Willing to be Wild with Cassandra Gibbs

Photography exhibition through a window

The reason most (if not all) of us at Ideas Test work where we do, is because we enjoy being creative people. It’s not that we possess an innate aptitude for the arts – anyone and everyone can be creative if they want to – but at the heart of it all, it comes down to willingness. Being willing to learn, to be challenged, to explore and to express. For Cassandra, known informally among the Ideas Test office as Cass, the willingness to learn and explore took her a little further afield. All the way to Africa, in fact.

Wild Namibia, the exhibition featured in the Window Gallery during June, is the result of a trip in which the main imperative was to track elephants. Together with a small group of nine other women, Cassandra trekked across vast open spaces and slept under the stars all in aid of completing the Matriarch Adventure. The decision to track elephants was no coincidence; they’re large mammals with strong matriarchal tendencies. The definition of matriarch is a female leading or in power within a tribe, organisation, family or community. Much of what Ideas Test does is focused on community too, something this expedition also centred around. In fact the organiser of the trip, Catherine Edsell, even gave a Tedx talk about the trip (some information about the talk can be found here) in which she discussed the importance of confidence and community, asking if we can even become impoverished without it.

Close up shot of photography exhibition
Photo credit Cassandra Gibbs

There’s a real sensory aspect to this exhibition, not least because of Cassandra’s accompanying text embedded beside the photos. The images – big enough to be seen from the street but small enough to entice you into No34 for a better look – completely embody what we can only imagine was a trip of a lifetime. It’s easy to get lost in the expanse of the images, watching for wildlife woven within the vast spaces of native vegetation, something Cassandra was particularly aware of. “Originally I had thought I would want to do quite small prints so that you really had to look at the images closely,” Cass initially explained, but found that when she started to edit the images her opinion changed. “Having the images printed on regular A2 paper and moving them around to see how they fit, you could just see that the sky and the spaces in the images really needed to be shown off in a larger print, to try to do some justice to the expansive space in Namibia.”

It wasn’t easy for Cassandra to decide which images to include in the exhibition, however. “I found it really tough,” Cassandra admitted, “I spent a couple of months sorting them and trying to create some kind of harmony between them; I could have focused on so many different aspects of the trip.” There is a real challenge to be tackled before the exhibition is even hung, something every artist deals with differently. “I really had to be critical and not just choose something because it was linked to a favourite memory, it had to fit the definition I chose.”

Cassandra adeptly demonstrates the vastness of Namibia though and it’s incredibly interesting to see the exotic depiction embedded in the otherwise quite urban High Street. “It is such a completely different environment to Sittingbourne, I really wanted to show the tones and the detail of what it was like,” Cassandra enthused and it’s clear she succeeded. Skies of unbroken blue contrast to the photos which are full of clouds. Vibrant greens juxtapose with black and white photos, all working together to carry the observer far away from the car-heavy high street and into the wilderness of Namibia. Cass’ supplementary text then ties some concrete sensory details to the experience and suddenly it’s not at all hard to imagine the clicking of chameleons, or seeing the expanse of constellations in the vast desert night sky. It’s true that Namibia conjures up images that aren’t always the archetypal portrayal of a desert. “When someone says ‘desert’ what you first think of isn’t green, or textured, I guess, it’s sand or sameness, and Namibia was full of contrasts.” Myths that Africa is just dry deserts full of sand dunes are well and truly dispelled; life thrives there, undeniably so. The elephants, though elusive, are an example of this, but so are the other examples of flora and fauna Cassandra captured on camera.

Photos mounted on cork wall
Photo credit Cassandra Gibbs

The collective noun for a group of elephants is usually a ‘herd’ but occasionally ‘a memory’ and it’s clear that for all involved in the Matriarch adventure, their memories of the trip will remain with them. There is a mirroring of minds, then, with the elephants and the expeditioners. A shared desire to protect their community, to experience the world, to take in and explore the geology of this ancient place. The ten-strong group of women completed two extensive treks with a combined distance of nearly 20 kilometres. There was, therefore, a lot of ground that Cassandra could choose to capture with her camera. We asked what it was like logistically to photograph this trip, given that Cassandra openly admitted she prefers to “use a minimum of photography stuff normally”. Given how far they were trekking, light baggage was likely a priority! “I had to be able to fit everything in a small backpack,” Cass concurred, “So that really made the decision for me.”

What was particularly interesting to hear was the process Cassandra used after she returned home. Resisting the temptation to immediately flip through all her photos, Cass explained that she purposefully waited to reflect on the expedition. “I made sure I didn’t look at the pictures straight away, so that I was seeing them ‘like new’ when I started to go through the pictures.” Unmistakably, Cassandra put a lot of effort into this exhibition so it’ll be interesting to see what project she undertakes next. “Exhibiting here and being around people who are creative professionally has definitely made me think about whether I want to do more myself so who knows!”

To find out about the Matriarch Adventure, you can read more here.