Dialogue of the Domestic reveals the hidden parts of humankind

In Dialogue of the Domestic, University of Alberta graduate student Anna House says she tries to show how, by arranging items in homes, occupants tell stories about themselves and leave out disturbing details they prefer kept out of the spotlight. She says that domestic interior tells a story about relationships and human character.

“Communication happens within the home that is not necessarily verbal all the time, but in the intimate actions or the arrangements of objects in the house create conversations,” House said. “If you sit at a dinner table, you first see the beautiful and, sometimes, around those beautiful settings, the ugly comes to the surface and then uncomfortable conversations happen.

“The home is not always about the beautiful. There are women who’re abused, children who are neglected. How we arrange things in our homes is how we want people to learn about us and sometimes the things that are at the back are the things that we hide, such as pain or things we’re ashamed of.”

And to illustrate that, House has collected more than 300 used aprons, hand-mixed some 600 pounds of cake icing and brought the arrangement of objects in some women’s homes to the public through her installation, to create Dialogue of the Domestic. An opening reception is at the FAB gallery on Thursday, Dec. 16 at 7 p.m. House, who was a professional chef before coming to the U of A, has, since 1975, been collecting the aprons, some of which now dress the walls of the gallery. Each apron comes with its own story, which is recorded and is part of the multimedia exhibition.

“Body of Knowledge” is made up of hundreds of aprons, collected by Anna House.

“I’ve had women standing in my kitchen telling me the stories behind their aprons. The one story that touched me the most was from a lady who brought me a purple apron and said, ‘this is the apron I was wearing the day my husband came in to tell me that our boy just got killed with a tractor. I don’t care what you do with that apron; I only know I will never wear it again,’” said House.    

But by paying attention to the home on her work, House is not focusing just on the home as she is on how what happens within the home impact communities. She believes that the foundation of good a community is laid within the home. And through her work, she illustrates how some of the cornerstones—negotiating personal space, communicating and carrying personal memory—affect communities.  

“The home is the social cornerstone of what our society is and things that happen in the home helps build strong or weak communities,” she said. “The home space is where gendered discussions are happening; it’s where you decide if you’re going to be a strong man or woman.”

And that discussion, which historically concluded that the kitchen is the domain of the woman, has changed, House says, and that the choice of the woman is no longer to have a room of one’s own, that choice is now a balancing act..

“Negotiating space is a balancing act and maybe it’s helping our humanity, maybe it’s teaching us tolerance. And that follows through to our community, making us more likely to respect other people’s space. So, for example, when you realize that your work space is not yours, maybe you’ll be a little bit kinder. Much of my work speaks of some kind of negotiation,” said House.

Dialogue of the Domestic also brings a certain sweet smell to the FAB gallery. And that comes from what House calls the Memory Room. The 335 centimetre-high walls encircling the 23 square-metre area in which the room sits, is completely covered in a mixture of cake icing, creating a solemn image of a dinning room, complete with cups, plates, spoons, floor tiles, table cloth, light fixtures and vase and flower bouquet—all of which are hand-carved from the mixture. House says the room helps to answer the question of what is left after the meals have been cooked and eaten, families have argued and people have loved.

“The only thing left is the memories,” she said. “The memories are what we pass on. I want people to come to this room with their own memories and stories.

“This room has a pensive sadness; it is similar to life because it’s lovely to look and yet it speaks of our mortality, our very temporary nature, including our memories. It has a ghostly presence of what is not going to be,” she said.

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