Archive for the ‘Art’ Category

I’m all for positive discrimination when it’s merited and, let’s face it, it very often is. Having witnessed the progress of women in Irish politics being systematically thwarted over the decades I fully support the proposed introduction of candidate quotas – many of the most enlightened and progressive democracies in the world have used them very effectively to introduce some much-needed gender balance into their parliaments.

However, I’ve always struggled with the notion of women only prizes in the arts, such as the Orange Prize for Fiction – due to be announced later today – or the MaxMara Art Prize for Women. To me the establishment of such closed competitions is tantamount to admitting “we can’t play with the big boys in the park so we’re taking our ball home to kick it around in the safety of our own back garden”. That sporting analogy prompts me to mention those sporting competitions where women are unable to compete directly against men but where they refuse to let this hold them back. For years women who competed at Wimbledon grudgingly accepted less prize money than their male counterparts despite thrilling fans with edge-of-the-seat showdowns time and time again. Finally in 2007 reasonableness prevailed and Wimbledon joined the United States and Australia in paying equal money across the board, from the champions down to the first-round losers in all events.

We can sing, draw, sculpt and write just as well as the next man.

It’s different in the arts. We can sing, draw, sculpt and write just as well as the next man. Any handicap we have suffered from in the past has been a lack of access to the funding and critical evaluation long taken for granted by men. For that reason I’m all for supporting women in the arts and introducing their work to the widest possible audience. I hate to see fiction trivialised when it happens to be written by a women while at the same time the latest considered and weighty tome gestated by some male, white middle-aged sage is fawned over and lavished with praise by the predominantly male reviewers writing in the quality press.

Loath though I am to give them the oxygen of even more publicity the recent musings of Nobel laureat and highly acclaimed author, VS Naipaul are relevant in this context. The venerable old gent is certain that there is no woman writer he could possibly consider his equal and that we are held back by our “sentimentality, the narrow view of the world”. This, he feels perhaps, cannot be helped. As Naipaul helpfully points out,”inevitably for a woman, she is not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing too.” Do we really want to live in a society that encourages highly respected and accomplished men like Naipaul to believe that remarks like these are acceptable? Although patently and painfully antediluvian it is the existance of such distain that makes me believe that we should focus all of our attention on getting our work out there and beating them at their own game. For men who remain convinced that wimmin’s books are not for them Joylandmagazine.com has helpfully compiled a list of 250 gems that are worthy of their attention (and this is just for starters – there are many, many more).

We can undoubtedly kick ass. Whilst more men have carried off the prestigious Man Booker prize the women that have triumphed to date are undoubted stars – women like Anne Enright, Hilary Mantel, Margaret Attwood, Pat Barker and Iris Murdoch. The shortlisted authors for the 2011 Orange prize includes books that are arguably deserving of a place on any Man Booker shortlist – Room was in fact included – or international equivalent:  Emma Donoghue’s Room, Aminatta Forna’s  The Memory of Love, Emma Henderson’s Grace Williams Says it Loud, Nicole Krauss’s Great House, Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife and Kathleen Winter’s Annabel.

I’m far less ambivalent when it comes to the showcasing of women’s talent. Women have historically been denied the power, influence, resources and encouragement to produce and display our work to the widest audience possible and that imbalance needs to be redressed. Our art galleries are still stuffed to the gills with work produced, promoted and prized by men. Events like the inaugural Women of the World festival at London’s Southbank Centre provided the head-and-gallery space to allow a wide audience to view, critique and comment on the work of many hundreds of talented, imaginative, creative women who were all too often pushed into the shadows in the past.

These event and others like the Birds Eye View Film festival seem like a good idea to me. They are undoubtedly a valuable vehicle facilitating the promotion of oft neglected work. Feminist commentator Bidisha recently wrote in the Guardian, “people who loath women’s events do so because they loath women and cannot stand to be around them”. She adds that these events help to shatter the myth that women are in some way unworthy of hanging their work alongside that produced by man, saying, “women are not too shy, too talentless, too scarce, too petty, too this or that…or not enough of something else”.

This I applaud. My problem is with the prizes; the artificial pat on the back for the woman who sees off fifty percent of her peers without troubling the other lot. By all means push us forward, give us a platform, review our work on an equal basis, give us the gravitas and the column inches but when it comes to the prizes let us compete with the boys and not just amongst ourselves. I’d be genuinely interested to hear the counter argument or any comments as this is something that  has always caused me a degree of discomfort.

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Came across this project when someone tweeted about it recently: the Look At Me! project. Based at the Department of Sociological Studies at The University of Sheffield, it aims to harness the power of the creative arts to transform the way society views older women.

This project uses a variety of visual methods to enable older women in Sheffield to represent their own experiences of ageing.

Useful? Interesting? Any thoughts?

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Self-portrait with Monkeys (1943) - Frida Kahlo

Who needs or wants to know about the inner workings of other people’s relationships? About the minor detail of their lives? We may not need to know but we certainly want to know about some couples. Often the stormier the pairing, the more drawn we are to the drama. Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, for example; or Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.

Iconic Mexican artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera are a good example of a couple that excite curiosity. And because of their meticulous recording of their lives through art, as well as some artful myth spinning, we know a lot about a lot of their life together. They married each other twice. He – and then she – was serially unfaithful. Between them they notched up as lovers famous communists and actors, painters and photographers, including Leon Trotsky and Paulette Goddard. Rivera even had an affair with Frida’s sister, Cristina.

