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Hidden Ancestors: A Solo Exhibition by Caroline Streatfield

Curated by Heather McAteer


571 Oxford Road Gallery

24 - 27 July 2021 


‘Hidden Ancestors’ is Caroline Streatfield’s first solo exhibition. It comprises of selected works completed since her graduation from MA Painting at University of the Arts, London in 2019. While studying for her MA, Caroline first started incorporating her family history, and in particular her maternal Eastern European heritage, into her work. This was particularly influenced by her travels to her mother’s homeland in 1991, when she encountered an extended family who had remained virtually unknown to her until that time. 

The hidden narratives and stories handed down through the generations,  and how they contribute to a sense of identity, are the focus of this exhibition.  


We are introduced to these stories through a cast of characters, including members of the artists’s family. The women are adorned in the national dress from the region of Slovakia in which Caroline’s mother was born. An interesting part of Caroline’s discovery of her heritage includes her difficulties in acquiring a dress as reference material for this collection of work. On attempting to buy a dress, she could only find one on Ebay. Furthermore, while visiting Slovakia in the early 1990’s she discovered that the majority of people did not own this item and had to hire it instead. The hidden, illusive quality of the garment parallels the search for identity and belonging which pervades the work. As Caroline suggests, the use of this motif is “a way of trying to imagine the lived experience of my past relatives, as a way of an imagined bonding with them”.


Caroline’s work can be easily placed within a lineage of portrait painting which deals with issues of identity, memory and history. The women in her works have a powerful presence, akin to the electrifying self-portraits of Frida Kahlo. Kahlo expressed her Mexican heritage through depictions of herself in a mix of indigenous clothing and region specific dress. However, unlike Kahlo, whose identity is firmly rooted within the Mexican landscape, the women in Caroline’s works have no fixed abode. The figures exist in a liminal space slipping between the past and the present. Bold layers of colour signify emotional states: from the contemplative blue of ‘The Longing’ to the tumultuous yellow of ‘Hidden Daughter’ to the black void of ‘The Night Longing’. In the latter work, the figure looks into an abyss, possibly standing on the threshold of knowledge and understanding. This composition echoes Gerhard Richter’s ‘Betty’ where the artist’s daughter looks over her shoulder back into the past.


Experiencing this vivid body of work, the viewer is implicated in the mise-en-scene. We are immersed in a cast of characters and our own search for belonging and identity is reflected back at us. The narrative of our identity is fragmented and unreliable. This exhibition highlights how we piece ourselves together through various channels: memories, histories, both written and as told by our parents and extended families, and our own perception of how we exist within this complicated space. 


Heather McAteer, 2021 

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