In July 2018 Aine Phillips undertook a residency at LADA as part of Future States a Live Art project looking at the relationship between Ireland and the UK, especially in the context of a post-Brexit future. This is the fourth of a series of blogs charting the project's development.
As part of her residency Aine also organised an evening of presentations and discussions, Border Patrollers, with the artists Nigel Rolfe, John Byrne and Helena Walsh. Read Aine’s blog about the event.
Read Helena Walsh’ Border Patrollers presentation:
In this presentation I outline my explorations of the relations between gender, national identity and cultural histories within a post-colonial Irish context in my live art practice. The works I discuss examine issues of gender, labour and migration. My performances are informed by the shifting relations between the UK and Ireland historically. Of course – in the wake of the Brexit referendum – these relations are undergoing another transformation, within which the Northern Irish border looms large. I pose Live Art as a site in which we can build solidarities, dialogues and empathy within diverse communities and across borders. I suggest that in retrieving histories of migration and resistance Live Art can contribute to challenging the rise of insular forms of nationalism and far right ideologies within our current climate. Notably, my practice has been greatly enriched by my diasporic vantage point and before I speak about the work I wish to situate the importance of diasporic perspectives in resisting the imposition of divisions, borders and walls between communities.
As a member of the London-Irish Diaspora, I have roots in both Britain and Ireland. I have one foot in Ireland and one foot in Britain so to speak. I left Ireland and moved to London in 2003 and for the past ten years I have lived in London’s East End, just around the corner from the Live Art Development Agency. It is here that I have raised my daughter with my partner, who is of Jewish heritage. Sadly, in the wake of Brexit I have witnessed the effects of the return of insular notions of nationalism and the rise of far-right fascism within my local community. I experienced this on the day when the results of the Brexit referendum were declared as I stood chatting with a mum of Jewish background in the primary schoolyard. A white British father, on exclaiming his delight with the outcome of the referendum, informed me that I ‘could now fuck back to Ireland’, whereas my companion was told to move to Scotland and Hadrian’s wall would be rebuilt to keep her there. I couldn’t help but feel that his delight was tinged with a sense of newfound masculine authority he thought he had somehow retrieved through the referendum result. Indeed, one need only look at Trump’s attempts to roll back reproductive rights in America to see that those obsessed with controlling national borders, are often equally preoccupied with the control of the female body and policing of female sexuality. Not long after Trump’s so-called ‘Muslim ban’ on a Sunday morning trip to the shop for milk I turned the corner of the housing estate where I live behind my Muslim neighbour. She jumped. ‘Sorry I didn’t mean to frighten you’ I said. She told me she is fearful all the time in public following the Brexit referendum and Trump’s election.
The scapegoating of immigrants by the leave campaign during the Brexit referendum led to both the escalation of and legitimizing of racism, xenophobia and misogyny and, as I have outlined, this has very tangible negative effects on people’s everyday lives. In the face of such it is worth recalling how the rich histories of immigration within London’s East End have positively contributed to British society. For instance, the successful 1888 strike led by working-class Irish women at the Bryant and May Match Factory in Bow, Louise Raw details, not only inspired the 1889 dock-workers strike but also the development of the labour movement in Britain. Equally, there are histories of resistance and solidarity, such as the battle of Cable street in 1936 when the Jewish and Irish communities banded together to prevent Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists, from marching through London’s East end – demonstrating how the building of solidarity can resist the attempts to create divisions within diverse communities. There are also quieter everyday moments of solidarity such as the story that a Bengali shopkeeper on Brick Lane told me while I was purchasing the Irish Times newspaper one day. He told me that during the Northern Irish Troubles Irish people in London would often buy Irish papers in Bengali shops because they would not be abused for being Irish.