A joint exhibition of Kahlo’s and Rivera’s work was launched on Tuesday night at IMMA in Dublin. It is comprised of masterpieces from the collection of Jacques and Natasha Gelman. At the opening we were treated to Mexican beer and margaritas and even a sparky mariachi band, who had their Irish-based compatriots singing along with gusto. The great hall was thronged with people, excited about this particular exhibition making its way to Ireland. It is a splash of carnival in a dull, grey country and we surely need that.

Our new Arts Minister, Jimmy Deenihan, gave his first major public speech since his appointment and he mentioned several projects with enthusiasm: a new Centre for Literary Excellence in Dublin; he also plans to set up an Arts TV Channel and he is going to prioritise arts education in primary schools. All good news.

Frida Kahlo lived her life in pain and her colour-rich paintings are an autobiography of her love-hate relationship with her physical self, her love for and nurturing of Diego, and her missed chances at motherhood. Rivera’s work is more monumental and political – they were both Communists – and his palette is often more muted than his wife’s.

Kahlo’s self-portraits – and there are many – are compelling: her gaze is head-on and she is often dressed in the vivid Tejuana style of dress she adopted, with elaborate neckpieces and braided hair. My favourite of these is Self-portrait with Necklace, a quiet, earlier piece, though the exhibition includes more well known works such as Self-portrait with Monkeys. Rivera’s stunning Calla Lily Vendors is also on show; he was a painter of the people and he delighted in ordinary scenes of workers going about their business.

The exhibition contains – as well as paintings – drawings, photographs of the artists, diary pages with sketches, collages and lithographs. It is a rich collection of artworks and there is no doubt that thousands of people will flock to it over the next few months, and so they should. It is well worth the trip to see such iconic work ‘in the flesh’.

Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Masterpieces of the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection runs until the 26th June at IMMA. Admission €5, concessions €3.

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Yes, we’re all being told to make do and mend and embrace craftiness. But actually, making stuff yourself often isn’t cheap. So let’s hear it for Regina de Búrca, who offers a guide to being crafty on a budget.

I come from a long line of women who knit, sew and crochet. My forebears’ sole purpose of making things was to saving money. My grandmother’s Aran jumpers were undoubtedly beautiful yet their main function was a practical one, while my mother was a prolific dressmaker who made everything from our ‘good room’ curtains to my Communion dress. She taught me how to sew so that I could make clothes and repair them. But by the time I grew up, culture had turned disposable and the importance of skills she taught me had dwindled.

In the past, craft was often a necessity, not a hobby.

It wasn’t until my grandmother’s death in 2002 that I became interested in craft work. When we had the heart-breaking task of packing away her things, I was reminded of the significant role crafting had played in her life. We found her ‘work box’ – a hand-decorated box containing a wealth of supplies, neatly stored away with a half-finished jumper and blanket. I decided I couldn’t let her legacy go to waste and so I took them all home with me.

My grandmother’s forte was crocheting; something I’d had little experience of. When I went online to find resources to teach myself properly, I discovered that the world of handicraft had changed dramatically. Once an old-fashioned, staid pursuit, the art of crafting had become subverted; reclaimed by a dynamic, sassy generation who wanted to make things for the fun of it and had set up initiatives such as the ‘Stitch and Bitch’ groups.

I have been making things ever since then. But my approach to my hobby has changed over the years. At first it was simply a relaxing and rewarding way to spend my time. But as my salary has decreased and my expenses have gone up, I couldn’t justify spending more on say, making a jumper, than it would cost to buy one, so I gave up crafting as an overindulgent hobby.

However, it wasn’t long before I missed it. The last time I moved house, I happened upon my grandmother’s work box. I thought back to the times when making things was a good way to save money, so I became determined to find a way that I could save cash while doing something I loved so much.

It has been challenging – there will always be cheaper alternatives to homemade clothes and accessories. It is impossible to compete with mass-manufactured low-price products. But what I have found is that the items I make myself endure longer than many budget items I have purchased, so in the long term they can work out cheaper.
Here are my top resources for craft supplies on a budget. Some are online, others based in Dublin. I would be very interested to hear of any other budget retailers that I don’t know about, particularly around the rest of the country!


My first port of call for wool is always The Liberties Market in Dublin 8. It is the cheapest place I have found in the City, and the best choice when looking for wool for a pattern that requires a lot of the stuff.

The ‘special offers’ section of the Spring Wools website is a treasure trove of unusual wool and knitting kits. They deliver quickly, too!

Etsy’s knitting supplies section is useful.  it’s the most economical place I’ve found for specialist wool, I’ve found some really unique types here in the past.

I keep an eye on Aldi’s and Lidl’s special offers – they often sell bags of wool.

Charity shops can sometimes stock it – a friend of mine once bought five balls of mohair wool for two euro in a charity shop on Capel Street! Granted, I’ve scoured all the charity shops in the area to find a similar deal but haven’t… yet.


The fabric wholesalers, TWI in Dublin’s Mountjoy Square is the most budget-friendly walk-in fabric shop I’ve found – . It sells an amazing range of fabrics.

http://www.fabrics-n-stuff.co.uk/ is the cheapest online fabric retailer I’ve used. The service is fast and the shipping costs not too painful, so needless to say, I’m a regular. Their range isn’t as extensive as most online sites, so often I enhance the fabric myself using batik techniques or sewing on collars or feature pieces (see vintage market in the ‘Other’ section, below).

