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Allison Smith: Notion Nanny / MATRIX 222

May 13, 2007 - August 12, 2007

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Allison Smith: Notion Nanny, 2005–07; mixed media; dimensions variable; originally commissioned by London-based curatorial partnership B+B, Sarah Carrington and Sophie Hope; supported by grants from Arts Council England and the Jerwood Charity; photo courtesy Qube Gallery, Oswestry, England.

Download the exhibition brochure (PDF).

Along country lanes and urban cross-roads, an itinerant apprentice offers ideas and articles of all sorts traditional and revolutionary, abundantly crafted in exchange for skillful demonstrations and sociable company.
—Allison Smith, “The Notion Nanny Cry”


For her Notion Nanny project, Allison Smith builds collaborative relationships with other craftspeople in an effort to create a temporary guild of makers, providing a platform for the exchange of ideas, skills, objects, and experiences around the practice and politics of the handmade. “Notion nanny” dolls were popular during the Victorian era, representations of the traveling peddlers who journeyed through the countryside with baskets of varied wares in hand. In life, these itinerant traders served as important conduits of aesthetic articles and ideas, connecting isolated locales through news and stories as well as useful goods. As objects, the notion nanny dolls serve as miniaturized collections of eighteenth-century material culture, with tiny examples of needlework, tinware, ceramics, and other traditional crafts. In the exhibition and related activities, Smith fashions her own role as a contemporary maker, apprentice, trader, and storyteller and also creates a literal twenty-first-century notion nanny in the form of a life-size doll, modeled after the artist, that presents the fruits of her exchanges with her collaborators in various locations across England and the United States.

Smith grew up in Northern Virginia, where Civil War battlefields and living history museums figure prominently, engendering a strange continuum between history and present context. This environment sparked Smith to look to the past for models of creative engagement that have relevance in the contemporary moment. In 2005 she enacted The Muster, a large-scale public art project that was inspired by the pageantry of Civil War re-enactment. Hundreds of people came together in a “polyphonic marshalling of voices,” as they each readied their uniforms and campsites in order to publicly declare their individual causes in response to Smith’s question, “What are you fighting for?” Like Notion Nanny, the project reflects the artist’s reconciliation of seemingly anachronistic influences—Civil War reenactment and contemporary activism, traditional crafts and revolutionary dialogue. But in this time of mass production, modes of working by hand are implicitly political in their rejection of homogenization
—traditional crafts reflect the particulars of the maker, spotlighting local difference and highlighting diverse ethnic, social, and cultural backgrounds. Challenging notions of craft as decorative and conservative, Notion Nanny reveals the meanings and messages embedded in handmade objects and their function as repositories of personal motivation as well as social histories, from the resurgence of craft among diverse groups of artists and activists to stalwart craftspersons who keep alive centuries-old traditions.

Allison Smith will use the MATRIX gallery as her base of operations throughout May, seeking collaborators to create handmade crafts of all sorts that will accumulate over time in the gallery. From radical quilting bees and collaborative artists’ zines to traditional papermaking and ceramics, the project will survey a broad field of current material culture in the Bay Area. As a social project of working, exchanging, and sharing, Notion Nanny will provide opportunities for the public to interact with Smith and her co-conspirators in their process of making. The exhibition will also include newly created textile works that illustrate the project’s context and background, and a repository of objects created during Notion Nanny’s original British incarnation, offering a counterpoint through which to explore the role of place in the differentiation of culture and craft.

Allison Smith first realized Notion Nanny in 2005 with London-based curatorial team B+B, Sarah Carrington and Sophie Hope, as a series of residencies, public events, and exhibitions at Qube Gallery, Shropshire, and Studio Voltaire, London. Smith has exhibited her work widely, at venues including ArtPace San Antonio, P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, Palais de Tokyo, Socrates Sculpture Park/High Desert Test Sites, Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, and The Andy Warhol Museum.


Elizabeth Thomas
Phyllis Wattis MATRIX Curator

The MATRIX Program at the UC Berkeley Art Museum is made possible by a generous endowment gift from Phyllis C. Wattis.

Additional donors to the MATRIX Program include the UAM Council MATRIX Endowment, Joachim and Nancy Bechtle, Maryellen and Frank Herringer, Noel and Penny Nellis, and Paul L. Wattis III.