The 'Happy' People of SW China: a minority people, their way of life, culture and craft, with Sally Sparks & Viv Young

As much an exhibition as an illustrated talk, a beautiful exploration of the sublime textile skills and threatened way of life of the Miao people of South West China.

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The talk and the many photos will be complemented by a collection of rare costumes and embroideries which Ebenezers will be able to view and - carefully! - handle.

The Miao people inhabit the remote mountains of Guizhou Province, in Southwest China. These are among the poorest areas of the People's Republic. Life there is extremely hard.

Despite this, the Miao maintain a deep-rooted culture of music, song & dance, and in particular a fabulous passion for the making and wearing of colourful, splendid costumes. Their textile skills are spectacular and this visit is a wonderful opportunity to see them at first hand.

The Miao speak their own dialect and until 1949 had no written language. With the advent of electricity and improved transport, their way of life is now changing rapidly. In particular, many girls are leaving the mountain villages to gain a wage in China's booming cities so the future of their exquisite textile skills is in doubt...

This is a characteristic modern narrative. But our speakers' timely travels to the far-flung villages of Guizhou, Guangxi and Yunnan have enabled them to study the ways and history of the Miao. They have built a unique collection of these exquisitely embroidered and rarely seen decorative costumes. It is extraordinary and marvellous that the hardy Miao people find time and energy to create and revere beauty with such dedication and love.

Sadly, the collection may become a monument to a lost culture. But still today, in many villages, the costumes are worn in daily life as well as at festivals. So while Sally & Viv's talk and collection may come in time to have immeasurable historic value, this is very much a travellers' tale of today as much as it is a document of a passing era... Our speakers were always welcomed by the villagers, with music, songs, dancing and often the gift of a chilli-covered fish with rice or other dainties. Some villagers had never seen a Westerner.

This remarkably well-illustrated talk and the accompanying artefacts will bring to life the remoteness of the villages, the hard agricultural work and celebrate the Miao women’s unique skills in the making of their costumes.

Sally & Viv

Sally & Viv

Sally Sparks

Sally's passion for embroidery began young and endured through her career in television, both at the BBC and at HTV. She completed a four year City & Guilds course in creative embroidery and design, and it was during this course that she learnt of the Miao people of SW China; this lead to three trips to Miao villages. She is a founder member of Gordano Textile Artists, which has been exhibiting in the Bristol and Somerset areas for 19 years. She has travelled widely, latterly to remote places like the Antarctic with her husband, John, a leading figure at the BBC and a producer of Life on Earth. Through her journeys to S.E.Asia where hand-made textiles are still at the cultural core of village life, she has developed a collection of sketchbooks and diaries of her journeys. In 2011 she wrote The Joy of Ice and Rust – a textile artist’s impressions of Antarctica which sold in many countries, and writes articles for various specialist magazines.

Not Viv Young

Not Viv Young

Viv Young

After completing a BA at Bristol, bringing up a family and working until retirement, Viv Young embarked on the four-year City & Guilds course in creative embroidery and design, completing it in 1997. She joined Gordano Textile Artists the same year and has exhibited with them annually ever since. Part of Viv’s early life was spent in East Africa, and she is deeply intrigued by tribal life and decoration. Having studied the embroidered costumes of the Miao during her City & Guilds, she subsequently made three trips southwest China.

Sally & Viv’s textile collection and photographs have been exhibited in the Grant Bradley Gallery, Bristol, and the Bankfield Textile Museum in Halifax.

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2014Martin Keeley