The clearance page on Fabrics.com has some great deals. It has the best range of budget fabric that I’ve found online, so that excuses the postage costs… just.

The fabric supplies section on Etsy is an Aladdin’s cave of fabulous materials of all kinds –

The ‘Online Fabrics’ special offer page has some good deals – but with £10.99 postage costs regardless of weight of the package, I only use it for a big order no more than once a year. Don’t forget to request samples – they are 75p each for a fat quarter. Each customer gets a maximum of ten samples.

Best way to stock up on low cost fabric is to ask any backpackers you know who are jetting off – they can pick up stunning pieces in places like Morocco or India very cheaply.


My all-time favourite craft site is at Craftown. From patterns to easy to follow illustrated guides, the website is a fantastic resource for all other types of crafting.

The member-only http://www.freepatterns.com/ is a wonderful site. Once you sign up (for free) you can download their patterns in PDF format. They also have a e-newsletter service, which provides interesting tips on various kinds of craft work.

The All Free Crafts site is an amazing compendium of patterns. And with no login to set up, it’s very accessible.


K & M Evans sells supplies for teachers and sells a huge variety of paper and paint and lots of other crafting tools, for much cheaper than high street art shops

Vintage markets are great places to pick up buttons, collars and other pieces of fabric that can be repurposed. I keep track of the fairs in Dublin through Vintage Ireland’s Facebook page.

The Craft Council of Ireland has a ‘for sale’ section on its website that sells everything from pottery kilns to screen-printing frames.

The supplies section on Etsy is a super resource for all types of craft work.

Aldi and Lidl sell the cheapest sewing machines I’ve found. I got mine in Aldi a couple of years ago for 70 euro.

Freecycle is a great place to find crafting staples such as sewing machines and dressmakers’ dummies.

DIY stores can be the cheapest places to find glue, wire and paints.

One of the main ways I save on my craft budget is by pooling resources with my friends. By sharing things like sewing machines, Lomography cameras, tile cutters (for mosaics) and bookbinding tools, we have access to far more supplies than we would normally. And it follows that we all have a shared knowledge base, so we save on tuition fees as well.

Handicraft in itself has added value because it can be so fulfilling -there is something very satisfying about making your own things. It brings me joy look at what I have made over the years, in particular the jumpers and blankets co-crocheted by my grandmother and I. I hope it’s a tradition that will be kept up through this generation and future ones.

Regina de Búrca hails from the West of Ireland. She has been a Liverpool FC fan since the age of four. She writes books for teenagers and has a MA in writing for Young People from Bath Spa University. She currently lives in Dublin. Twitter: @Regina_dB

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Artists Holly Pereira and Diane Sabenacio Nititham both grew up in different countries – Holly in Ireland, Diane in the United States – but both have a shared experience of being of Asian descent. Holly has an Irish mother and Singaporean father and Diane is of Filipina/Thai heritage, and their experiences of growing up as Asian-Irish and Asian-American women – and feminists – has informed not only their lives but their work.

Their forthcoming exhibition, Ornamental. Oriental. uses photography, illustration and painting to examine these experiences and questions the prevalence of orientalism in popular culture.

Below, the women speak about how they have found their race and gender affects how others treat them; how it affects their sense of identity; how Asian women are represented in Western culture; and what needs to be changed about the view of Asian women in contemporary Irish society.

Can you tell me about when and why you came up with the idea for putting on this exhibition?

Holly Pereira: In 2009 I had an exhibition of work in The Joinery that I’d made during a residency in Singapore (Same Same but Different).  Diane was there with her husband, who I used to hang out with in Bray in the good ol’ days.  We got chatting and there was  a moment of *ping!* where we realized that we both were interested in the same things, namely, Asian-ness, feminist perspectives and cultural identities.  It helped that she bought one of my paintings, ha!

Diane Sabenacio Nititham: I have had many encounters where people read my visible Asian-ness and become flustered when they hear my American accent. Other times, people have said that in some photos, I look “more Filipino” or “totally American” there. For me, I am the same person in those photos, no matter what I wear or how I look.  So after speaking with Holly about her previous work as well our own life experiences, we had a lot in common as far as our physical appearance and some people’s inabiity to reconcile our genealogical histories.

The aim with the exhibition is to challenge representations of Asians and Asian ethnic identity in popular culture – can you tell me more about this?

HP: During our research phase, we tried to identify how Asian women specifically were represented in cultural exports, such as film, television, art and in a wider cultural sphere.  There’s the Dragon Lady, like a femme fatale but with the added bonus of exoticism and Chinese numchucks.  Think Kissy Suzuki in the Bond films or Lucy Liu in whatever she does in Charlie’s Angels.  Hard, sly but incredibly powerful.  Mostly designed to trick white men into a tight squeeze. You also have the passive, gentle, subservient view of Asian women.  We called this one Lotus Flower.  Undemanding and ready to please, Lotus Flower accommodates all kinds of needs, like the Western understanding of a geisha.

