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:
It was 2013 when I visited Afghanistan; Finn and Paddy were 3 and 2 respectively. I still have the letters I wrote to them before I travelled – only to be opened in the event that I didn’t return. I’ve never been brave enough to read them since. Even as I write this, I can feel the emotion rising and swirling in my chest. Why I went, what I saw there. The fact that I bottled it all up in order to uncork and unpack another time when I felt more mature and more able.
I entered motherhood with my familiar baggage of crushingly low self-esteem. It settled on my back like a dull sickness when I was about 6 years old and never left my side. I don’t know how much of it came from our tempestuous family life troubled with alcoholism and violence, or the sullen atmosphere that enveloped our corner of the island steeped in conflict; most likely a tangled mess of both. All I know is that I rejected every aspect of my life in Ireland and in doing so cut off facets of myself.
The journey to Afghanistan started the process of reclamation. It was profoundly cathartic to meet women from all walks of life living, thriving and scraping by in a tumultuous mess of human misdeeds, conflict and tragedy. Of course I was drawn to that ravaged place by my own scarred upbringing – the flinching fascination with war. The one I will never forget is Nouria, a beautiful sad light shining out of her deep brown eyes, she had been raped by her father at a tender age and forced to bury the resulting stillborn baby in the back yard. Utterly sobering. A reminder that there are levels of suffering that make our own lives look like a picnic. In a selfish sort of self-obsessed panic I came back to the UK and thought about adopting her, but wiser folk reminded me that this would be an impossible task.
Flash forward to a few weeks ago, I was seated at an intimate talk in Hastings with Dr Hakim and Maya Evans, a local Labour MP who has visited Afghanistan approximately 15 times since 2010 and who was kind enough to take me on my life changing trip. Hakim is the irrepressible supporter of the Afghan Peace Volunteers; an organisation that he lives and works with that promotes peace across Afghanistan. He explained in touchingly simplicity how the planet is experiencing a relationship crisis; a breakdown in our understanding that all humanity is connected. When one suffers we all suffer. I was reminded of the thing I knew unshakeably before that dark ache settled on me at the age of 6 – that love is the most important emotion we can ever hope to feel.
You can read more about the Afghan Peace Volunteers here:
You can read more about Maya’s Voices for Creative Non Violence here:
You can watch the film I made in Afghanistan here (containing interview with Nouria and others):
You can read the blog I kept during the making of the film here: