The Bosnian War; a long, complex, and ugly conflict that followed the fall of communism in Europe. In 1991, Bosnia and Herzegovina joined several republics of the former Yugoslavia and declared independence, which triggered a civil war that lasted four years. Bosnia's population was a multi-ethnic mix of Muslim Bosniaks (44%), Orthodox Serbs (31%), and Catholic Croats (17%). The Bosnian Serbs, well-armed and backed by neighbouring Serbia, laid siege to the city of Sarajevo in early April 1992. They targeted mainly the Muslim population but killed many other Bosnian Serbs as well as Croats with rocket, mortar, and sniper attacks that went on for 44 months. As shells fell on the Bosnian capital, nationalist Croat and Serb forces carried out horrific "ethnic cleansing" attacks across the countryside. Finally, in 1995, UN air strikes and United Nations sanctions helped bring all parties to a peace agreement. Estimates of the war's fatalities vary widely, ranging from 90,000 to 300,000. To date, more than 70 men involved have been convicted of war crimes by the UN. – Alan Taylor, The Atlantic
Despite the pandemic still writ large, and with no small amount of trepidation, I recently deliberated on whether I should rebook a work and research trip to Sarajevo that had been planned before Covid struck us. With travel rules constantly morphing, I dreaded the prospect of being stranded in a dodgy hotel hundreds of miles from home, yet a small but loud part of me insisted that I needed to get back out into the world and embrace it. On 24th September I flew to Sarajevo via Vienna and landed exactly on time and with no hitches whatsoever.
I had yearned to visit Sarajevo ever since a family holiday to Croatia that saw us taking a day trip into Bosnia & Herzegovina, taking in the sights of the beautiful city of Mostar. I was captivated instantly by a place that was worn around the seams, dishevelled by conflict yet boasting great pride and beauty. Riddled with scars and carrying a silent sorrow in its soul, I recognised at once a country that had endured yet survived. I adore this kind of worn out, harrowed loveliness way more than any ‘perfect’ tourist destination. Because it’s in this dilapidation where great stories live.
I was lucky enough to connect with Crvena, a feminist organisation based in Sarajevo who had agreed to host me as I facilitated a textile workshop. They had organised for me to work in a sunny outdoor courtyard at the rear of The History Museum of Bosnia & Herzegovina, where I was surrounded by the leftover machinery of war; all sorts of cannons and other killing paraphernalia sat lazily in the sunshine whilst we worked around them.
The evening before the workshop I met with the irrepressible Andreja of Crvena; she had given birth to a baby boy only two months prior yet was energetically organising and promoting the workshop. She took me to Caffe Tito, a nostalgic reminder of life in former Yugoslavia under President Tito, with photos and other objects from the socialist period. We chatted and swapped experiences of life as women, the searing inequalities that we face in our roles as mothers, how conflict shaped the lives of women. She told me how she and her mother had been forced to leave BiH as refugees for the relative safety of Croatia, the grief in giving up their comfortable life in Sarajevo to live in substandard conditions in order to be safe.
The next day, with Andreja translating, the workshop went smoothly - me learning way more than any of the participants. They told me they were communists, and elaborated on how strong the feminist movement had been during the time of Yugoslavia. Andreja had previously devoted her time to putting together a small permanent exhibition that was housed in the museum. It displayed, along with other items, copies of the radical ‘New Woman’ magazine that had been published during the period. After the workshop I gazed at the items, wanting to know so much more of their story. Some of the participants at the workshop had been really young, born long after Yugoslavia had broken up and rearranged itself into new countries, long after the most recent war had raged. Yet they burned with Yugonostalgia and a passion for a time that they had never known. I couldn’t blame them. Capitalism has hardly brought us untold joy, so why wouldn’t they look to something else? I turned the idea of communism and its potential benefits over in my head. It was certainly food for thought.