Neither of us felt, as women of Asian extraction, that these stereotypes were very helpful or indeed flattering; in fact, they were a definite hindrance in some cases.  Stereotypes they may be, but often in a minority situation, eg, Asians in predominantly white Ireland, this is all that the dominant culture has to inform them.  So we wanted to raise awareness of these stereotypes,  explore them, and perhaps debunk them a little at the same time.

DN: We had also talked about how if we were just wearing any type of traditional Asian attire, people may pay us no mind, particularly if we appear sweet and beautiful. So we were interested in presenting both this and the flip side of that, as the angry Asian/Dragon Lady, almost as though we could fill both of those roles without question. We are interested in the space between “either/or” and “both/and”

Did growing up as a female of Asian descent make you feel ‘different’ – or did others make you feel ‘different’? What does being half-Asian or Asian-American bring to your sense of identity and world view?

HP: Of course!  Greystones in Co. Wicklow during the early 80’s was not the cosmopolitan, multicultural hub one might imagine.  I think my father was the only dark skinned person in the village.  When my brother and I were toddlers, my mother used to be asked whether she was a nanny as she is Irish, with blonde hair and blue eyes. I’ve never experienced outright racism in Ireland, but it’s more the polite questioning and insistence that you are different and “not really Irish” that bothers me.  That you don’t understand, and you’re not the same.   People used to ask, “Where are you from?”.  The answer of Co. Wicklow only served to elicit a repeat question, but slower and clearer.  Even recently, an aul lad tried to explain to me why Irish people curse with the word “siúcra”, it being as Gaeilge.  I was foreign, Chinese, Oriental. Other.  Not a sob story, but enough to make me appreciate the reality of sticking out.

The thing about mixed race is that you never really feel wholly one thing.  Culturally, I’m Irish, or Western.  When I go to Singapore, the locals know straightaway that I’m foreign (again), or ang mo (literally “red man” in Hokkien, a Chinese dialect used in Singapore).  I try like bejaysus to fit in, using Singlish (Singapore’s take on English) at every opportunity, drinking copious amounts of bubble tea and showing a massive interest in Korean soap operas.   My family berated me good-naturedly about not knowing the difference between “heaty” and “cooling” foods, about being clueless regarding my Chinese year of the Rooster, my lack of interest in marrying and settling down, and perhaps too much interest in drinking Tiger beer (a bit unseemly for a good girl).  But it would all be excused because, after all, I was Western, therefore different, and “other”.  The best thing about being mixed race, though, is exactly that duality.  I’d say that I contextualise a lot of information and try to see various other viewpoints automatically.  I try to take nothing for granted and to not assume anything about a person based on either looks or accent or background, though that can be hard as it seems like human nature.   Another good thing is no fake tan, ha!

DN: I feel this is a very hard question to answer. On one hand, it is very easy to say yes, being of Asian descent made me feel different or that others made me feel different. On the other hand, it is much more complicated than that. Like, there are my individual experiences and my personal interactions with people around me, and then there are the institutional structures in which we live that maintain inequality and gendered and racial hierarchies.
I didn’t necessarily feel different all of the time, but being visibly different in my white neighbourhood certainly shaped my experience. Even though I grew up “Asian”, having a Filipino mother and a Thai father, and being surrounded by my mother’s large community of Filipino Americans sometimes meant that I would sometimes feel divided about where my cultural ties should lie. On top of that, trying to be American made it all the more complicated. I certainly didn’t think about this every day, but it would come up, usually in the small every day details, it felt very strong.
I grew up around other first and second generation Americans, and we would laugh about how our parents would still be embedded in their “old country” ways while we were trying to be as “American” as possible. There was and still is a stigma attached to being different, so some of us worked hard to assimilate and become what we thought was “American” – or basically, part of the white dominant culture. One of my best friends growing up, her parents are from Colombia, and we still talk about the ins and outs of being women of colour. We, like our parents, are still trying our best in a system that really isn’t in our favour.

Do you think Orientalism is something that is discussed enough in Irish society, or is it something that people do not realise is an issue?

HP: Orientalism is the view of the East from the West.  That suggests direction and perspective ie, “us” and “them”.  I think Orientalism is one of those things that is considered rather palatable, and therefore deemed inoffensive.  Twenty years ago, there simply weren’t other nationalities to gaze at, so nothing to discuss.  Now Ireland is at a point where there are many races and nationalities walking down Grafton St, but still they are considered outsiders.  Lack of communication between these communities helps to create another “us” and “them” situation. However, it is like any preconceived or supposed notion.

Once that more people are aware of the effects of “othering” different races, Asian or African or Eastern European or whatever, it will change.  When their kids are invited to a friend’s Chinese New Year or Deepavali celebration, or when they start to form lasting and sincere connections with people of different races, it will change. As Ireland enters its new intercultural phase, it will find a new vocabulary to describe its new citizens.  No more Oriental, black, or just plain “furden”.  We will arm ourselves with a language that is inclusive and nonjudgmental, and leaves space for creating a new Irish dialogue.  However, Diane disagrees….

DN: I think Orientalism is definitely discussed, but not in a way that actually addresses the issue at hand. Being “Oriental” is almost decorative; items, products, culture and religion are devoid of context and therefore rendered ahistorical. I think this is why people do not think it is a serious issue. When friends of mine have dressed as geishas for Halloween, or even just for fun, I wonder what they would say if I dressed as an Irish traditional dancer with full ringlets and hairpieces and put freckles on my face. I have also wondered what reaction I would get if I decorated my sitting room with trendy images of Jesus or the Virgin Mary in the way that portraits of Buddha hang on walls or a small figurine or status in entranceways of the home. Why is it that these items from the “Orient” are fully acceptable as simply decorative? That’s what drives me  – the ornamentalization of my heritage and culture in front of me.

