Love and Care: The Glory Box Tradition of Coptic Women in Australia

Published on Thursday 2 February, 2012

Love and Care, an exhibition being launched at 6pm Friday 10 February at the Hunt Club Community Arts Centre in Deer Park, explores the meaning and significance of the glory box tradition amongst a group of Coptic women in Brimbank in Melbourne’s West.

Ranging in age from their early fifties to late seventies, all ten women involved in the exhibition were born overseas, mostly in Egypt, and are members of the Coptic Orthodox Church, one of the most ancient Christian Churches. Their common languages are Arabic and English. Dr Moya McFadzean, Senior Curator – Migration at Museum Victoria, will open Love and Care which runs to 5 April.

Peter Lewinsky, the chair of Brimbank City Council administrators, will preside over the launch and said that the Love and Care exhibition exemplified the many cultural riches that flow from Brimbank’s diverse population make-up.

“This outstanding exhibition adds to our understanding of the small but important Coptic community based around the St George’s Coptic Orthodox Church in St Albans. Its exploration of the love and care that women bring to marriage and family life, as symbolized by the glory box, is something that we can all appreciate and admire,” he said.

“If you’ve never been to the Hunt Club Community Arts Centre before, this is the perfect excuse to go. This exhibition is one of the most ambitious ever mounted. It’s wonderful to look at – and also shows what unexpected joys can result from working so deeply with a community group over an extended period.”

The exhibition of embroidered tea-towels, tablecloths, marriage pillows, underwear and nighties –plus two collective works – is the culmination of a community arts residency held at the Hunt Club Community Arts Centre throughout 2011.

Members of the Coptic Women’s Association worked with professional artists Tamara Marwood and Angie Russi and Victoria University researchers, Professor Marty Grace and Dr Enza Gandolfo, to explore and renew the traditional textile aesthetics connected with glory boxes in Coptic culture.

“Central to the project and the group are the experiences of migration, ageing, and the importance of having some cultural continuity alongside the new life in the new country,” Professor Grace said.

The research led to a book Love and Care: The glory box tradition of Coptic women in Australia (Vulgar Press, 2011) to be launched at the exhibition opening. The Coptic women relate their personal stories and reflect on creative expression, craft making, the tradition of the glory box and their own experiences of motherhood and migration, and families and culture.

Both as a material object and as a tradition, the glory box has almost disappeared from contemporary life in Australia. Interestingly, the term ‘glory box’ appears to be used only in Australia and New Zealand. Elsewhere, the collection of linen and lingerie made by young women, their mothers and grandmothers is usually referred to as a ‘hope chest’ or ‘trousseau’.

The project was the brainchild of Madonna Awad, the coordinator of the Coptic Women’s Association, who approached the Hunt Club, concerned that the knowledge of generations of women past was in danger of being lost due to the increasingly busy and complex lives women lead today.

“The glory box story is about love and I want the whole world to know,” Awad said. “The glory box reminds us to slow down, to give time to your home. It reminds us how mothers and daughters sit together to prepare for the daughter’s wedding. The mother teaches her what to do as a married woman. She teaches her all the skills.”

Awad regrets that, after migrating here after the war in Lebanon, she worked too hard and missed out on some of the best times in her kids’ lives. She’s making up for it now with the glory box project.

“Through the glory box project, we women were remaking culture by discussing past traditions and drawing on skills handed down through our families. At the same time, we created beautiful objects that might say something to the younger generation. We also discovered – or rediscovered – our creativity. Through this exhibition, we hope to share our cultural traditions with the broader community here in Melbourne.”

Many of the Coptic women had not kept glory boxes themselves, frequently due to prevailing family circumstances that led to early marriage, a heavy load of family responsibilities or simply being required to work from a young age. Most of the women were machine sewers and had to learn or relearn hand-sewing and embroidery. Inspired, some began to stitch freely.

The first communal work in the exhibition, Recipe for the Heart, developed from a group discussion about the sentiments underpinning glory boxes. Each woman designed and embroidered a square for a tablecloth.

The second collective artwork, Pillow Talk, sprang from a story about the traditional use of a single, long pillow for the marital bed. Each pillowcase bears a message from the maker to her younger self. For the exhibition, curator Jo Ely has taken the hand-embroidered pillows out of the domestic sphere and piled them onto faux beds set up in an intimate gallery space where they are accompanied by an evocative soundtrack produced by Melbourne sound artist J. David Franzke.

The exhibition and book also include watercolours of the women and their works by Tamara Marwood, a visual artist from Bendigo who works primarily in contemporary textiles (specifically embroidery) and works on paper.

Love and Care is supported by the Victorian Government through Arts Victoria and the Community Support Fund. The project also received funding and in-kind support from Brimbank City Council and Victoria University.

The book, Love and Care, costs $20 (or $15 at the launch) and is available from selected bookshops or by emailing Professor Marty Grace

Further information:

Love and Care: The glory box tradition of Coptic women in Australia

Launch:    6pm – 8.30pm, Friday, 10 February 2012

Venue:    Hunt Club Community Arts Centre, 775 Ballarat Road, Deer Park (Melway 25 F8 0).

T 03 9249 4600 F 9360 4572



Runs to 5 April 2012

Open Mon to Thurs 9am-7.30pm (5pm school hols), Fri 9am-4.30pm, Sat 9am-12.30pm

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