DISCOURSE ON DISAPPOINTMENT
Who gets to be a hero? what happened to the women?
In Beijing 2012 I curated an exhibition entitled ‘Intimate Revolution: Discourse on Disappointment’ where artists explored the experience of women at times of social change and upheaval. I dedicated this exhibition to my grandmother Rita O’Beirne née Mintern, because what happened to her on a personal level was so typical of women’s experience globally.
What is that experience? It is obliteration, being written out of history, being excluded from the new corridors of power, being expected to put up and shut up, being profoundly disrespected on every level. Has this changed? Well no, women in Cairo who were fashionably dressed successful business women and or well educated professionals 25 years ago are now covered up with veils and afraid to walk the streets in case they are aggressed and sexually assaulted for appearing in public. Those women who protested in Tahir Square were cowed into submission when digitally raped by large groups of men, spat on, abused and threatened. These were the groups of men which the women had come out to support – to plead their case, to protest as comrades, ah…. there’s a tale of betrayal, a tale of profound and ongoing disappointment.
Was it any different for the women (and girls) who fought in the War of Independence? Maybe not the gang digital rapes but in other ways, frighteningly similar. Those Irish women lived in a world where rape went unreported because they would be blamed for inciting it, where they were not allowed to control their own fertility (contraception was not legal until 1980) they were not allowed to divorce abusive partners (divorce was legalised in 1996), where Ireland’s abortion requirements were shipped over to the UK to maintain the country’s ‘pure’ reputation (still the case), where they were supposed to give up their jobs when they got married and God help them if they were deserted, because nobody else was going to.
The Irish Examiner published an article recently about James O’Beirne - my grandfather – and his ashes being brought back to Cork for a ‘hero's burial’. My grandmother who was at his side and was a member of the Cumann na mBan, who smuggled guns for him in a specially made corset, who raised money for the IRA with him (not sure if this can be counted as heroics….) was not mentioned. She was the breadwinner throughout their 9 years together in New York (1923-32) working as an Irish dancing teacher, she later bailed him out of financial trouble by selling her business when he had no one else to support him. Their daughter, my mother was not mentioned either, they have been excised from the narrative.
James (Jimmy) and Rita did not have a flash in the pan marriage, they were together from 1923 and married in New York on November 16 1926, I wear my grandmother’s wedding ring engraved with their initials and date of the wedding. They came back to Ireland in 1932/3 because my great grandmother was dying and Rita nursed her. My mother Frances Nuala O’Beirne was born on Christmas day 1935 and Jimmy was officially living with them until 1939 when he returned to live in New York, so that he could continue to raise funds for the IRA, or so the story went for them. The heart of this ‘micro history’ is all about secrets and lies.
Rita set up a restaurant over what used to be the Saxone Shoe shop on Patrick Street, she had a good business head and lived with her father, her sister and her daughter at no 3 Cornmarket St, where I grew up years later. Rita taught me to sing ‘twas down by the glenside’ when I was a small child – I got the words wrong and at the end of one of the verses I sang ‘we may have good men now but our women are better’ and I remember her bursting out laughing and saying ‘you’re right there!’
When my mother was 12 years old Jimmy came back, he was on the run again and needed a lot of money, so my grandmother, obviously being irredeemably naïve, sold up her business and gave him the money. What he had not explained was, that in the intervening years, despite the florid love letters, which I read as a curious child foraging in the attic, he had divorced her in absentia, married Elaine Lambert Lewis and his son John Ranalagh, (as featured in the Irish Times article) my mother’s half-brother, was by then 3 years old. My mother’s last memory of her father was seeing him on the street in Cork, he crossed the road and put his arm on her shoulder saying ‘I’ll see you soon Nuala’. She never saw him again.
There followed many years of financial hardship for Rita’s family, they also ran an ‘antique’ shop which was really more bric a brac and second hand goods, but they had to keep their end up. What was really amazing about all of this was that Jimmy’s family refused to reveal his whereabouts to my grandmother and continued to tell her that he’d gone off somewhere to fight and had probably been killed - but they couldn’t be sure!
I’d heard about Jimmy going to fight in the Spanish Civil War and years later when John Ranalagh, his son by his second marriage, came to dinner at my house he was able to fill in some of the gaps. John is a very interesting and engaging man and told me that his father had also been on the Long March in China with Mao Zedong, this was a gripping piece of information for me because of my ongoing artistic connection with China and having a nephew who lives in Shanghai…..
Some of the saddest things you’ll see in China are the monuments to those who participated in the Long March, so many names have been obliterated because those individuals had disagreed with the leaders or fallen out of grace for political heresy. Surely the ultimate disrespect is to remove someone from history, to deny their existence.