I think it’s completely problematic because Ireland is such a divided place – and this is very explicit in its immigration policies and anti-immigrant rhetoric. This Othering is a powerful symbol in Ireland today, and is currently seen as a problem to be solved rather than a system that produces unequal levels of opportunity and the ability to exercise that opportunity. I think that with the economic decline and the lack of challenges of racism and discrimination in the public sphere, especially when race is predominantly discussed as a black/white issue,  I don’t think Orientalism is taken seriously enough – and it will continue to stay that way.

Can you describe some of your pieces that will be in the exhibition and the meaning behind them?

HP: Both myself and Diane are including individual work, and collaborative pieces.  The collaborative pieces are a photo shoot where we tried to personify, in appearance, both Lotus Flower and the Dragon Lady.  We also worked with stereotypical Irish “props”, like potatoes and Lyons tea.  We tried to juxtapose those two facets to make an intercultural visual dialogue.  One piece shows a painted “geisha”-esque mouth stuffed with teabags, another shows me giving birth to a pile of spuds. I was very aware as we were working of  the element of sexuality and fetishism in the work.   My individual work in the show is illustration on paper.  I use my own travel photographs, images plucked from the internet, and visual metaphors to investigate femininity and mixed race identity.

I also have a strong awareness of patterns and repetition.  My illustrations feature women who are dancing, vomiting, menstruating and idling.  They are doing it in a visually beautiful way.  I love the combination of beauty and ugly, like looking at a pile of menstrual blood but reading a gorgeous image in the silky liquid , like tea leaves. My working process as a graphic artist/illustrator is what I term the Artistic Sausage Factory: I stuff a load of thoughts and images and bits of history and reading into my brain, mix, and wait to see what gets shunted out.   I’m fascinated by: original fairy tales, visual sex, lobotomies, patterns, slavery, gold paint, psychology, black holes, sound art, native American culture, Dada, Indonesian gamelan, serial killers (especially women), medieval painting, faceless Asians, insanity, the Hindu goddess Kali, toilet humor, sociology, Outsider art, and body hair.

DN: My photographs are part of a series called “Becoming FOBulous”, which addresses my Asian-ness in different contexts. My photos are self-portraits. I was interested in placing myself in visibly Irish settings wearing either Thai traditional dress, what I call “FOB-wear” (FOB is a term for Fresh off the Boat – a derogatory term used in the US to describe those who have emigrated and still maintain”old country” ways), or surrounded by Asian items. I wanted to see the different readings of this Asian-ness, especially in the backdrop of the country I have been living in for the last five years.

Can you tell me about the gender aspect to your work and how it relates to how Asian women are portrayed in popular culture?

HP: I paint and draw women, because that’s what I am, what I’m interested in.  My personal narrative can merge there with the characters in my work.  They are a starting point for exploring what happens in a wider context. Asian women in pop culture are, all too often, Dragon Lady or Lotus Blossom….a very narrow choice for our minds.  Asian women are often viewed as sexually available, exotic creatures, plying their white, male protagonists with opium before shooting ping-pong balls out of their vaginas.  Or they are seen as hardworking, result-orientated geeks who need that same white, male protagonist to make ’em “live a little” and enjoy their innate sexuality, because, as we know, they’re tigers in bed. I want to explore those two tenets, but also the facts of women in general.  Like, what is so “disgusting” about pubic hair?  Imagine if we walked around with our pubic hair plaited or put into a bun: just as arbitrary as the hair on our head.  Body image is another gripe; the media is so unimaginably saturated with images of skinny, gorgeous young ones that have very little reflection on actual women.  In my work I want to create a place where not only all bodies are regarded and accepted, but also where outside appearance is only a small part of the total human experience.

DN: In one photograph, I am wearing a Thai dress in two-pieces in a kitchen. I wore a 1950s-housewife style apron over my dress, with my midriff showing. I don’t fall under the super-slender image often associated with the Lotus Blossom, so my belly showing is a direct challenge to being demure. Also, I look the camera straight on, which also defies any aspect of being submissive.

In your opinion, what has to change with how Asian women, or women of Asian descent, are viewed in Irish culture?

HP: More of them!  If purveyors of the Asian Fetish culture chatted to Asian girls in the checkout at Tesco, or were given their annual check up by their Asian female doctor, or got their car fixed by an Asian female mechanic, perhaps they might look past the skin tone and the media interpretation.  Communication and an open mind seem to be the key.  It would be great to have an Asian, or mixed race, female politician, or public figure.  However, going on the last outing, the chances of having a woman, Asian or mixed race or from the planet Zog, are rather low.  I’d run myself, but frankly, I think I’m better off sticking to the pictures.

DN: As Holly said, visibility. Asian women are almost completely invisible in the public sphere and popular imagination in Ireland. Acknowledgment of this is the first step – followed by a massive restructuring of gender, race and identity issues. People keep calling for a revolution – it’s about time we get to it!

Ornamental. Oriental will be shown at The Joinery, 6 Rosemount Terrace, Arbour Hill, Stoneybatter, Dublin 7  from 9th – 16th March.