Read more about Crvena here:
Learning about the nuanced and complicated history of the Balkans was therapeutic for me; it ensured that my own troubled story in Ireland felt less isolated and strange. I deepened the conversation by connecting with a couple of other people; a journalist called Orhan who had been a young adult during Yugoslavia, and who had fled to Turkey during the conflict, and a guide called Adis who was born in the last year of the war. Adis took me all over the city and I glimpsed the Tunnel of Hope, constructed between March and June 1993 during the Siege of Sarajevo, allowing food, war supplies and humanitarian aid to make its way into the city. He showed me Sniper Alley and the still pock marked buildings blighted by gunshot wounds, but also the dilapidated bobsleigh track made famous by the 1984 Winter Olympics (who could forget the world famous performance by Torville and Dean?), now covered with street art and political messages. And how did Orhan remember the period? The communism of Yugoslavia had failed he stated pragmatically, feeling that there had been a certain inevitability to it all, pondering over the Ottoman invasion centuries prior and reflecting how the conversion of many to Islam at this point had continued to influence tensions in the region hundreds of years later.
Later, back at my AirBnB, I learned how women had formed their own resistance during the war by donning their best clothes and make up, even when they were forced to walk down Sniper Alley. Their attitude was one of defiance – if they were going to die, they were going to die dressed in their best. I watched footage of Miss Sarajevo on YouTube; contestants of the beauty pageant held in the midst of the besieged city had carried a huge banner stating ‘Don’t Let Them Kill Us’, with the moment immortalised in song by U2 and Brian Eno. I marvelled at how the women had held together the threads of a normal life in the midst of chaos and destruction, as I know women do the world over. Holding things together for their children, their wider families and communities.
On the final day of my visit I stumbled across the book Women of BiH in a tiny store placed along a side street. I immediately purchased it, feeling instantly that I needed to know more about these pillars of strength, knowing that I would draw on their fortitude and grace in times of need.
The book #ŽeneBiH is an artistic, activist and research initiative that is comprised of biographies of over 50 BiH women who have broken stereotypes and advocated women’s rights and emancipation.
The work conducted in Sarajevo was part of the Bandage Me Better project.
Bandage Me Better: a textile project that binds, connects, heals
It draws heavily on the sacred value of the items that support us in the everyday; the things that help us, heal us, and nurture us on our journey. We can feel deeply connected to such objects and find solace in them during times of sickness and adversity.
A few weeks ago the exhibition All In The Same Storm: Pandemic Patchwork Stories opened at De La Warr Pavilion after months of hard work. I was one of two artist facilitators on the project; I learned much from my colleague Jimena Pardo who brought her in depth knowledge of the Chilean Arpillera movement that inspired and informed how we shaped the project.
I’ve written about the sessions that we led on Zoom in a previous post. What struck me most about the experience was how much everyday life became the stuff of art, culture and historical significance. We marked the time spent in a pandemic by commenting on, stitching about and mulling over what sometimes seemed otherwise mundane – that we needed coffee to get through the day, that we were bored, isolated and struggling with face masks.
Using up fabric scraps to create patches for the final piece reignited a long kindling obsession for thrifted clothing and other pre loved domestic textiles. As soon as restrictions allowed, I’ve been feverishly rummaging through second hand and vintage clothing shops. It’s not just that I love a good bargain – although I do! It’s the sense of story that moves me when I handle cloth that I know has lain in someone else’s hand, caressed someone’s skin. The connection of me to the past through this garment makes me tingle with interest and excitement; the knowledge that I do not stand alone and isolated in time, but tangled up with so many other souls in the rich tapestry that is our existence.
Sometimes I’ve stumbled upon things that have been extra moving – a row of military uniforms from the era of World War 2. One of the jackets had the owner’s name written on the label. Clayton’s jacket had been made by J Compton Sons & Webb who manufactured uniforms between 1930 and 1978. I wondered what had happened to Clayton and why his jacket was in such pristine condition, hanging in a shop in St Leonards on Sea.
I have found myself collecting vintage nightdresses, wondering whether their owners have passed on or just given up the nightie for a more modern pair of pyjamas. A nightdress that I wore whilst pregnant has joined the collection and I gaze at them hanging in my studio – wondering whether there is a project stored up in their threads. One of Paddy’s vests, aged 4-5, has joined it; after dyeing it with red cabbage I’ve started stitching on top of it.
Does every textile have a secret life? Consisting of the imaginations, yearnings, hopes and memories of those who’ve handled it?
All In The Same Storm runs until 5th September 2021.
There is a panel discussion:
As I write this, I received my first Covid vaccination an hour ago at a huge makeshift vaccination centre in Hastings. It seems like the beginning of the end of one long and winding road. It’s no secret that the Pandemic has had a huge effect on my life - like a kind of slow burning rocket going off.
I’ve been plunged into exploring my inner world, delving deep into my personal buried trauma, but also reflecting on the collective pain of my country of birth and my familial ancestry. My Mum and I got into genealogy over recent months and uncovered a world of complex and meandering family life; one that’s been hoarding secrets of illegitimate children, religious conversions, ships to America and even a silver medal presented by the King of Sweden.
It turns out that I am in equal measure Protestant Scots Irish, English and Catholic Irish. My Great Great Grandfather and Mother converted to Protestantism because they had a child out of wedlock and we believe that their only option was to be married by the Protestant church. My Great Grandmother (the one who married said child out of wedlock) also hailed from a Roman Catholic family – again converting to Protestantism to marry my Great Grandfather who was only Protestant by accident of birth.
All this information confirms my long held belief that it’s preposterous to label anyone, and the labels are often useless, stifling constructs. The nature of life is nuanced and complex. People migrate, mix, mingle, love and birth new life in an unruly and uncontrollable fashion. No-one is fully anything and the world belongs to all of us. In reality there are no countries, no religions, no customs or faiths. There is only the ribbon of breath that we draw in and out of our chest each moment.
Contemplating my Great Grandmother and Great Great Grandmother, the decisions they faced and the hardships they endured, has made me feel deeply connected to my place in an intertwined history. This has led me to reflect on women across Northern Ireland as a whole. I’ve felt able to reclaim Catholic heroes like Mairead Maguire, who has worked tirelessly for peace over the decades, awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1976. For years, I felt that Mairead didn’t stand for people like me – that by being labelled a Protestant I automatically fell on the ‘other side’ to her, whether I wanted to or not. That if she was speaking out, it was not speaking out for me. It feels deeply cathartic to reclaim all of my deeply Irish ancestry and the depth of that experience; from conflict and colonialism to poetry and pain. I am no longer separated from the myriad of influences that shaped me.
I made ‘Reclaiming Mairead’ as part of a series of Stitch For Change sessions facilitated in tandem with Chilean artist Jimena Pardo, hosted by The Refugee Buddy Project in Hastings. We worked for four weeks in the run up to International Women’s Day helping women to make small banners and bandanas (panuelos) as worn by Latin American feminists, using reclaimed textiles from our everyday life. As always, Jimena taught me so much about identifying a colonialist past through texts such as Paulo Freire’s ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’. I realise with a releasing awareness that the Troubles were not so much of a Protestant and Catholic issue as a deeply Patriarchal Colonialist issue.
I’ve always loved the textiles of everyday life; from bandages and bedding to doilies and dishcloths. I adore the patina like surface that results from years of use and washing, perhaps because it draws me back to an almost nostalgic remembering of the grim and grey stained life we led on the Atlantic coast. I come from a long line of textile workers; my Great Grandparents and many of their children were involved in the linen industry, weaving cloth at Gribbons factory in Coleraine. My Nana was a dexterous seamstress, taking in jobs from her local community such as making curtains and adjusting hems – the stitching of everyday life. I remember being in awe of two particularly colourful bridesmaids dresses she made for my aunt’s wedding, saddened that I was not destined to wear either. It felt apt that Reclaiming Mairead started life as a much used, washed and stained tea towel from my own kitchen.
I felt a loss at the lack of a radical feminist movement in Northern Ireland, but stumbled across the story of the Women’s Coalition in the documentary Wave Goodbye to Dinosaurs, a story that I had shamefully known nothing about until recently. I don’t ever remember women being any part of the political performances, but felt a thrill of hope when I heard about the coming together of women from across the divide. They successfully formed a political party in the space of six weeks and garnered enough votes to ensure that Monica McWilliams and Pearl Sagar were seated at the Peace Talks in 1996 – the only women sitting with 106 men.
