Strange ambassadors: the meaning of souvenirs

Opinion: Artist Ruth Watson explores who souvenirs are made for and what they can and cannot achieve in her exhibition, The Ambassadors.

Ruth Watson; Untitled display table work, The Ambassadors (2023)

We’ve all had little souvenirs at some point, whether bought or gifted. Wherever they come from, some of them we love, some of them make us cringe. They raise some questions, one being: do they do their job, of reminding us of a time, place or event?

It’s a lot to ask of what typically small, cheap trinkets are – often composed of coated plastics, painted resin, low-grade metals and so on. They are often the objects of scorn, with some preferring more sophisticated fare or resisting their charms for right-minded ecological reasons. Sometimes we disdain the representations of our own places that others buy.

I’ve been making artworks using souvenirs for some years now, including the work for my upcoming exhibition, The Ambassadors. The centrepiece of the exhibition is a globe of the world, Kosmos. It is a large, aluminium globe replete with souvenirs representing most countries and/or cultures, in their correct geographical place. I collect souvenirs from second-hand stores and ask friends to collect them for me on their travels. Many of those found in second-hand stores are in pristine condition, so perhaps they were found wanting by their owners in some way.

Ruth Watson, detail from 'Kosmos', The Ambassadors (2023)

I began working with souvenirs in 2016, when I thought it would be a fascinating but simple task. It has taken years for Kosmos to be ready to exhibit. Moral choices emerged, some generated by issues of scale; that fridge magnet from Samoa would cover the space needed for several European countries.

I eschewed most representations of people, given their tendencies towards stereotyping, but have included some – the Canadian Mountie or Copenhagen’s Little Mermaid for example. But how stereotypical is the little old Uzbek man, that seems so cute. Are those hardwood figurines made for the tourist trade in sub-Saharan Africa harmful, even when posing as a catalyst for memories?

Another souvenir-laden work I created, Keychains and snowstorms (2021), has the substrate of a wooden ladder that speaks to ideas about ascension or aspiration, from the ‘stairway to heaven’ or ‘climbing the ladder’. But this ladder appears unusable – the souvenirs would hurt your feet unless you chose solid shoes, destroying the little and not-so-little knick-knacks. The obvious decision is not to climb; it’s the safest choice given a missing bottom leg, precariously resting on a pile of old, fragile-looking books.

The souvenirs in this work come from around the world or, more precisely, places that produce them: it’s a selective geography of omissions. Such trinkets are supposed to remind us of pleasant places or occasions, but too many of them, together, could indicate the opposite: a suffocation of ideas, persistent revisitations that can’t be escaped. Densely encrusting the souvenirs expands the idea of them as memories that stick, that won’t go away, crowding out our present thoughts.

Keychains and snowstorms (2021), has the substrate of a wooden ladder that speaks to ideas about ascension or aspiration, from the ‘stairway to heaven’ or ‘climbing the ladder’.

The London-based art writer Josephine Berry has written about my work with souvenirs for the forthcoming publication for The Ambassadors:

"The world turned into punchlines and motifs is a world that has been sold. These places are selling themselves in a place-branded beauty contest judged by cultural tourists and inward investors. The souvenir is and isn’t responsible because it participates in this logic, but its producers and sellers merely harvest what already exists.

The purchasers are those cultural tourists, but then they go home and place the souvenir on a mantlepiece, return to ordinary life in which their hometown is being turned into a trinket for someone else’s keychain too. Watson is always meticulous in her adulteration of critique with the sympathy of identification. She is the gleeful tourist […]; complicity is the anti-power stance from which she works and out of which she spins her imaginary worlds that straddle real ones.”

The plastic and muck metals are therefore a vital component of my work. They register my complicity with the problems of travelling out of your own place, as well as the production cycle of these objects. There are other questions besides their efficacy: who is looking at whom, who are these things really being made for? In Kosmos, the main item for India is a faux-marble Taj Mahal – with what appears to be a Hindu trident on its apex. The souvenir industry has some uncomfortable implications, as is also the case for the souvenir doll, the tacky tea towel or T-shirt. Let’s not be too coy: a First Nations totem isn’t appropriate for a bottle opener. We know this, yet this kind of appropriation is rife.

The main impetus for the existence of souvenirs relates to their name: the evocation of memories, the signal of having been in some place, at some time, now past. Obviously, the memory isn’t embedded in the thing, only the status of its intention remains, exposing a substrate of raw longing.

As the anthropologist Igor Kopytoff wrote, human-made objects – souvenirs and more – probably only have a fixed meaning at the initial point of exchange and, after that, their meaning and therefore value becomes mutable. Production, display, purchase, abandonment, re-collection, transformation into art – what they mean to us changes over time.

Hopefully, as art, they can participate in rounds of reflection on what they can and can’t do, and our complicity with these ideas.

Ruth Watson’s solo exhibition The Ambassadors will run from April 27 to May 24 at the Ilam Campus Gallery, University of Canterbury. 


Ruth Watson has had over 40 solo exhibitions nationally and internationally and teaches art at the Elam School of Fine Arts.

This article reflects the opinion of the author and not necessarily the views of Waipapa Taumata Rau University of Auckland.

This article was first published on Newsroom, Strange ambassadors: the meaning of souvenirs, 27 April 2023

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