The event will be launched with an opening reception on 9th March  from 6-8pm



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I’ve always loved second-hand shops. As a student in the ’80s they allowed me to splurge on new clothes for under a fiver – odd paisley shirts and creaky leather jackets from Germany or France. When I became a homeowner, the markets and auction rooms drew me in, and I’d struggle home with an industrial lamp or an old school desk needing refurbishment. Recently, I picked up a used Laurel and Hardy videotape and played it for my daughters. They are both now hardcore Stan and Ollie fans, shouting with laughter at 80-year old pratfalls.

With a new owner, things are able to set forth on a new life. I like how more than one person can form a relationship with an object, a new relationship just as valid as the one its first (or second, or third) owner had with it. Recently, I yet again formed a relationship with a second-hand object, but this time it was intensely personal, not just impinging on my own private memories but amplifying them.

This time the object was a slightly wrinkled paperback called If Only, a collection of stories by Irish women writers published in 1997, just after divorce had been legalised in this country.The first name I noticed was that of one of the editors, who I see most mornings as our paths cross during the school run. So that was the first flash of recognition, the first link in a relationship with the book. The second was seeing my aunt’s name among the list of writers. She has published a novel and several stories, but I knew that this was one I hadn’t read before.

A writer’s family members are invariably curious as to whether a story’s details or characters are drawn from real life; whether intimate events or close relations will be thinly disguised by fiction. I was no different as I began to read the story, ‘Dwelling Below the Skies’. What I wasn’t expecting was to find in my aunt’s words, a picture I had already created myself, a picture that formed part of my own story.

The piece starts with a narrator’s intimate recollection of meeting a former lover, now one half of a gay couple. Her line of thought then moves to her mother, whose own non-conformist nature led her, a Northern Unitarian, to marry a Southern Catholic, whereupon she was effectively disowned by her family. This, in reality, is the story of my grandmother’s life. Reading on, I came to an unveiled description of a trip my mother and aunts made with my grandmother in her old age to trace her roots in County Down – roots that had been all but sheared off by her marriage to my grandfather.

I had joined them on part of that trip, the day my grandmother visited her old boarding school, now in ruins, and the Quaker meeting-house nearby which she had attended weekly. As she sat in quietly in a pew, I carefully took her photograph, struck by her stillness and the serenity of her expression. It is one of my favourite photographs of her.

Now, almost 20 years later, in a yellowing book, I read with amazement a minute description of the very moment I took that photograph. It is as if the words were written to describe the picture, or, conversely, as if the picture was taken to perfectly illustrate the words. Yet the two have existed, until now, in completely separate worlds.

The interior was a square timber-boarded room. At the rear ran a small gallery, lit by sunlight shining through the narrow windows. A smell of damp and old polish clung to the rows of pews and on the lectern lay an open Bible. There was little else. Nothing to relieve the severity of contemplations. Yet the tongued and grooved boards amid the white-washed walls gave the Meeting House a plain, homely quality.

“I always sat here…” my mother said. The expression on her face was serene as she sat down. Any pain or grief was washed out by the sunlight falling across her skin. Only the joy of remembrance remained. It was easy to imagine the rows of pews filled with children. I could hear the murmur of their voices drifting through the still air.

I can recall every detail of that moment; the light on her frail head; a hair snagged in the collar of her coat; her patent leather handbag slouched against the pew-end. Up through the layers of experience comes an explanation of sorts. What discovery was I making? The wellspring of existence? The disclosure of a Godly hand in the world?

Hardly. That is too simplistic a version of the truth. Full of contradictions I have stumbled through life, swaying this way and that, under a burdensome, mongrel inheritance, You need to know where you are coming from, the proverb says, to know where you are going, but it is all a matter of guesswork in the end. When I see where the quarrel ends I will know my destination. In the meantime there are flashes of light; pinpoints in the dark to guide me through. Out of nowhere enlightenment comes, clothed in joyfulness and then, in the next breath, it is extinguished.

I don’t know much. All I know is that there was a space for me among those phantom children. In that holy place, delineated by the absence of things, for a moment I belonged.

By the end of this passage the narrator has found a sense of belonging that has eluded her so far in her life, a sense of her place in the world being better defined than before. And so I return to the idea of belonging and of owning. We own objects – they belong to us – then they are gone. Sometimes, they will go on to belong again, to find their new owner, just as my aunt’s words and my photograph have found each other after all this time.

Kate Horgan is a photographer and picture editor who also works occasionally in a second-hand bookshop. You can follow her on Twitter at @katehorgan and her website is www.katehorgan.ie.

Passage from ‘Dwelling Below the Skies’ by Liz McManus from If Only (Poolbeg, 1997).

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Political art has come into its own (and moved on to the streets) in recent years. In the run-up to this year’s General Election, the excellent Upstart campaign asked for submissions from artists, illustrators, writers, designers and film-makers to come up with an antidote to the candidate election posters. Anti Room’s Nuala Ní Chonchúir wrote an election haiku (seen here, nestled cosily between posters for Labour and Independent Paul Sommerville) and gave us an idea.

Photo: Unkiedave

We want you to embrace your inner Yeats and tap that Seamus Heaney vein and hit us your best election haiku.

We’ll even offer a mystery prize for the best one.

Let the 5-7-5 syllable madness begin!