All of my grandfather’s adventures or none of them may be true, but what is sure and certain is that his brother my Uncle Paddy came to see my grandmother regularly and never told her the truth. As I played in the room where they sat together saying private adult things, I would hear him murmuring ‘we’ll never know Rita, we’ll never know’ to her, passing her the odd fiver because he knew how his brother had broken the family financially and of course, a couple of pots of honey from his beehives. I always hated the taste of his honey.
My grandmother, or as Jimmy called her in his love letters ‘my lotus bud’ finally learned the truth the hard way when she went to claim the widow’s pension and was told that she wasn’t a widow! I remember her coming home distraught and tearing up the photos in her wedding album. A very few survived thanks to some American relatives.
She had never been able to marry again – or even have a relationship with a man, because the climate in the new holy Catholic Ireland allowed women no quarter. My mother Frances, grew up embittered, rejected and always felt that people were sniggering behind her back, which they probably were, because Jimmy brought his new family back to live in Ballincollig for a number of years and Cork is a small place! The O'Beirne family never revealed the situation to Rita or Jimmy's daughter and the money from the sale of her restaurant which she gave to Jimmy was never repaid.
Frances confronted her uncle and cousin about this once and was told that she should ‘put all that in the past’ easily said…she was never able to enjoy motherhood or being at peace or simple affection, she always felt she couldn’t trust those things and led a diminished life as a result.
So when I saw this article ‘Independence Hero’s Ashes Come Home’ on 30 March, I felt a terrible need to write about the unsung hero that was my grandmother, flawed for sure, but she was loving, she was bright and she was brave. She had an unfulfilled life largely because of the lies and hypocrisy of Irish Patriarchal Catholic society wedded to the myths that surround armed conflict and the men who engage in it.
Our mother died on the 19th March this year just eleven days before the article in the Irish Examiner was published so I felt that I could write this now without causing additional grief. My sisters and I discussed it and agreed that it was just as well that Frances died before reading about her father’s ashes being brought back to Cork, without a mention of her, or her mother’s name, because that certainly would have killed her!
In memory of Rita O’Beirne née (Margaret Mary Mintern) 1902-1991
By Fion Gunn, Independent Artist Curator
Currently curating INTIMATE TRANSGRESSIONS, an international touring exhibition highlighting the plight of the Comfort Women and sexual violence in times of war. The exhibition has been shown in New York, Beijing and most recently in Hangzhou, China, next stop Taipei, Taiwan in October 2016. www.intimatetransgressionsproject.com
I've just spent an exhilarating 2 days with composer Liz Johnson http://www.lizjohnson.co.uk/ and choreographic installation artist Sarah Rubidge http://www.sensedigital.co.uk/ discussing our creative collaboration and making plans for a big multi disciplinary project in 2017/18. We'd started the dialogue before Christmas and have now drafted an outline plan for the project - we'll post updates as we reach our milestones in the coming year. It is a truly inspiring experience to have detailed and wide ranging discussions with practitioners from other creative backgrounds; this has made me realise that scheduling open ended meetings like this can be a significant support to any artist's practice.
Liz recorded most of the conversation - I'm now hoping that she will edit out all the swearing and laughing!
Well since my last blog entry where I was so optimistic about Certitude supporting the Sewing Group I had a salutary lesson in how minutes should always be taken and sent out to all attendees at decision making meetings as soon as possible.
In the event Certitude's offer to support our Group was not about providing core funding.... true, the 3 board members and 2 women from the group who attended the meeting all came away with that idea but we didn't send minutes out immediately and therefore couldn't counter Certitude's denial that this had indeed been their offer.
Of course, we were never going to continue without core funding so we have now begun the formal dissolution of our Community Interest Company.
It's been an amazing journey for Ifrah and myself and I'm sure that we will also work together in the future in different circumstances. In the meantime, Streatham Women's Sewing Group CIC which has trained over 170 women, has maximum attendance, exceptional participation from Somali & other excluded communities and great outputs/outcomes will cease to be formally as of 1 Dec 2015, 6 years after we began our activities.
Since 2009 when Ifrah Odawa and I set up Streatham Women's Sewing Group CIC it's been a constant struggle to raise even the tiniest amount of funding. Back in 2013 things were so difficult that we decided to give up - as soon as we did this, there was a flurry of local activity and funds were found so that we could continue.
An arts project grant from Arts Council England allowed us to continue last year but once again, with no money in our bank account and not having been paid for our weekly sessions since Sept 2014, Ifrah and I decided to wind up the Group - with a heavy heart.
As a last ditch attempt to raise some support I started an online petition - this was not working wonderfully because many of our participants have no computers, no email addresses, so yet another uphill struggle.
However, one person saw the petition and got in touch - Patrick Nyikavaranda, whom I'd met back in 2009/10 when we'd first started the Group and asked if we would meet the director of Certitude where he now worked because they might be able to help. http://www.certitude.org.uk/
So I set off for the meeting with Selamawit, one of the women who attends our sessions regularly and while we were prepared to beg and plead, we were not optimistic and expected to be fobbed off with vague offers of help and suggestions for strategies which we've already been through a number of times.