The exploration of histories of migration within performance, I suggest, offer ways of developing solidarity, dialogue and empathy and challenging nationalist ideologies that police identity. In 2011, I was invited to make a performance at the National Famine Museum of Ireland, which is housed in the stables of Strokestown Park House, a former colonial estate in Co. Roscommon. The Palladian-style mansion was built by Thomas Mahon MP (1701-1782) on lands given to his grandfather, Nicholas, in the 17th century for his support of the British colonial campaign. My performance, Containing Crisis, was durational, taking place over two days in the servant’s kitchen of the ‘big house’. With my excessive cooking and spoiling of potatoes (through the addition of a mixture of milk, menstrual blood, soil and Holy Communion wafers) I explored the relationship between shortage and surplus evoked by the ‘big house’ and its controversial role during the Great Irish Famine (1845-51). The sense of excessiveness and abjectness within my actions responded to the enormity of the crisis provoked by the Great Irish Famine, which resulted in mass emigration from Ireland and the death of one million people from starvation and disease. A soundtrack that played in the performance referenced the emigration of the staving Irish peasants to North America on the notorious ‘Famine ships,’ administrated from Strokestown Park House. These journeys often proved fatal, as already malnourished emigrants were packed into small cramped cabins and disease was rife. The soundtrack collaged the sounds of the sea, creaking ships and sea bells. These sounds were interrupted, at times, with the crackling of radio waves interspersed with distorted male and female voices saying the word ‘contagion’, referencing the disease-ridden famine ships and the discrimination experienced by emigrants on arrival in foreign contexts. However, it also bought into relief the contemporary terming of Ireland as ‘economic contagion’ to the Eurozone following the recent economic crisis in 2010, which resulted in its acceptance of European Union (EU) and International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailouts, alongside a resurgence of emigration. The performance was thus pointing to the repetition of patterns of mass emigration as a continual part of Irish history.
The themes of crisis and collapse were also used to consider the sense of triumph inherent in the nationalist commemoration of the Famine during the Celtic Tiger era. The 150th anniversary of the Famine coincided with Ireland’s economic growth during the 1990s and the commemorative events at this time greatly surpassed previous events. Relevant to this, the National Famine Museum opened in 1994. Ireland’s economic collapse, however, highlighted the failure of Irish state to provide for its citizens following its adoption of neo-liberal values. My adoption of the role of ‘Mother Ireland’ dressed in a tricolour-themed costume reminiscent of a 1950’s housewife, played with the representation of the Famine through the figure of female body within nationalist narratives. It also questioned the efforts to contain female sexuality in a post-colonial Irish context. Following the formation of the Irish Free State in 1922, and the partition of Ireland, the fledgling southern Irish state implemented a number of repressive laws that sought to restrict women to the duties of motherhood and the home. This is inscribed in Article 41.2 of the 1937 Irish constitution, which states; ‘In particular, the State recognises that by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved.’ My constant cooking activities in the performance appropriated and twisted the limiting of women to maternal, nurturing roles and to containing the crises of the homestead so as to critique the Irish state’s failure to regulate and manage the country’s finances.
Due to the spoiling of the potatoes during the performance the kitchen became infused with a rancid smell, reminiscent of death and decay. This stench upset the making of dark histories palatable within the heritage site.
In exploring histories of migration performance can perhaps operate against the distancing and dehumanizing within political discourses. Indeed, there are parallels between the desperation faced by the Irish in the past, who endured harrowing journeys aboard the so-called coffin ships, and the precarious journeys being made by contemporary refugees on unsafe and over-crowded boats. The enormity of the current refugee crisis in Europe mirrors that of past crisis such as the Irish Famine, and similar to the past, political responses to this current crisis are inadequate. For instance, one need only consider the dehumanizing language used by the former British Prime Minister David Cameron to describe people in the Calais camp as ‘a bunch of migrants’, alongside his concern with containing the crisis elsewhere and preventing it from breaching the UK’s borders. So too the members of Trump’s administration with Irish surnames preoccupied with building walls and caging the children of those fleeing desperate situations, would do well to remember the harrowing journeys made by their ancestors.
Another project I was involved with called, LABOUR, focused on issues of gender, labour and migration. LABOUR featured eleven female live artists who are resident within, or native to, Northern and Southern Ireland. It was co-curated by Amanda Coogan, Chrissie Cadman and myself and was produced by Benjamin Sebastian of ]performace s p a c e[. LABOUR comprised of three durational live exhibitions, which occurred in sites related to work. The first exhibition took place in ]performance s p a c e[, London, a disused plumbing factory located on an industrial estate in East London, an area synonymous with migrant labour. It then toured to Void Gallery, Derry/ Londonderry, a former shirt factory that predominantly employed women. The final exhibition took place in The Lab, Dublin, located in the heart of ‘The Monto, Dublin’s historic prostitution district and in close proximity to one of Ireland’s Magdalen Laundries.
In each durational exhibition the participating artists performed simultaneously for 8 consecutive hours. Within the exhibitions the artists began to respond to the histories of each site and this opened up collective dialogues about gendered discrimination across borders. From the curtailing of women’s working rights, the confinement of women in the home, and enslavement of women in the Magdalen Laundries to the women who worked in the shirt-factories that were the main breadwinners in their families and the struggles experienced by migrant labourers. The exploring of these pasts sparked a consideration of continued gender-based exploitation related to labour and, in turn, the countering of such.
A more recent performance of mine occurred at Future Histories in Kilmainham Gaol Dublin, an exhibition curated by Áine Phillips and Niamh Murphy as part of the Arts Council of Ireland 2016 programme to mark the centenary of the Rising against British rule. Titled Autonomy, it was a durational performance inspired by the female activists involved in the 1916 Rising whose traces are imprinted on Kilmainham Gaol. Referencing the diverse, innovative and, at times, covert roles of women during the Rising, the performance challenges the trivialising of their involvement following independence.
The performance also explores the tensions between nationalism and feminism. Many female revolutionary activists were committed feminists who believed that a free Ireland would enable the political enfranchisement of women. Indeed, many were active in the successful suffragette campaign to gain women’s right to vote, the centenary of which we celebrate this year. One of the key activists in the Rising, Constance Markievicz, campaigned for women’s suffrage and became Ireland’s first Minister for Labour. She was also the first woman to be elected to Westminster parliament 100 hundred years ago, notably, while imprisoned in Holloway prison for her political activities. Yet in line with Sinn Fein’s policy of abstention she never took her seat. It was announced recently that her portrait is to be hung in British Parliament. The influence of the women of 1916 is inscribed in the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, which declared ‘equal rights’ to all citizens. Yet, the promise of gender equality was betrayed by the post-colonial Irish state. In flicking gold-sprayed tampons, reminiscent of bullets, from a rubber lily, drawing on the symbolism of the Easter Lily used to commemorate the Rising, my performance undertook a contemporary re-imagining of the ways the women of 1916 transgressed patriarchal gender norms. In doing so, it rebelled against the continual attempts to contain female sexuality and the legislative restrictions on reproductive autonomy that were still in place at the time through the ban on abortion.
This brings me to the recent successful repeal of the 8th Amendment following the referendum on 25th of May this year in the Republic of Ireland, which will enable the Irish government to legislate access to abortion. The 1983 8th Amendment to the Constitution equated the life of the foetus or embryo with equal rights to the mother. I was involved in campaigning for the Repeal of the 8th as a member of the direct-action feminist performance group Speaking of IMELDA. This group was initiated in 2013 by Treasa O’Brien and myself, two Irish women living in London. To kick-start the group, in collaboration with Ann Rossiter, we established a public meeting in London to open up debate on abortion restrictions in Ireland. This meeting featured a presentation by Rossiter, author of Ireland’s Hidden Diaspora: The making of a London-Irish underground, 1980 -2000, on the past reproductive rights activism of the London-Irish Diaspora, in particular, The Irish Women’s Abortion Support Group. Between 1980 and 2000 this London-based group helped women traveling from Ireland to England to access abortion. Indeed, the near total ban on abortion in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland has for decades led to a daily succession of border crossings (these daily border crossings continue until the referendum result in the Republic of Ireland is legislated on and there is a change in the law in Northern Ireland, where the 1861 Offences Against the Persons Act remains in place, which carries a sentence of life imprisonment for those who have abortions illegally). There are equally those who are not permitted to travel due to their residency status, such as asylum seekers and refugees, alongside those who cannot afford to travel. The only option then is to breach border customs to import the abortion pill at risk of imprisonment. When picking women up at stations and airports members of Irish Women’s Abortion Support Group often wore a red skirt so as to be identifiable. Paying homage to this Speaking of IMELDA adopted the colour red within most of our public performance interventions. We also adopted the name Imelda – which was used as a code word for abortion by this Irish Women’s Abortion Support Group, so that those needing assistance calling could keep their plans secret. We turned IMELDA into the acronym; Ireland Making England the Legal Destination for Abortion.
The death of Savita Halappanavar, an Indian dentist resident in Ireland who died of septic shock while miscarrying a wanted pregnancy after her requests for an abortion were ignored in 2012 was a key catalyst in the recent campaign to Repeal the 8th. Speaking of IMELDA’s Knickers for Choice campaign was inspired by the Pink Chaddi protests in India that responded to the attack of young women in a bar in Mangalore in 2009. Women posted pink knickers on Valentines Day to the Sri Ram Sena, the right wing Hindu group that assaulted the young women. Drawing on the traditional association of the Irish female migrant labourer with cleaning work, Speaking of IMELDA used knickers to give the Irish embassy a good old wipe down and encouraged people to hang knickers with pro-choice slogans written on them in public. More recently, knickers with political slogans were used by the Women’s March London as part of the anti-Trump demonstration on 13th July 2018. This adoption of creative approaches across different contexts within feminist campaigns demonstrates how we can share strategies across borders. In 2014, we managed to ‘knicker bomb’ the former Irish Taoiseach or Prime Minister Enda Kenny when he attended a fundraising dinner for his political party in London. This intervention demonstrates the ways in which communities of the Diaspora can spark dialogue across borders and positively contribute to effecting change.
Footage of this intervention can be viewed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a654qvUJywY
2 Some of my discussion draws on the interview I undertook with Alessandra Cianetti in May 2016 as part of Performing Borders: Conversations on Live Art, Crossings, Europe
3 Louise Raw, Striking a Light: The Bryant and May Matchwomen and their Place in History (London and New York: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2009)
4 David Rosenberg, Rebel Footprints: A Guide to Uncovering London’s Radical History (London: Pluto Press, 2015).
5 Emily Mark FitzGerald, ‘Commemoration and the Performance of Irish Famine Memory,’ in Crossroads: Performance Studies and Irish Culture, ed. by Sara Brady and Fintan Walsh (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009) pp. 86-99.
6 Margaret Kelleher, The Feminization of Famine: Expressions of the Inexpressible? (Cork: Cork University Press, 1997).
8 Rowena Mason and Frances Perraudin ‘Cameron’s “bunch of migrants” jibe is callous and dehumanizing, say MPs,’ The Guardian, 27 January 2016
9 Lucy Ann Gray ‘First female MP Constance Markievicz to be honoured in Westminster, The Independent, 19 July 2018
10 Visit www.speakingofimelda.org for more information on the group.
11 Ann Rossiter, Ireland’s Hidden Diaspora: The “abortion trail” and the making of a London-Irish underground, 1980-2000 (London: Iasc Publishing, 2009)
12 Nisha Susan, ‘Why we said pants to India’s bigots,’ The Guardian, 15 February 2009
Banner image credit:Helena Walsh, In Pursuit of Pleasure, LABOUR (2012), Void Gallery Derry/ Londonderry (Photo Credit: Jordan Hutchings)
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