While Scotland has formed a modern sense of civic nationalism and England publicly grapples with its own ideas of self-definition, the contemporary Welsh identity hasn’t been as thoroughly excavated. The creative response from artists can often be the most potent, yet the most famous writer to hail from Wales wrote, “Land of my fathers, and my fathers can keep it”.
Dylan Thomas, now revered as a Welsh cultural titan, loved Wales but was ambivalent about Welsh nationalism. Perhaps then, referencing him is as bold a way to nail your colours to the mast as any. For A Fine Beginning, the Welsh photography collective who take their name from Thomas’s unfinished novel, it’s a signal of intent. The collective’s second group exhibition, Made in Wales II, will be showing at Cardiff MADE from the 9th to the 19th September, going on to London in November and finally in North Wales in March 2016.
The Welsh photography collective and eponymous blog was brought together by Swansea-born James O. Jenkins as a platform for people to share work being made in and about Wales.
“Our aim really was to be able to communicate and share work with each other and then show that work to a wider audience in Wales and beyond,” Jenkins says. We wanted to discover what other photographers were doing. There was a lack of available platform for people to share work to bigger audiences.”
A Fine Beginning launched in May 2013 at Cardiff’s Diffusion photography festival with a publication that showcased the work of the four members; Jenkins, Gawain Barnard, Jack Latham, and Abbie Trayler-Smith. They went on to broaden their remit, with their first exhibition in 2014 showing work from the collective as well as selected images from the weekly blog; this year will feature 27 photographers.
Other than Barnard (who teaches at the University of South Wales), the rest of the collective are based in England, which perhaps goes some way towards explaining the impetus for the project. Jenkins says, “as I get a bit older I want to understand where I’m from.
[Photographer] Gareth Philips recently did a project called Hiraeth, [it’s] a Welsh word that has no English equivalent, and what means is to feel homesick for Wales. That word sums up, for a lot of Welsh people who have had to travel away, wanting to go back and be at home in the country you’re from.”
This attitude seems prevalent among Welsh artists; another Welsh poet, Menna Elfyn once wrote a poem in the shape of the boomerang to reflect her feelings towards her homeland, explaining, “ultimately you are pulled back to your roots in a search for a quiet spot.”
Despite a population of three million, Wales has a fertile photography culture. I ask Jenkins, how does such a small country continue to punch above its weight?
“Well Newport’s a big thing, but then there’s [Cardiff’s] Ffotogallery, there’s always lots of activities in the Valleys, then further West in Swansea you’ve got Mission Gallery, you’ve got the national Library of Wales in Aberystwyth. Then in North Wales we’ve got [contemporary art gallery] Mostyn and obviously Oriel Colwyn are always championing photography, so I think Wales is in a really healthy state at the moment.
“And as a collective, because we’re so young, we’re still trying to figure out really how we talk about Wales or how we represent Wales, but we’re learning and we’re getting there.”
Find more information about A Fine Beginning and the exhibition here.