We were flabbergasted when the director Nicholas Campbell-Watts immediately offered us some basic funding, made extraordinarly positive comments about our work, reassured us that we would be supported, that our work was valuable and that we must continue.
Selamawit and I walked home feeling light headed, grateful and hugely optimistic for the future.
This year when I flew to China for IRISH WAVE 2015 it was with the intention of giving up, doing some great shows and then letting go of this project which has caused me such stress and financial difficulty over the last few years. I came back to London feeling very differently because of the great support we had from the Irish Embassy in Beijing this year - we felt genuinely supported and appreciated.
I realise while writing this that, of course, the appreciation will have to translate into significantly better funding for next year's IRISH WAVE.
However, I can't help feeling that it's only when I stop struggling and am ready to give up, that my projects gain support - this feels deeply counter-intuitive and weird!
I have a campaign going to challenge the hegemony of academic/museum curation which I believe is unhealthy and un-conducive to the democratisation of culture and the creation of new audiences for art.
If we were to turn the current 'curatorial' situation on its head - where most curators are academics/ gallerists or museum emplyees and look at say, the literary or academic world through the lens of visual artists – how would that pan out?
Visual artists would run all the publishing companies, they would people the boards of literary prizes and academic awards. Visual artists would review all new publications in newspapers and online and ‘curate’ all essay & short story collections. Their visual interpretations of literary conceits would dominate publishing decisions and critical responses. Unlucky for any writer whose book may not be ‘visual’ enough and very unlucky indeed for the academic whose recourse to visuals may not relate to their field of expertise.
Still, altered books, books sculptures and artists’ books would do well. Artists would have a lot of funding available to run conferences where all powerpoints presentations have minimal text but would include mixed media workshops and performances. Book covers would be strikingly avant-garde and multi-dimensional – all text would be judged on font aesthetic rather than boring old literary meaning. Damian Hirst would edit the next Oxford dictionary and Slinkachoo would ‘write’ a trilogy covering the life and times of Will Self using as few words as possible and in miniature format. There would be a movement for the dismissal of phonetic language and a return to pictograms….
This may appear facetious and strange, but for many artists and artist curators having an academic, a museum expert or an art critic, make decisions about which visual artists get seen by the public and in what contexts, is equally bizarre, invasive and inappropriate.
I am an artist curator based in London and working regularly in China. I am also Irish, educated in Ireland & France and a woman. Art is in transition (when has it not been?) across almost every aspect of its manifestation and we need to raise our awareness levels. I believe that these are a number of awkward questions that artists and the public alike should be asking.
Particular areas of interest relate to:
As an artist curator I want to query why curatorial practice has been so dominated by academics, critics and gallerists? and why so many artists have allowed themselves to be disempowered by this process - which never appears to be reciprocal.
The increasing incidence of the artist curator is evidence that things are changing, but are they changing quickly enough? Why is the power balance in favour of those with words, rather than those with images, in a world where visual language has far greater potential for global relevance? It feels both timely and appropriate that I have been invited by ArtZip magazine http://www.artzip.org/ to be guest editor for the Spring edition; the theme is the Artist Curator.
Another sea change in the art world is the rising importance of inclusion, in the context of publicly funded contemporary collections.
Globally, all major contemporary art museums need to redress the shocking gender imbalance in their collections, the fact that most of the works they purchase, as distinct from those they exhibit, are by men– these are the questions which need asking:
In terms of Public funding for the Arts, the UK has recently had a review the arts sector’s growth (with the aim of axing funding – of course). It was found that the Arts Sector had a contribution to the economy of 4% as compared with 2.5% from the New technology sector and 1.5% from the pharmaceutical sector. This put paid to any Arts Council cuts, but it is appalling that the misconception of the arts as being an economic burden – a luxury item still persists.
Of course, another part of me is disgusted by the constant drive to ‘monetise’ culture and creativity as though they were not necessary for our human well-being and quality of life…….
MOBILITY & CROSS CULTURAL IMPORTANCE
Referring to the situation in Ireland particularly, cutbacks to cultural funds have made international mobility very difficult if not impossible for many Irish artists. As a small island nation, how can artists battle against this isolation and narrowing of horizons? What will the impact be for practitioners who need to develop an international practice? How will Ireland sustain an international profile in the visual arts?
Every political/business link between countries has a cultural handshake to begin with, why are cross-cultural arts projects not seen as a vital part of this and funded accordingly. Yes, I know that no one has any money! (except for those who have….). But money also has to be spent to earn money in the long run and investment in the arts has wide reaching potential.
