Nobody is quite sure how or when it originated. Research suggests mumming or guising was practised in the British Isles in medieval times. The term itself could come from Middle English word ‘mum’ meaning silent but is more likely to be associated with early new High German ‘mummer’ meaning a disguised person.
Over time mumming (or mummering) developed its own iconography involving outrageous costumes, face paint and cross dressing. Mumming took several forms. There were mumming plays, actual scripted performances used to raise money. Mummers were used at social celebrations, weddings feasts etc. and it seems also to have involved unannounced visits to homes and pubs….a lighthearted form of home invasion.
Mumming came to the new world via British and Irish immigrants and has become a tradition in Newfoundland and Philadelphia. The custom has recently enjoyed a revival in Newfoundland, with a Mummers Festival taking place throughout December 2009. Clearly it has struck a chord with the locals. Academic theses have been written about it. There are even workshops on how to make hobby horses and wren/ugly sticks.
Enter Roy Green. In Dec. 2012 he travelled to St John's Newfoundland armed only with a notebook and a video camera to document the annual mummer's parade. It went very well and he came back to Victoria with a lot of material and ideas.
Over the last year these have been developed into an impressive body of work culminating in a show of paintings and video at the fifty fifty arts collective in Victoria. There are about 30 paintings in the show and they convey something of the actual street parade….a very lively affair as seen through an artist’s eyes.
Roy Green describes it as “a kind of 3-d living collage, a kind of social sculpture- the photos and video i used to document were the initial starting point for a series of works that seek to combine figurative with abstract elements-ideas of identity, masking, personas, etc. my previous interests in vernacular animal masks, ventriloquist dummies, clowns, lucha libre, etc...”
The paintings speak for themselves. Some of them are complex, layered, stencils etc. while others are more abstract in the use of forms and colour. The overall impression is like glimpses of a strange passing parade. Seen separately from their context the paintings stand alone as surreal objects; like the bizarre ‘Paper Bag Frankenstein’ (with Halo) and ‘Kitchen Party’ which looks like a meeting of 1920’s Parisian bistro and Weimar cabaret. Green has added a postmodern dimension to folk art creating “...a temporary autonomous zone of painterly allegory and portraiture, a reservoir of tactile imagery and free-floating symbology that resonates on an instinctive level of visual pleasure and provocation.”
Wearing veils and masks would give the participants some anonymity. Guessing who is behind which mask is part of the fun. But there may be other reasons for wanting to conceal one’s identity. It’s tempting to look for political connotations. Probably the originally intent behind mumming was partly to parody the lords and ladies who held the common people’s fates in their hands so being anonymous made a lot of sense. That suggests there may once have been an element of serious political protest. Now it seems to be less an overt demonstration against authority than people asserting their individuality in an age of homogenization.
Roy Green’s paintings are striking in their own right and by taking mummers as a source of inspiration he has given us a good idea of what mumming is about. It can be seen as heritage preservation, ethnographic awareness, a populist-based perspective on cultural democracy or as a reaction against centralized power. Or just a chance to act silly. And why not? The closest Victoria equivalent would probably be naked bike riding.