Of course they did I mused, because women in Northern Ireland have been quietly organising peacefully and successfully in their communities and families throughout the decades of the Troubles. Keeping their children educated and out of trouble, forming bonds via women-led cross community projects, and generally being the much needed glue of family life.
Because that’s just what women do.
I've always loved bandages; their soft, unbleached colour and supportive texture.
Bandages are our attempt to make things better, wrap up, swaddle, contain, nurture, heal.
As 2020 draws to a close, it seems pertinent to reflect that it has been a year to remember in so many ways; challenging, dark and filled with shadow, yet pregnant with opportunity for deep healing as old traumas have been triggered and brought to the fore. Many of us have keenly felt our vulnerability and lack of control for the first time in our lives, and coped with this by using all manner of 'bandages' that held and supported us during this period. By gardening, baking, painting and helping our community, we made meaning of a situation that otherwise seemed so fruitless.
I've been creating Bandage Scrolls featuring Goddess Women; to me they look equally beautiful hanging long and unfurled, or wrapped in on themselves, featuring mainly their reverse and tatty sides.
Bandage Scrolls feel like they contain something precious and tender of our personal stories, and making them has certainly assisted me in the process of breaking and mending that I've experienced throughout 2020. The global trauma has plunged me into old memories - my history brought to the fore in a stark and unavoidable fashion.
I've noticed during the Pandemic the desperate scramble to organise, dictate rules, control and gain power over the virus - a struggle for control that becomes ever more elusive as Covid mutates and nature continues to envelop us in the way that she chooses.
I'm struck by memories I have of being told about apartheid in South Africa, and my own experiences in Northern Ireland, where the powers that be attempted to organise blacks, whites, Protestants and Catholics. Of course, nature would not have it. Facing a multitude of people who would not fit neatly into their boxes, the South African government finally devised a water tight test to ascertain the category in which an individual belonged. By placing a pencil in a person's hair, they knew they were white if it fell out, and black if it stayed in. It seems amazing to our modern sensibilities that things got this desperate in the minds of adults who were in charge of a nation.
Perhaps all this is a lesson in letting go and sinking into the stretchy bandage of life. We will never control it and we don't need to.
Lockdown and the Pandemic has been the most surreal time I’ve ever lived through; in equal parts distressing, wonderful, and above all a steep learning curve.
The role of art and nature as tools for healing are the subject of this blog; and I note that both have been used heavily during Lockdown as coping strategies by many. It seems that in time of great distress we turn to these things for comfort, expression and solace.
I managed to take the time to do some online Peace Education with Quakers and really got to know about my own inner conflict, connecting with that part of me that wants to stand at attention like an aggressive sergeant major. An aspect of myself that strives for constant results, scornful of process and never allowing time to relax into the subtleties and nuances of my relationships and art practice.
My appetite for greater understanding whetted, I attended a life changing seminar online that was presented by Professor Siobhan O’Neill, hosted by Ulster University and entitled ‘The Trauma Informed Approach’. In it Siobhan discussed trauma as a collective and intergenerational experience in Northern Ireland, touching on how trauma was passed around our society via poverty, childhood adversity, alcoholism and substance misuse, resulting in a huge proportion of the population being affected without witnessing anything obviously Troubles related (such as gunshots or an explosion). I thought long and hard about my Dad’s alcoholism and how this had a profound effect on me in our unhappy home. Memories of my uncle, a prison officer, being on an IRA hit list; checkpoints with heavily armed soldiers staring out of their armoured vehicles being a completely normal part of everyday life; our town being bombed so heavily that most of the centre had to be rebuilt; all of us segregated and the first question anyone wanting to know was ‘are you a Catholic or a Protestant?’
I’ve felt simultaneously weighted and relieved by these realisations, and noted that I need to continue to ‘make meaning’ from what has happened in my life – a point stressed by Professor O’Neill as the main way to recover from trauma and make sense of what can sometimes seem senseless.
