Work in Focus – Alejandra Carles-Tolra, Untitled from the series Where We Belong, 2017

In the first room of our exhibition, above a (rather wonky) mantelpiece, hangs Alejandra Carles-Tolra’s beautiful photograph from the series Where We Belong.

Alejandra Carles-Tolra, Untitled from Where we belong, 2017. Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London. © the artist. Originally commissioned through the Jerwood/Photoworks Awards, supported by Jerwood Charitable Foundation and Photoworks.

Where We Belong is a photographic body of work that explores themes of belonging, femininity, and escapism. Over the course of three years, Alejandra Carles-Tolra documented the Jane Austen Pineapple Appreciation Society, a group that recreate and celebrate Jane Austen’s novels.

Members of the Society dress up in Regency costume and come together at special events including dances, festivals, and house parties. The group call themselves ‘Janeites’ and share a strong passion for the author. Although Jane Austen is a figure that is in many ways bound to the past, for members of the society she is a living, breathing force of the present.

When Carles-Tolra first encountered the group, she was intrigued by the draw of the past. Where We Belong seeks to question what it is about Jane Austen’s world, with its old-fashioned concepts of femininity, that has captured the imagination of these 21st-century women.

We were immediately struck by the joyful sense of freedom captured in the photograph, and the blurring of boundaries between past and present, fantasy and reality. As a work that we came across early in the research process, it has played a crucial role in our conception of the exhibition’s themes, particularly in terms of how we can relate to historical figures and personal icons.

Many of the group identify with the strong female characters in Jane Austen’s novels. They also consider Austen herself to be a feminist icon; as an unmarried and independent woman who made a living from her books, she is a rare exception for her time period. In the same vein, while the group may seem anachronistic at first glance, they are a female-led society that fosters a sense of empowerment amongst members. While Alejandra Carles-Tolra also photographed the male members of the Society, as in our exhibition photograph, she always sought to place them in a secondary role to the female members.

We decided that this photograph was a fitting work for the back of our exhibition leaflet, which unfolds as an A3 poster. We hope it encourages the viewer to think about the figures and icons that they feel connected to across time.

It was a pleasure to have Alejandra Carles-Tolra give an Artist’s Talk in front of this photograph on Saturday 22 June. This event formed part of the exhibition’s public programme, co-ordinated by Debbie and I, and also took place in collaboration with Somerset House’s Generation Get Up! Weekend.

Alejandra shared fascinating details about her experience creating Where We Belong, and her practice more broadly. A particular highlight included a description of how the group painstakingly sew their own Regency-style costumes, which Alejandra also had the opportunity to wear!

You can find out more about Alejandra Carles-Tolra and her work here.