Mappa Mundi Mother Tongue at LinguaMania
A mixed-age group of children from Pegasus Theatre – ranging from 7 years to teenagers – rushed into the atrium of the Ashmolean, pushing past the hordes of people who had just been listening to some vibrant jazzy music. They took over the space, gradually squeezing their audience back against the walls, and performed a playful choreographed routine about travellers, heaving their suitcases with dangling labels for South America, Asia or Europe, bumping into each other, embracing, exchanging cases, communicating delight at meetings and excitement at discovering new places as they wove in and out of the very stands on which stood the impervious classical statues. Their actions were punctuated by drumming, a small gong, and the blaring of a conch shell, music provided by some of the several adults from Pegasus Theatre who had helped the young people to devise this stunning production for the Ashmolean’s Friday Night LinguaMania event.
The choreographed section then gave way to some narrative episodes; there was a story about young girls going back to their native Colombia and being pressed by their grandma to have their ears pierced – to which they respond by covering their ears with their hands with the refrain “Not this year, grandma!”… We can well imagine what other procedures threatening girls’ health and sense of self-hood are being evoked by this episode. Then an entire tale narrated in (impressively fluent) French, about a girl who befriends a monstrous dragon, which saves her life by breathing fire when she nearly freezes to death, and then gives her a ride to travel around the world. And this section of the show concluded with a beautifully-sung lullaby in Dutch, while all the performers apparently subsided into sleep.
There were several further sections of the performance during the course of the evening’s entertainment, and in the meantime a delightful artwork, a ‘mappa mundi’, formed the backdrop to the event, hung against a wall of the atrium. Ingeniously designed to represent a geographical map of the world, it simultaneously used a collage of fabrics to depict a bright-eyed and smiling face. The artist, Cedoux Kadima, welcomed visitors to consider what they would like to achieve if they themselves undertook a journey, and to inscribe their wishes on the artwork with brightly-coloured pens.
The whole event became a joyous and optimistic celebration of languages, travel and foreign cultures. Aisha, an exceptionally articulate Spanish-speaking member of Pegasus, stood waiting to start a scene which involved the children standing scattered all the way up the receding staircase and around the atrium, ready to call out to each other. She was revelling in wearing a long, generously-cut skirt – and as she waited, she draped it broadly over the glass parapet so that as she stood there she seemed to have become part of the building’s very structure. Thanks to their multilingual talents, the Ashmolean had truly taken these young people into its heart.
Julie Curtis is Professor of Russian Literature at the University of Oxford. She is a Senior Researcher on our 4th strand, Creative Economy: Languages in the Creative Economy.
Photos by Jalaikon / Pegasus Theatre at LinguaMania, Ashmolean Museum