Helen Couchman

Mrs West's Hats

Mrs. West’s Hats features 60 photographic self-portraits produced by Helen Couchman. The title refers to Couchman’s maternal grandmother, Mrs West (1909-1993). In the photographs Couchman, made up to look like a young woman of the austere 1940s or ’50s, is seen wearing a succession of her grandmother’s hats, as though acting out the 'role' of her own grandmother as she would have looked during that period. Couchman in effect plays three distinct characters here: herself, her grandmother and that of a generic fashion model from the 1950s.

Mrs West was an important and influential figure for Couchman in her youth, and these photographs constitute a homage to her, but also involve mourning and melancholy. This deep personal connection to her deceased grandmother is foregrounded through the donning of what is an astonishing range of hats, 'the stars of the show' as Anthony Gorman calls them in the essay he has contributed to the book. 'As the example of Mrs West’s headgear shows', writes Gorman, 'hats are as diverse and expressive as faces.'

In considering these hats, their present wearer, their original owner the resilient Mrs West, and the modes and conditions of the hats’ invention, the viewer of Mrs. West’s Hats is asked to consider a wide range of important and engaging issues: representation and self-portraiture, generational and historical transmission, identity and difference, fashion and the conflicting configurations of selfhood when filtered – indeed constructed – through particular historical conventions of dress and display.

Mrs. West’s Hats is Helen Couchman’s second book. In 2008 she published WORKERS (Gong ren), an anthology of her portraits of Chinese workers involved in the construction of the stadium and village built to house the 2008 Olympic Games, held in Beijing.

Mrs. West’s Hats by Helen Couchman
Introduction by Anthony Gorman
Hardback, 84 pages, illustrated in colour,
portrait 1.5cm x 12cm x 18.5cm
Produced by Soloshow Publishing
First Edition, 2009
ISBN 978-0-9560172-1-5

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Helen Couchman is a British artist currently based in Beijing. Her most recent solo show was at Gallerie Perif in Beijing where she showed a series of woodblock prints. In 2008 her photo portraits of migrant workers building the Beijing Olympic buildings were published in a book, Workers (gong ren). She showed at There and Everywhere at Transition Gallery in November 2009.