You can watch the seminar here:
I therefore leapt at the chance to be involved in the project Stitch For Change, the brain child of Rossana Leal, the director of The Refugee Buddy Project. Rossana herself is a refugee from Chile who arrived to live in Scotland when she was eight years old. She understands more than most what it is like to flee from a situation that is dangerous and traumatic, having left her native country to escape the Pinochet dictatorship that saw thousands being disappeared, detained and killed.
Stitch For Change envisaged the completion of a Pandemic Patchwork Quilt, with exquisitely hand embroidered squares being stitched by Sussex based refugee families who are being supported by the project, along with anyone else who wanted to get involved. Participants were asked to stitch stories of their time during the pandemic; anything could be included. We gratefully received deeply moving stories of individuals’ displacement and other light hearted reflections on how coffee has been an integral part of making it through lockdown.
The project has been heavily influenced by arpilleras from Chile; their history and techniques were taught to us by fellow facilitator and artist Jimena Pardo, also hailing from Chile. We learned how Chilean arpilleristas would make their deeply moving pieces of textile work to express the pain of losing a loved one, using scraps of fabric and burlap backing. Jimena runs a collective called Bordando por la Memoria; they state:
'Our aim is to make collaborative textile pieces that highlights the need for justice and to keep alive a part of history that in Chile today is being systematically eradicated.'
You can find out more about the collective here:
You can find out more about Jimena’s own deeply moving story here:
We ran two weekly Zoom sessions and initially I was worried about the number of attendees, scared that we wouldn’t have enough to make the project a ‘success’. Rossana, completely unflappable and entirely trusting in the process and the richness of the engagement, taught me to trust that it was a matter of quality rather than quantity.
I learned a lot about the subtlety of important change and growth in individuals, and the necessity of examining project results in depth with an eye on individuals’ experiences as opposed to how many people had attended. I had a tendency to focus on the latter in the past, feeling the need for numbers and results in order to prove the validity of my work. I’ve had a deep shift in my awareness that it’s unethical to view a human being only as a number or statistic – and this type of number crunching is a skewed way of evaluating work amongst humans.
I’ve also realised that activities that can look rather unimpressive on the surface can actually be implementing profound changes in participants and that simple activities that are well delivered within a nurturing space are far more important than a project that screams with bells and whistles but that lacks space for reflection and connection.
I was moved by the positive response of participants – they seemed to glean a great deal out of the fact that we were simply a consistent, reliable presence in what was an otherwise tumultuous time. Even if they didn’t manage to attend every session, they were very much a part of the process and were held by the space even when they weren’t in it. I noticed that this increased my own capacity for compassion towards the group and myself, which has significantly benefited my art practice.
We are now in the throes of creating quilts from the individual patches with the help of textile artist and master quilt maker, Jane Grimshaw. The quilts are due to be displayed at De La Warr Pavilion at the end of the year alongside a programme of events.
Above all, this beautiful project has brought home to me with resounding clarity that healing is my only purpose: divide is conflict and integration is harmony, and this echoes in all areas of life from the inner to the outer. There is an academic term ‘Post Traumatic Growth’ which essentially means that you can be better for the things that you’ve been through. May we all work through our struggles and know the deep satisfaction of this growth.
Lockdown has been and (sort of) gone, and we are now living in a new kind of 'normal'. The pandemic has, of course, changed absolutely everything - including my relationship with myself. So it only stands to reason that it has begun to considerably shape my art practice.
This blog originally started out as a reflection on how nature can sustain and heal; never have I felt so held by the landscape around me as during these troubled times. I need to be in it like I need to drink water - the fear and uncertainty has driven me to bathe in nature's restful arms and connect with her ever changing light every day.
I feel much more thoughtful about everything I do; I'm slowed down and picking through the pathway of my life much more carefully and with greater attention to the subtle detail that lies everywhere along the road. I still see conflict everywhere. The internal battles we fight as we struggle to attain that elusive sense of inner peace. The wars that rage in the name of justice. Is this just an inevitable part of our human condition? More and more I see the nuances - we are neither simply good or bad, the oppressor or the oppressed. We are everything. It's just what we choose to reflect upon most that ultimately shapes who we become.
This summer we decided to abandon plans to jump on a flight to somewhere exotic and follow that subtle, dusty road north to the Scottish Highlands, reaching Loch Lomond, Ben Nevis and the Isle of Mull; a part of our island almost outrageous with moody beauty.