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I adore a good mystery. I relish a jigsaw-like story where I only know some of the fragments and have to piece them together carefully, squinting to try and envision the complete image.

When I found out about the artist Henry Darger, for example, I was fascinated – this man lived what many would have considered a sad, lonely life, but behind closed doors he created what posthumously became some of the most celebrated examples of outsider art.

The newly emerged story of Vivian Maier, then, is just the sort of mystery that gets my nose twitching.


All photographs taken by Vivian Maier, taken from http://vivianmaier.blogspot.com/. Copyright of Maloof Collection

What we know about Vivian is this: she was a nanny; she spoke with a French accent; she lived in Chicago for part of her life; she was well-read, interested in art and culture…and she took some of the most beautiful street photographs you will ever see.

Copyright Maloof Collection

And we know this, too – that her talent was secret until after her death; and that there are still thousands more of her photographs yet to be developed.

We can thank Chicagoan John Maloof for bringing Vivian’s work to us. Back in 2007, he was a 26-year-old real estate agent and co-authoring a book about his local neighbourhood. He went to an auction looking for material for this book and bought a box, filled with negatives, from a repossessed  storage locker , thinking there may be some photos of the local suburbs inside.

What he found inside the box (which cost him $400) were 30,000 negatives, all of street scenes from Chicago and beyond.  These photographs stunned him, so much so that he contacted the buyers of the other boxes and bought them all from them. That made him the owner of around 100,000 negatives and boxes of undeveloped film – all taken by a person whose name he didn’t even know.

One day, John found the name ‘Vivian Maier’ scribbled on a photo-lab envelope stuffed inside one of the boxes. Mystery (almost) solved. He wanted to meet Vivian, to tell her how beautiful he found her work, to ask her what inspired her and if she could teach him how to take such enchanting photographs. He says on his blog:

“It took me days to look through all of her work. It inspired me to pick up photography myself. Little by little, as I progressed as a photographer, I would revisit Vivian’s negatives and I would “see” more in her work. I bought her same camera and took to the same streets soon to realize how difficult it was to make images of her caliber. I discovered the eye she had for photography through my own practice. Needless to say, I am attached to her work.”

But John and Vivian never met.

Vivian had slipped on ice just months before the boxes of her work were sold, and after a spell in a nursing home, she died, at the age of 83.

Through his own research, John was able to wipe the dust off his own mental picture of Vivian and her life. He discovered she was born in New York in 1926, and lived in France and New York growing up. By her mid-20s, she was living permanently in the US, where she worked for a number of different families as a nanny.

The families who she worked with told John that Vivian was a feminist, an independent woman with an appetite for travel and a love for movies. She entertained the children by bringing them on ‘adventures’. She wore men’s clothes and was seen by some as a bit of an eccentric.  In a move that was unusual at the time, she journeyed alone in 1959, and captured her travels on her trusty Rolleiflex camera, in Egypt, Bangkok, Thailand, Taiwan, Vietnam, France, Italy,  Indonesia and beyond.

She took hundreds of thousands of photographs, but she never showed them to anyone.

She collected binders and filled them with newspaper clippings; she amassed a large collection of books on photography.

Vivian has been described as aloof, and perhaps it was this aloofness that enabled her to capture the images she did. I picture her slinking into a crowd and remaining unseen, allowing her to snap moments in time that the average person may miss in a blink.

Her photographs, like her life, leave you with questions.

Who are these people? Did they know they were being photographed? Where were they going? What were they thinking?

Copyright Maloof Collection

Copyright Maloof Collection

Copyright Maloof Collection

I love that Vivian photographed all elements of society, from fur-wearing rich dames to scruffy, dirty-clothes-wearing children. The faces of these people are black, white, old, young, lined, untroubled, calm, agitated.

Copyright Maloof Collection

Copyright Maloof Collection

Copyright Maloof Collection

Copyright Maloof Collection

The best photography hits you in your heart. You don’t need to be an expert in composition to know that these photographs that the mysterious Vivian Maier took are simply stunning. Through her, we are given a glimpse into American life fifty years ago. Vivian makes this time come alive, makes you gasp at the beauty that can be found on a downtown street.

Copyright Maloof Collection

It’s no surprise to hear that John Maloof has become totally dedicated to preserving the work of Vivian Maier. He and Anthony Rydzon spend four to five days a week scanning her negatives on expensive equipment that John bought himself – but it will take years for their work to be complete.

The two men are currently working on a book and film about Vivian, and have set up a Kickstarter fund to raise money. Thanks to them, Vivian’s work has an audience that she may never have dreamed of.

Of course, the fact that Vivian was so private begs the question: would she want her work made public like this?

This excerpt from a tape recording made by Vivian provides, for me, the answer:

“Well I suppose nothing is meant to last forever; we have to make room for other people, it’s a wheel. You get on and you get off at the end. And then somebody has the same opportunity to get to the end and so on.”

Beauty is truth, truth beauty. But perhaps mystery is the most beautiful of all.

Vivian Maier’s photography will be shown at the London Street Photography exhibition from 7 – 17 July 2011.

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“every day, every hour, every minute and every second, somewhere in the world, women – irrespective of race, colour or religion – are being subjected to violence and abuse”.

