We are our stories - Mah Rana: Meanings and Attachments

Interview  /  Making
Published: 03.12.2014
Sanna Svedestedt
Edited by:
Edited at:
Jenny, Middlesbrough 2006
. "The meaning of the necklace is love, that I hold the power to find love."
. Photo by Mah Rana.
Jenny, Middlesbrough 2006
"The meaning of the necklace is love, that I hold the power to find love."
Photo by Mah Rana

© By the author. Read Copyright.

In 2002 Mah Rana initiated Meanings and Attachments, a public participation project creating a written and photographic record of people’s personal connections to the jewellery that they wear. 2014 Mah Rana decided to launched a website and publish these stories online.

Can you tell us about the decision to launch the website after working with Meanings & Attachments as an ongoing participatory project for twelve years?
Well, some people had been asking about this project  “So will there be a book?” And yes, that could be an option, to create a printed publication. But somehow at this moment in time that doesn’t feel like the best direction, because this project is more about sharing. For a book, I’d possibly have to edit and make a selection from the photos and stories; but I have over 1500 photographs so I am drawn to the idea of being able to put them all, or as many as I can, online.  And I feel that is one of the strengths of this project, the fact that there are so many photographs and stories, that you can’t see or read them all in one sitting.

And if I had made a book – at the most, it would probably be a print run of a 1000 copies, and even that number is optimistic because of the expense involved in ‘publishing’, and the then I’m sure that its readership would be of a limited demographic, and one that does not reflect the public who have taken part. But having an online  ‘publication’ means that more people can have access to it and that in turn reflects the ethos of this project; in that people have shared their stories and I have taken photographs.  But I shouldn’t hold on to them just for myself. People have been generous by taking part and in the spirit of giving; I want to share the project in an open way.

This is in contrast to when I first started Meanings and Attachments, beyond the short-term ‘pop-up’ exhibition display of the photos during each event, the idea of making the photographs so public and accessible just seemed completely opposed to how I practiced as a jeweller at that time.  Back then, because of a fear of copyright infringement, many artists and designers were very conscious and protective about how and where images of their work were distributed.  But now that images can be moved so freely across the Internet that sometimes there is little control about how someone might take another person’s image/photo and present it in a new context.

What was nice recently, was that someone asked for my permission if they could use (copy and paste) the photo that I had taken of them from the Meanings & Attachments website and use it as their Facebook profile image. I was happy to say “yes”.

Trevor, Blackpool 2004
"St. Christopher gold medallion – protection for Travellers, a birthday gift from my wife. Stainless steel necklace & pendants. Universal allergy symbol to protect the Traveller from incorrect diagnosis. Two gold bracelets- presents from my wife. All the above are always worn as a constant reminder of what they mean."

Through Meanings & Attachments you have met over 1500 people, taken their photograph and listened to their stories. You have then also seen a massive amount of jewellery being worn. Can you see a future for contemporary jewellery based on what you have encountered in this project?
I have thought about that question; is there is a connection between, the jewellery worn by the majority of people in Meanings and Attachments and the work made by contemporary jewellers?  Years ago I did a presentation about my own jewellery and I had also showed photos from the Meanings & Attachments project and an audience-member asked me: “But ok, the people in the photos are wearing pieces of jewellery that are just things that you buy in a department store or things that are quite traditional. It is not art or contemporary”. “So perhaps there is no need for contemporary jewellery?”. I didn’t answer him directly at the time, but I think the answer is this: that yes, there is still a need for contemporary jewellery, as a form of artistic expression and creative skill; because the role of jewellery can differ at an individual level and at a social and cultural level.

So, in respect to the jewellery that people are wearing in the photographs – yes, the majority of it is different to what is regarded as art jewellery, but, as perhaps the audience-member’s question might have assumed, I don’t think that this should be seen as a situation that negates the value or purpose of making art jewellery,

And maybe it is interesting to think around this particular proposition, because all jewellery- ‘past, present and future’ will share connections but will not, or be expected to, represent the same thing. I think the jewellery in the Meanings and Attachments photographs is generally worn, owned, given within traditional and cultural contexts. It has shapes, materials and icons that people understand and recognize very easily. With particular types of jewellery there are customs and associated symbolism that are learnt and then implicitly understood so, if a person gives someone a blue pendant that has an image of an eye as part of its design, it is understood that the role of that pendant is to bring good luck for its owner.

What is your approach to using text and photography as mediums?
Writing is important, for me it is another expression of being a jeweller. So when I describe myself as being a jeweller, I also see this photography project as an artistic outcome of being a jeweller. Whether I’m making, writing or teaching it’s all within the context of being a jeweller.

While studying at college, I was initially drawn to one particular idea of what it was to be a jeweller, which was someone who very much existed in their own creative world, who didn’t need to expose their thinking, who just made jewellery and that was it. Now, thankfully, there has been a cultural shift towards highlighting the importance of contextualising work socially and culturally. Thinking and making are now regarded as being one and the same.

Sukhjeet, Birmingham 2003
"Necklace with pink gems. It’s been passed to the males from my great great grandmum."

What is next for you and Meanings & Attachments?
Originally it was just myself working on the project, but now I have Andreea Bogdan assisting so I am able to document the project as well. I would like to make some short films working with individual people. Perhaps revisiting some of the people who have already taken part, but this time to spend more time talking to them.  This has always been in my mind since I did Meanings & Attachments in Middlesbrough (2006). At the time I was very keen that the photographs should have a cinematic quality, as if they were stills from a film. I want to try and explore that more.

When I was in Poland (2014) for the Legnica Silver Festival, I called the Meanings & Attachments exhibition We Are Our Stories. In a sense, this is one way that we present ourselves, through stories, the retelling of memories.  We have personalities and identities but we also have stories that we use to tell people who we are; as individuals but also as a community.

And I like this aspect of the project; it has a focus on the stories and not only the photography.  So we will see where this project takes me next!

Jorge, Lisbon 2005
"This brooch was designed and made by my wife. It represents the process of achieving a dream. The cloud represents the dream and it was materialized through a precious metal, gold. I wear it every day because we constantly look for our dreams and try to turn them into reality."

Mah Rana with students from HDK – School of Design and Crafts, University of Gothenburg during a photo session in Angered, September 2014

Short bio
Mah Rana is an artist and curator who lives and works in London. Human relationships, narratives, memory recall and loss; material and experiential processes are central to her practice. Social and creative connections and collaborations are created by developing projects that bring people together to engage in social storytelling and making as forms of participatory arts practice. Her cross-disciplinary approach spanning the art jewellery field, craftivism and neuropsychology hands the participants a central role in both the process and the outcome. Current projects include Meanings and Attachments, (2001) creating an ongoing archive of why we wear jewellery and It’s Nice to MakeTM, (2012 - ongoing) working with community groups and individuals, and promoting craft practice’s role in the neuroplasticity revolution.