On our route back home I managed to pay a mini pilgrimage to Moffat; the town undoubtedly the seat of my Scottish ancestors. I am a result of the Scottish Plantation, Scots Irish, a combination that regularly made me wince in the past as people would proclaim we were 'not proper Irish', and inevitably connect us with Protestantism, Unionism and the role of oppressor in the Troubles.
For some time I considered that I had no right to sadness about the conflict that still rumbles in Ireland - surely I could lay no claim to sorrow about a situation that I must have benefited from? Now I know that no-one gains any advantage in war, killing, oppression and deep division. It may look like some have an upper hand from certain vantage points, but none of us know peace until we all know peace.
We all have the right to grieve the deaths of people killed in violent action, no matter whether we knew them or share the labels that others have placed upon us. A life is a life. We are all one people under one sky.
Gravestones bearing the name Moffat in the town's cemetery
Whilst in Northern Ireland visiting my Dad in March, I managed to meet up with the irrepressible Roberta Bacic once more. This woman is a diminutive yet dynamic force of inspiration; whilst I was mourning the loss of pre-Covid days, she gently reminded me that she had raised her children in the shadow of Pinochet – an era that they thought would last a year, but that oozed out into seventeen.
Pinochet ruled as a dictator in Chile – a country that I have had the great blessing to visit during an adventurous sojourn in Patagonia – commencing in 1973 just 2 years before I was born. To think of Roberta struggling miles across the globe as I grew up in my own grim circumstances reminds me that at this very minute someone is in the depths of their own conflict. Is conflict an evitable part of being human? I increasingly ponder this question the more I am absorbed in my work.
Roberta’s passion for Arpilleras and other Conflict Textiles was born during this time and I have written in a previous blog post about her vast knowledge and collection. I quote myself:
‘I am delighted to be returning to Limavady, Northern Ireland to see Roberta in action for her exhibition 'Embracing Human Rights: Conflict Textiles' Journey' at Roe Valley Arts and Cultural Centre in March 2020 where I will have the honour of working alongside arpilleriastas from Spain, with the chance to learn more about the rich history of stitch in conflict.’
Sadly the workshop with the arpilleriastas did not come to pass due to travel restrictions that have beset the entire globe, but true to form, Roberta had still managed to pull the exhibition together in glorious form. I wander from piece to piece moved by the emotion stitched with dedication into each work. I am especially struck by an arpillera entitled ‘My Guernica’ that was created in the Basque Country by Edurne Mestraitua, exploring her family’s trauma of the fateful bombing 26th April 1937. Touchingly, she uses a pillowcase, which is a precious family heirloom, as backing. I am moved to tears by the delicate embroidery on the back of the pillowcase; the evidence of a human hand and a sense of history hurtling towards me through generations. As with Covid-19, I am overwhelmed by the knowledge that we are all connected, and every event sends out ripples across miles and years that we can never measure.
My final view of the exhibition, just before I descended the stairs and out into the Northern Irish grey light, was of the stunning Peace Quilt, created by Irene MacWilliam.
The catalogue entry for this item reads as follows:
'In this quilt, Irene MacWilliam expresses her deep concern for the loss of lives during The Troubles which impacted on every county and community in her native Northern Ireland.
As the work began to take shape, people sent pieces of red fabric to Irene for inclusion. The contributions came from Northern Ireland, Japan, the USA and England. Each piece of red fabric represents one of the more than 3000 people who died as a result of the conflict between 1969 and 1994. The white birds in some of the pieces represented to Irene the dove of peace; the teddy bear in another fabric reminds us of the many children who suffered from the loss of loved ones.'
I am reminded of the 3000 and the ripples that will extend beyond them for who knows how long.
The exhibition can be viewed online here:
My last blog entry was on 20th January and involved teasing hues from various food items to dye my old fashioned table linen. My biggest angst at the time was whether to add bicarbonate of soda or lemon to alter the pH pf my dye pot. Little did I know at that rosy and innocent time that the whole world would be, in politicians own words, ‘at war’ within a matter of weeks.
