalent would be for a person like myself to dress ‘in black-face’ (which the Wokerati have disallowed) and pose on Jidka Sodonka, Mogadishu or Lexington Avenue, Harlem. How might that feel? What would it achieve? Would I live to tell the tale?
They say Alison ‘needed to do her thing’, a kind of therapy. It’s virtuous she hasn’t actively sought recognition in the form of media acclaim or financial recompense. That makes her performance a purer statement than any of the contrivances someone like Grayson Perry or the aforementioned come up with.
Patanjali emphasises Karma is the consequence of intent imbued in someone’s actions. One should never seek the fruit of one’s actions. Which pretty much negates the whole capitalist enterprise. Often the best art results from a similar attitude.
Late on Sunday evenings Bob Mortimer would sometimes appear in drag, in the Hermit’s Cave, Camberwell Green (before the pub’s charm was destroyed by current trends) we think it was him. What does such an ‘avatar’ do for the psyche? It supposedly allows someone to escape the confines of their own ego or consider how life might be in another guise or skin.
‘The New Black Yoga’ was trumpeted about in the Financial Times. Black men doing asanas on Californian beaches. To what extent is there any meaningful overlap between Affro-Carribean and White Anglo-Saxon aesthetics? Josephine MacCleod, Nigerian by birth came to live in the UK. She has made great efforts to advance the cause of African art. Reflecting on matters she commented ‘It’s a closed shop’ (the visual arts scene here).
What is it the French say? The more things appear to change, the less they actually change.
Image of the White Lady courtesy of Walworth St. Peter
Pic of Harlem courtesy The New York Times
Pic of Old kent Road courtesy The Financial Times
The New Black Yoga courtesy the Guggenheim Museums & Foundations
Hermit’s Cave courtesy The Londonist
Denmark Hill courtesy Wooster & Stock
The Ethelred by Alan Dedman