Mary Granville Pendarves Delany, aged 72, was in the throes of grief over the death of her husband when she casually picked up a pair of scissors and by dint of sheer curiosity invented the art form known as mixed-media collage. Noticing how a piece of coloured paper matched the fallen petal of a geranium, she meticulously cut the exact geranium petal shape from the paper. Then another, and another. She assembled the pieces, and when a friend walked into the room and could not tell the paper geranium and the organic version apart, an art form was born.
Delany was no 18th-century parlour dilettante: she approached her art with scholarly sensitivity, dissecting floral specimens in order to render her paper versions with botanical accuracy right down to the flower’s ovary, and then cutting and layering hundreds of delicate pieces. In the span of a decade, she produced about 1,000 of these exquisite, fragile works.
Author Molly Peacock opens with her own discovery of Delany’s art: “I saw my first flower mosaic at three o’clock on Saturday, Sept. 27, 1986, at the Morgan Library in New York City . . . ” She builds her case that these are no grade-school craft projects: “I could not get over the dexterity, the eyesight, and the fine muscle coordination that had produced them. I was hooked, I was sunk.”
Ditto for the reader. Delany’s life and artistry would be compelling enough, but Peacock gives us so much more, and the details and precision of her text mirror the dogged, forensic approach Delany took with her work. Peacock wants us to see how the artist and the art are one.
Like collage itself, The Paper Garden is carefully layered—part fascinating biography, part history lesson about the English Georgian period, part gripping memoir, part paean, and part art appreciation accompanied by dozens of vivid photo reproductions. Beautifully written and rendered (the pages are printed on heavy glossy paper, the likes of which are rarely encountered in modern publishing), Peacock’s obsession for Delany’s art and life becomes ours, too.
- JANE CHRISTMAS
To a westerner, the idea that women are—still, today—accused of witchcraft seems ridiculous. And the idea that banishing accused witches to isolated compounds is in their best interests sounds, well, crazy.
But after spending three months in the Gambaga witch camp in northern Ghana, Canadian journalist Karen Palmer found her disbelief in witchcraft softening, along with her disdain for segregating the accused. She even reached a point, she writes, when she desperately wanted to believe.
If only to fit in. Palmer interviewed dozens of Ghanaians—women in the camps, their families, and their advocates, many of whom were devoted Christians and Muslims—and only a handful unequivocally denied the existence of witchcraft. The couple who looked after Palmer in Gambaga—social worker Simon, who relentlessly sought to repatriate accused women to their home villages, and his wife Evelyn—were believers.
While the author observed, Evelyn allowed a witch doctor to cut into her breast with a razor and then hold a frog against the wound, all in the name of treating back pain. Even urban Ghanaians, friends who snickered at Palmer’s research, would turn around and warn the author to top up a taxi driver’s tip and never answer a cellphone displaying the numbers 967, lest she summon a curse.
But although she flirted with supernatural notions, Palmer views most accusations of witchcraft as fuelled primarily by jealousy (of a woman’s wealth, or her family’s) and fear. She denounces the ways a woman’s guilt is determined—whether a slaughtered chicken died on its back or on its beak, for example—as unjust.
Palmer seems mostly to blame poverty and underdevelopment for the hold witchcraft has in West Africa. Competition for resources can be cutthroat, and defences against disease and drought are feeble. Witchcraft offers both explanation and agency in the face of these threats, she explains, and people will continue to subscribe to it until something better comes along—modern medicine, for example. (The closest hospital to Gambaga is so strapped that it solicits donations of bedsheets, to be ripped up and used as bandages.)
In the meantime, Ghanaian witch camps—some of which are said to be guarded by spirits that keep the women in line—offer some measure of safety to the accused as well as some sense of security, however false, to those who believe in things that go bump in the night.
- DAFNA IZENBERG