It seems that we’re no longer enjoying the apparent safety of the planet, cocooned in Mother Nature’s bountiful and generally harmonious arms. We all knew about the distant tragedies she could invoke – from Ebola to famine and tsunamis – but we didn’t think it would ever sit so quietly on our own doorstep. In the western world we soothed ourselves with the thought that we had made such collective advancements that we could bat back anything nature dared to throw our way. We were smug in our unshakeable certainty that we were in control.
Did we ever have safety anyway, or were we just labouring under the illusion of control that was never really ours?
Don Miguel Ruiz writes in the book ‘The Voice of Knowledge’:
‘You know, most people around the world believe that there is a great conflict in the universe, a conflict between good and evil. Well, this is not true. It’s true that there is a conflict, but the conflict only exists in the human mind, not in the universe. It’s not true for the plants or the animals. It’s not true for the stars or the trees, or for the rest of nature. It’s only true for humans.’
A part of me balks at the simplicity of this statement, but upon further rumination I believe it’s mainly about acceptance. Only humans find it difficult to accept the universe on its own terms and try so hard to control life itself in an attempt to morph and sculpt into something we find more palatable. The truth is, we never had any control over life – as my Nana would have said ‘you never know when you’ll be hit by a bus’. In some ways, we are no less safe than we have ever been, it’s just that the illusion of control has slipped and we have seen the somewhat gut wrenching truth that lies behind our shakily constructed facades – we do not control what happens to us.
One thing I do know for sure; non acceptance creates great inner conflict.
I faced my own personal conflict as the coronavirus situation started to gather a worrying pace; I had a trip booked to Northern Ireland to visit my father who currently faces his own daily battles with cancer. I found myself dealing with a stark dilemma: should I visit him anyway, risk picking the virus up on the plane and passing it on to him? Or should I exercise caution but possibly miss seeing him for the last time as is his life is taken by cancer? It was a quandary that I selfishly let him make the call on – he firmly wanted me to come.
Whilst back amongst the warm treacle accents I managed to visit Armagh for an exhibition of Troubles Art – on the very same day that the First Minister and Taoiseach were meeting in the town to discuss their respective approaches to the coronavirus crisis. An external and much greater danger had brought unity in their viewpoints for the time being at least. The artwork I viewed on that rainy morning was heavy and poignant – featuring, amongst others, imagery of Belfast residents riding black taxis at another time that public transport had been deemed unsafe.
I’m back in England now and I did not transmit coronavirus to my Dad. My own battle armour has cracked open and I realise that underneath all the tough, capable, white knuckled, timetabled activity that has been my ‘normal’ life, there is a soft, emotional creature yearning to be guided by the sometimes terrifying intelligence of the cosmos. I am simultaneously in grief and yet utterly relieved that I’m off the treadmill and that something that was striving so hard has broken into pieces. What a strange and discombobulating mixture.
Rather than taking me away from my work on conflict, this crisis has only drawn me deeper in, as I realise that a departure from inner harmony can be as painful as an external war. I see connections springing up everywhere where before there were none; we now have a WhatsApp group connecting everyone living on our street with talks of street parties once this is all over. Did we need this conflict to draw us closer together? Or is that just a naïve wishful thinking? I hope not.
Vaclav Havel wrote:
‘Either we have hope within us or we don’t; it is a dimension of the soul; it’s not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the world or estimate of the situation. Hope is not prognostication. It is an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons. Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but, rather, an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed.’
I’m a self-confessed addict of vintage table linen. A delicately edged napkin; a faded hand embroidered tablecloth; stained, yellowed doilies. They have a wistful, yearning quality to me, with their fabric patina acquired from years of domestic and everyday use. They conjure up memories of childhood spent in Northern Ireland with vivid ease.
I’m constantly on the lookout for discarded treasures in charity shops, jumble sales and thrift stores everywhere I travel, so I was delighted to stumble across a little old lady selling a basket full of used napery at the Ould Lammas Fair in Ballycastle, the oldest fair in Ireland dating back to the 17th century. The atmosphere was replete with tradition provided by horse trading, country music and Irish dancing.
