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:
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:
Let me be clear here; I didn’t know the Troubles the way some did. I didn’t lose a loved one, a limb, a life. But there is no war that affects only a few. Scars ravage deeply, tearing at the psyche of a nation. No-one looks out their window at their red, white and blue painted street, UVF flags fluttering innocuously on the breeze and thinks, ‘I’m safe.’
This most recent trip, I went back to have a careful, lingering look at the council estate I lived in until I was almost 7 years old. I remember it so clearly; playing with other children in the mainly car free streets that snaked round the houses, their kerbs painstakingly marked in the colours of the British flag. I hadn’t a clue what it meant. I didn’t understand the complexities that marked our estate as the property of the local UVF paramilitaries. But I can remember with a clear metallic taste in my mouth how heavy the air weighed around all of us, my family very much included. A patchwork of wispy recollections are knitted together in my mind; the sweet sound of John Denver’s country melodies, the vibrations through my chest of the Lambeg drum, the adults dancing and swaying drunkenly past me as I played with my dolls at their feet. The clinking of glasses as they poured more Vat 19, the tribal beats of the drums louder until I thought I would burst, great gusty lungs belting out old classic songs that harked back to a different and simpler time.
I remember the walk home from school, the short bike ride to the corner shops, the area of green where I planted some apple seeds, our patch of garden where my mother dug up potatoes, the holly tree at the front of the house, making mud pies with cow parsley sprinkled on top. A house burned out because there were informers living there.
We just didn’t know anything different. That was life, and I thought the whole world existed with that dense, dark atmosphere.
I was able to visit Northern Ireland this summer for some further probing into The Troubles, pondering how the conflict has shaped me alongside the stark, brooding landscape and slate grey roaring skies. One powerful morning I spent on the beach as my children sledged the sand dunes and I felt the elements full in my face; blustering, pummelling, crashing around me, with loud emotive wind borne cries - full of equal measures of hope and despair. It is a powerful place.
It's no wonder then that I've always been drawn to gritty, difficult places; coping with the births of my children by travelling to Afghanistan to make a documentary about the lives of women living there; thriving amongst the detritus of war and corruption. Living and working in Doha, Qatar, I eschewed the glitzy sanitised shopping malls for the smells and grime of a place I fondly nicknamed 'Little India'; where the many thousands of Indian workers would gather together to set up street corner restaurants, mend shoes and vend elaborate fabrics.
It's been 26 years since I've lived permanently in Northern Ireland and that's given me enough distance to return and investigate the environment with some objectivity. The trouble with residing in a place is that you can normalise the unacceptable - you no longer see what an outsider would see. The inherently threatening, intimidating imagery that surrounds during years of conflict can become invisible to weary eyes. During my visit I wanted to gain an understanding of what we all looked at as we walked the streets; going to school, the shops, church. The landscape on top of the landscape.
I hired a black taxi driver to take me the length of the famous 5 kilometre long Peace Wall in Belfast; separating staunch Protestant and Catholic areas, providing an uneasy peace in the form of an edifice towering higher than the Berlin Wall and covered with the markings of locals and tourists. What does this wall say? Protection? Defence?
For me, of course, it says fear. A haunting quote from a local child is printed on one section, 'We all love the 11th Night.....I like to carry the banner and the flag.' Another generation growing up to love the oppressive presence of hundreds of flags fluttering lightly on the breeze.