When I was just a child my father extended the hand of friendship to a woman he knew only slightly; a customer who regularly came into a shop he ran in Dublin. Suspecting that all was not entirely well he overcame his natural reticence and indicated to her that if she ever needed a friendly and sympathetic ear he would be willing to provide it.

Shortly afterwards, at 2am one morning, this woman arrived at our house with her three young children in tow. She had once again been beaten by her husband but now, for the first time, she had somewhere to turn. My parents asked no questions. They merely opened their home to this woman whose own family had disowned her for marrying a man who they believed was no good. Several of us vacated our beds and shared with our siblings to make room for these late night callers. The next morning they left with hardly a word but returned several times over the years until finally this woman mustered the courage to leave her abusive husband. What was extraordinary to me was the fact that this woman was a professional with a good income of her own and the financial if not emotional wherewithal to leave anytime she chose to. I have never forgotten her story.

We have probably all encountered the scourge of domestic violence, even if unwittingly. The veil of secrecy that still conceals this dysfunction in our society is to this day preventing women, and indeed many men, from seeking the help and support they so desperately need for themselves and their children. Today in the Irish Times Health Plus supplement I was given the opportunity to highlight some of the work being done by Women’s Aid and Avon here in Ireland and to specifically draw attention to an extraordinary poster exhibition taking place in the Lighthouse Cinema in Smithfield until December 10 2010. I’d be delighted if you followed the link and read my piece. For those interested in visiting the Lighthouse Cinema here is information on the poster exhibition, as compiled by Anthea McTeirnan in the Irish Times today.

“More than 400 posters highlighting the issue of violence against women, curated by former Garda Colm Dempsey, are on show at The Light House Cinema in Smithfield, Dublin. The exhibition is part of Women’s Aid “One in Five Women” 16 Days Campaign, which runs until December 10th.

Director of Women’s Aid, Margaret Martin, says the exhibition highlights the facts that “every day, every hour, every minute and every second, somewhere in the world, women – irrespective of race, colour or religion – are being subjected to violence and abuse”.

“In an era when we are overloaded with images, words and sounds, the powerful graphics in these posters can help us realise the enormity of living with someone who abuses you. For women who are experiencing abuse, they also reach out to show that help is available and they are not alone, that support is available.”

The free exhibition is open to the public and runs daily from 2pm-8pm. The Women’s Aid national freephone helpline is at 1800-341900. womensaid.ie

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I wrote a post about literary tattoos on my writing blog last year, featuring the tattoo site Contrariwise, where people display photographs of their writing-inspired body art. The photo from Contrariwise I used shows two lovers hand-in-hand. The woman has Sylvia Plath’s ‘I am. I am. I am.’, from The Bell Jar, tattooed on her inner arm, from elbow to wrist; the man has Marlowe’s, ‘Fly, o man’, from Doctor Faustus on his. Interestingly the Plath phrase also appears in her poem ‘Suicide Off Egg Rock’:

‘And his blood beating the old tattoo
I am, I am, I am.’

Most of the traffic that comes to my blog as a result of this post uses the search string ‘Sylvia Plath tattoo’. Plath’s introspective but direct poetic style clearly has huge appeal to younger readers and the variety of Plath tattoos on the Contrariwise site is testament to this. One of the tattoos on display use three lines from Plath’s poem ‘Tulips’; the lines are winding tattooed stems that hold up three scarlet tulip heads. It looks beautiful.
Another young man has ‘by a mad miracle I go intact’ on his chest from Plath’s ‘Street Song’:

‘By a mad miracle I go intact
Among the common rout
Thronging sidewalk, street,
And bickering shops;’

That poem continues quite bloodily – ‘heart and guts hung hooked / And bloodied as a cow’s split frame’, but I suppose that’s not pretty or profound enough to be inked forever on the skin. Other favourite poets for tattoos include ee cummings, Longfellow, Poe, Frost and Ginsberg. It’s an American-based site.

On another site, Every Tattoo, I found a woman with the words ‘Virginia Woolf’ tattooed in large letters on her breastbone, like a torc. There is also a quote, on a woman’s foot, from Maya Angelou’s poem ‘Phenomenal Woman’:

‘It’s in the reach of my arms
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.’

Most tattoos on these sites are introspective and life-affirming. They follow the dictum of the tattooist Carmey, in Plath’s short story, ‘The Fifteen Dollar Eagle’: ‘Wear your heart on your skin’.

I’ve been wondering what an Irish poetry fan or writer even might get inked on their body. Maybe Séamus Heaney’s squat pen in the form of an arty quill? Or the line ‘Hunting words I sit all night’ from Flower’s translation of ‘Pangur Bán’?

Tattoos are not the rebel yell they once were; it’s probably more unusual now to find a thirty-something without a tattoo. But they often have deep meaning for their owner – and probably even moreso when they are taken from a much-loved poem.

My favourite book on tattoos is Dorothy Parker’s Elbow: Tattoos on Writers, Writers on Tattoos. One of its editors, poet Kim Addonizio says: ‘It’s natural that writers and literary readers would be drawn to commemorating some bit of language that has moved or changed them – or that maps a direction they want to go.’ However, although she has five tattoos already, none of them are text-based. She says, ‘As soon as I find the right words, they’ll be inked somewhere on my skin.’ I’m in the market for a new tattoo but I think I’ll follow Kim’s lead and take my time choosing the words.

(A version of this post first appeared in the Poetry Ireland Review newsletter.)

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