Goodness knows where she had acquired it all from, but it was freshly laundered and packaged into resealable plastic food bags and going for a song. I near enough purchased the lot, and dragged my bounty back to England with me for dyeing, sewing and chopping up into exciting fabric collages.
I adore the colours coaxed from nature; simmering cloth and paper with turmeric, onion skins, avocado and rusty items gives the substrates the most beautiful hues and marks. I’m constantly delighted by the element of surprise as I open bundles of fabric and paper wrapped up with leaves and oxidised nails and washers; the effects are almost always slightly unique no matter how much I replicate the conditions.
Once I have a bundle of fabrics and papers I am ready to start sticking and stitching them into a visual story that I hope pleases someone’s eye as much as mine, with the theme of conflict as my most used narrative. The dusty colours achieved from nature’s dyes complement the sombre mood of my work in a way that no manufactured paint could.
The colours of the earth are delicious, deep and dusky; they have a poignancy and subtle nuance that stirs my memories and reminds me that life is a complicated mixture of bittersweet experience.
In February 2019 I made my way up to London on a bitterly cold but bright day to visit The Gallery of Everything; a pilgrimage to this tiny temple of Outsider Art – a genre of art that I adore for its raw expression and unbridled courage. The exhibition featured the work of Belarusian artist Olga Frantkevick, starkly beautiful textiles about her experience of growing up in conflict.
The gallery writes of her:
‘Born in the former USSR in 1937, Olga Frantskevich was a child of war, living under German occupation until the age of seven. Taught by her grandmother to sew, and lacking in paper to draw, she began to embroider on sackcloth she found at the farm where she worked to support her family and younger siblings. In her eightieth decade, Frantskevich turned again to her family’s legacy of embroidery to capture her memories and the history of the war, exhibiting her works to the public for the first time on 2007. Frantskevich’s hand-woven tapestries tell, in brightly coloured and dreamlike tableaus, the story of the war. Personal stories, of her family, of her father, the partisan hero Kuprin Serger Gavrilovich, of a daily life of suffering punctuated by mundane chores and dreams of a better life. But they also capture, and preserve for future generations, the collective experience of the war.’
Fortuitously and unbeknown to me, I would make a connection at the exhibition that would deepen by understanding of stitching and conflict over the coming months. Roberta Bacic, a Chilean curator, human rights activist and Founder of Conflict Textiles who is currently living on Northern Ireland’s rugged Atlantic coastline, was present to give a talk about her collection of arpilleras. These evocative pieces are brightly coloured patchwork textile pictures made predominantly by groups of women, also known as arpilleristas. The construction of arpilleras became popular in Chile during the military dictatorship (1973–90) of Augusto Pinochet. With each piece containing a strong narrative thread, the women used them to tell the stories of the ‘disappeared’ – loved ones who had been taken by Pinochet’s cruel regime. Bacic has brought the arpillera tradition to Northern Ireland and other countries that have suffered conflict; holding exhibitions and workshops that invite local people to make their own stitched stories of war.
I was hugely excited to learn that Roberta lives just 10 miles or so from the town in which I was born, and I immediately contacted her to ask if she would meet with me during my summer visit. So kind and accommodating, she immediately invited me to her home for conversation and viewing of some of her collection. I was moved to tears by some of the imagery. Seventy years young, Roberta is filled with a vitality and passion about her field and travels the world, dedicated to furthering her work. I asked her why she had so readily agreed to see me and she simply replied, 'When someone shows such interest I feel it is a duty to respond.'
I am delighted to be returning to Limavady, Northern Ireland to see Roberta in action for her exhibition 'Embracing Human Rights: Conflict Textiles' Journey' at Roe Valley Arts and Cultural Centre in March 2020 where I will have the honour of working alongside arpilleriastas from Spain, with the chance to learn more about the rich history of stitch in conflict.
Meantime the experience of meeting Roberta and benefitting from her wealth of knowledge leaves me astounded by the ability of the human spirit to express itself in any way possible through the most astounding of atrocities. It is deeply encouraging to witness how art can have such a profound and healing influence in these troubled times.
Roberta has a small selection of her collection on display at Ulster Museum, and you can find out more about her work: