Mussi's Herbal

Last week, a new collection of inventive, inspiring and thought provoking mosaics opened at the Museum in the Park.

Cleo Mussi’s life-sized mosaics immerse you in an evolutionary and historical timeline. They explore how the British landscape has changed and evolved since Neolithic times with the conscious and unconscious introduction of seeds and plants from Europe and further afield. Waves of immigrants introduced plants and seeds for culinary and medicinal purposes. Seeds also arrived surreptitiously as stow-a-ways on animal pelts, clothing or in animal feed. These plants naturalised and spread through cultivation or as weeds along well-trodden migratory paths, and are now established within the British landscape. Often tied up with traditional folklore, fairylore, and superstition, these plants and weeds are part of our cultural history.

This is, ‘an ornamental mosaic exhibition of comely grace featuring garlands of the head, nosegaies and poesies for the recreation of mind and wholeness of being’. It is an exploration of ‘all the idle weeds that grow’, the vegetable guerrillas and common place plant escapees and trespassers that mark the well trodden tracks of human migration and movement. These adaptive generalists, wayside weeds and pot-herbs flourish despite constant disturbance. The exhibition is a  visual delight, seeking out the weeds that thrive in human company as well as the outlaws and vegetable trash, invasive aliens and poisons; all of which are the global signs of thousands of years of upheaval, migration, and commerce.

Mussi’s mosaics are created from reclaimed and recycled ceramic tableware; the inherent qualities of form, pattern (often floral) and glaze gleaned from the last two hundred years of British ceramic industry. Pieces from the late 18th century sit side-by-side with patterns from the 1960s and the 21st century. A small mosaic can use up to fifty plates, and each shard is selected, hand cut, combined and marshalled into place to create unique work. 

Mussi’s Herbal, which has been four years in the making, includes over one hundred wall based art works featuring twelve life size figures. In Jack in the Hedge a green man and wood sprites emerge from the woods into a garden of Eden, while Rhea and Adam is inspired by the paintings of Cranche The Elder. Mussi has even created a patented herbal in tribute to travelling medicine doctors, shake doctors, wart charmers and physick mongers. Her herbal claims to ‘Restore Life Even in The Event of Sudden Death’, and her potions and lotions contain medicinal Fake News, Silver Magic Bullets, Instagram Boosters (like) and Happy Pills, constituting a true tonic for modern life. 

The most haunting and powerful piece in the exhibition is a pair of bleached bone white and blood red tomb effigies representing Papaver Rhoeas (field poppy) and Papaver Somniferum (opium poppy). These contemporary knights, horizontally hung, lie side by side with sword and cross, syringe and mobile; representing a fallen soldier and a drug addict; both with faithful dogs, both iconic images serene in death.

The plants represented in the exhibition combine references to prose, poetry and symbolism. Individual mosaics unite both namesake with herbal cures. Viola Tricolour is also known as wild pansy, heartsease, kiss me and look up, kiss me quick, kiss me over the garden gate, and love in idleness, and is a love charm and a cure for the ‘French disease’, according to Gerard’s Herbal, of 1597. While in Shakespeare’s Macbeth the witches brew, ‘Root of hemlock digged i' th' dark…and slips of yew,’ the symbol of life and death and witches venom. The reference demonstrates that Shakespeare had a huge knowledge and understanding of flowers and weeds and their symbolism. Oxslip, elegantine, woodbine fumitory, hardocks, cuckoo, gilly flowers, cowfoote, columbie, lady’s smock, long purples and love in idleness are Shakespeare’s flowers, and he was well informed by John Gerard and his Herbal.

Herbalist crafts go back thousands of years, and plant cures were often part of ‘The Doctrine of Signatures’ who’s characteristics alluded to the diseases, organs and temperaments that they cured. These ‘Signatures’ are represented as a wall of bigger than life-size votive offerings like those popular in classical antiquity in the shape of human body parts. Jumping jack figures and bottled tinctures and tonics unite, representing a bank of healing plants. These plant cures were passed on by herbalists and wise women for centuries until printed materials increased the spread of knowledge. Culpepper published The English Physician in 1651, making herb lore accessible to the masses for the first time. He described his book as, ‘A complete method of physick whereby a man preserve his body and his health and mind or cure himself of being sick for three pence charge with such things that grow in England’. 

Society gradually shifted from being tolerant and open minded towards folk healers, to taking an aggressive stance. Accusations of heresy during the reformation 1532 meant that this was a dark time for wise women, wart charmers and cunning folk with their low magic, who were seen as spreading plagues and curses. Fear of these healers and herbalists culminated in the Witchcraft Act of 1735 when vulnerable people, frequently wise women, were charged with witchcraft and executed.

The final mosaic figure in the exhibition is a faceless scientist from Svalbard‘s Global Seed Vaults who carefully gathers, sorts and archives seeds for cold storage in the remote arctic archipelago, sponsored by Microsoft Millions. As we peer into the mirror, is the scientist making judgement or is our reflection indicating that we are all responsible for saving the Earth’s limited resources and hastening the end of the wild?

Until 26 August 2019. Museum in the Park, Stroud, GL5 4AF

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  • Bren on

    Wow! What an interesting body of work. The exhibition sounds wonderful – wish I could see it but I’m in the US. Thanks for the article.

  • Patricia Greaves on

    Fantastic article! I really enjoyed her last exhibition in the same gallery space in Stroud, but unfortunately I can’t get to this one: but the description of the exhibits in the article have created a whole range of images in minds eye! Thank you

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