The 45-second walk down the poorly lit passage leading home, aluminum boxes carrying passengers through the sky, a flesh-eating spider in between the sheets or the endless possibilities of what’s underneath the bed, are common triggers to one of humanity’s most innate emotions: fear.
“We live in a world in which the only certainty is uncertainty, and this leads to insecurity and fear,” says Rivane Neuenschwander, a Brazilian artist whose work has led her to the study of psychoanalysis. Research into the subject, she tells The Creators Project, has shown, “The extent to which each person’s fear is so specific, emerging in childhood, and then adopting different configurations and names.”
Themes of fear encompass the work Neuenschwander is currently exhibiting at London’s Whitechapel Gallery, as part of its annual Children’s Commission. Working with four London schools—Columbia Road Primary, William Tyndale Primary, Osmani Primary, and Thomas Buxton Primary—Neuenschwander uses fabric design to explore how seven- to nine-year-olds perceive fear. Entitled In the Name of Fear, the exhibit presents aversions like "bees," "heights," and "strangers," adapted as colourful—sometimes emotionally revealing—capes designed by the children.
“I could not separate the fear from the idea of protection, especially when dealing with children,” explains Neuenschwander, considering capes’ common association with superheroes. “A child with no fear is inevitably more exposed to danger. On the other hand, fear shouldn’t take a paralysing proportion, so we need a certain protection or understanding to be able to deal with it.”
But asking a child to design a cape that safeguards them from personal nightmares is more ambitious than it seems. Alongside project curators Sofia Victorino and Selina Levinson, Neuenschwander developed a method using a variety of mediums, like imagery and drawing.
“We showed the children a wide range of images of protective capes found in literature, visual arts, film, indigenous cultures and nature,” she says.
Giving these new visual references allowed for the creative process to flourish.
“The children wrote down their fears on a piece a paper and then made drawings followed by three-dimensional construction of capes that could shelter and protect them, helping to formalize their fears,” says Neuenschwander.
With the help of fashion designer Lucas Nascimento and seamstress Elizabete Lobo these designs were then translated into fabric. The final result reflected the colours, shapes and elements that the children had used to help identify what scared them.
“This was a very rich experience for me, not least difficult, that brought a profound interrogation in terms of the artist's’ contribution and role within a community or group of people,” says Neuenschwander.