Other areas which I believe need careful monitoring and ongoing evaluation are:
In particular, I would argue that the age bias mitigates against women, who need to have their children when fertile and often can only gain professional freedom when their families are older, that’s right, not every woman who is an artist, is single and without dependants…... In an ideal world men and women would share family responsibilities but in practice, this is not so often the case. So why not design residency programmes around real lives rather than a Utopian ideal? i.e. more options for say, one month or even 2 week programmes? These could be valuable research opportunities and more feasible for artists with families, female and male.
If the focus of public and private funding bodies is age restricted and disproportionately allotted to young artists, then we need to consider whether this is entirely logical. Many graduates from art colleges remain ‘practitioners’ when they embark on post-graduate studies but, by the time they’ve reached 35, having despaired of the lifestyle, they’ve given up. I would query whether allocating funds simply on the basis of age, when funding is very scarce, to those who may not remain practitioners for very long, is both wasteful and discriminatory.
I really like to connect with people but if I don't know you and don't know why you want to connect with me then I won't! If you are an artist and you want to connect with me please send me your website address otherwise I won't follow up your invitation.
If you're an artist and you don't have a website then for your own sake set one up asap. I can recommend Weebly. As someone who has to research artists websites on a regular basis my advice would be to have a simple, clear layout plenty of good quality images - put your text (bios, statements etc on a separate page) and have very straightforward navigation.
If you look at my own websites:
www.fiongunn.org, http://www.bigsmallartists.com/www.intimatetransgressions.weebly.com and www.sewinginstreatham.weebly.com you will see the kind of artists I collaborate with and the kinds of projects in which I'm involved. So if you want an 'agent', a gallery or someone to promote your work commercially and if your work falls into the category of commercial then I'm not the person you should want to connect with!
Over the last 10 days I've been completely deaf - well, not completely....more like being underwater and trying to hear people from 2 rooms away. Nothing serious just a mega inner ear wax problem - very yuck. There is a point to my writing this - it made me reflect on another aspect of life as an artist.
This kind of 'deafness' takes your internal noises to a completely other level - eating is ferociously noisy with every chew sounding like cement mixer, swallowing is like a vast underwater bubble bursting and breathing is like being shadowed by an iron lung. One has absolutely no idea of pitch or volume so I had to ask friends to warn me if I was shouting - which I was, when not mumbling incoherently. Yesterday I was saying the word 'Rottherham' and could actually hear my tongue 'sawing' against my teeth in an backwards forwards movement - it felt deeply weird and hard to focus on sensible things.
So having had my ears 'hoovered' today and my hearing return to normal, I thought about how the blocking up of my ears had turned my world inward - the outer world receded and I felt like a prisoner in my own head, discombobulated and disconnected. It felt like a metaphor for what to avoid in life, especially as an artist. We need to 'unblock' ourselves and our responses otherwise the inwardness becomes overwhelming and disorientating - we miss the whole wide world.
Well, it felt like a meaningful epiphany at the time!
I woke up last Thursday morning filled with a spirit of optimism - my new blackout curtains had helped me to get a better night's sleep, the weather was good and I wasn't particularly behind with any of my current projects. I had a couple of simple things to do on my checklist and wasn't expecting any bad news.
Even better - my Proxxon electric carver arrived (it had been dispatched 3 weeks previously) and the prospect of being able to work on some of my current book sculptures was delightful!
Within 2 hours all my plans had gone awry, I couldn't find my daughter's travel insurance documents (this was one of the simple things on the checklist....). I couldn't find the international adaptor for the carving tool, I'd had 3 annoying phonecalls and a couple of bad news emails.
The final straw - having gone through the instructions for the carver (in Japanese) so I just had to follow the visuals....I plugged it in and tripped the circuit breakers in the house. I am not electrically aware I hadn't absorbed the fact that the AC voltage required a transformer - yes I know that's stupid, I'll never make that mistake again! but given that I've been blissfully using Chinese electrical products in my house for years without one and there was no image or reference to needing one in the info, I can't be the only one who makes a mistake like this.
So in short I was having a really frustrating day until I watched the news and saw all those poor people in Gaza and the coffins arriving in the Netherlands with the bodies of the victims of the MH17 crash and all I could think of was how lucky I am, what a great life I have and how useful it is to have annoying things happen so I can learn from them rather than being dead or terribly bereaved. Blue Sky Thinking or what......
At the same time the bloody Japanese Proxxon supplier could have mentioned the transformer!!!!!
This photo was taken at one of the installations of 'The Dress My Mother Wore' (Streatham Food Festival). Both the local MP and Councillor were very interested in how the project involved the whole community and were interested in its potential for combating radicalisation as well as encouraging social inclusion. Streatham Women's Sewing Group CIC (with whom I've collaborated on the project) is in ongoing need of funding (albeit very modest) so it is a positive step to have a degree of political support!
Fion Gunn is a London based visual artist with an international multi-media practice.