Above: Banners by Jer O Leary, Hannah Ford and Siobh McGrane and an apron by Rachel Fallon
Social Fabric was an exhibition in Liberty Hall as part of MayFest. It celebrated the use of banners and fabric in protests, revolution and the labour movement. Caitríona Devery spoke to curator Kathryn Maguire about fabric as a tool of activism both historical and contemporary.
What kinds of banners and materials are in the exhibition?
It includes banners from the nineteenth century alongside contemporary ones like trade union banners from the 1970’s and ’80’s. The banners represent key moments of change in history, from the evolution of the Women’s Workers Union in 1911 to recent responses to Brexit. They portray changing issues throughout Ireland and the UK including our present moments of Repeal the Eighth and wars in regions such as Palestine. This exhibition collects for the first time in one location Irish and UK banners in order to chart the rise and the role of banners and fabric works in Civic Society today.
Who are the artists and banner-makers?
There are some pieces made by Ed Hall the UK based master banner maker as well as some by Jer O’Leary the Irish banner maker. Ed Hall is known for his significant collaborations with artist Jeremy Deller including the Venice Biennale. Jer O’Leary went to NCAD, he was a contemporary of Robert Ballagh who was then making political work in the public realm. He was friends with Jim Sheridan. With the civil rights movement, 1968 onwards, the Troubles as well, Jer would have been involved in those movements. From that he started to become a part of the socialist and labour movements.
The exhibition also includes fabric related works by Jim Fitzpatrick, Robert Ballagh, Hannah Ford, Siobh McGrane, and the historic Green Flag of Ireland made by shirt maker Mary Shannon who worked in the Liberty Hall Clothing Co-Operative. And we have photographs of banners from the recent Artists Campaign to Repeal the Eighth that are being displayed at EVA in Limerick at the moment.
What about some of the more recent pieces?
Hannah Ford made her pieces about Brexit in 2017 including the Freaks and Geeks one and some featuring Nigel Farage. She just couldn’t articulate what was happening in the UK. She felt that the stabbing of the fabric with pins was an emotional release. Siobh McGrane’s banners were made for the marriage equality referendum and feature her own creation, the character called Kevin K. BooM. There are also the apron pieces which were made by artist Rachel Fallon and a local women’s initiative she worked with, on the theme of female empowerment.
They all have strong messages to do with protest and social justice, tell me about that.
Yes in both Ireland and UK there is a strong history of using banners like this. Like the Ed Hall piece for the supporters of Sarah Thomas who died in police custody. It’s a civic version of the trade union banners. Ed was an architect then worked in council offices and for the last 30 years made Trade Union campaign and exhibition banners.
Recently he made a banner for the Firemen’s Union for those who went into Grenfell tower. Grenfell Tower is still an incredibly raw, inhuman situation. He made this very beautiful banner for the firemen but unfortunately I couldn’t get it for the exhibition. In the basement floor we paired Hall’s banners with Ger O’Leary who’s been making Trade Union banners since the 70s. He’s also been making banners to question civil rights issues since the late 60s. Banners are a way to tell a story.
Tell us about your own background and interest in fabrics and banners
I’m a sculptor and I also did an MA in art in the contemporary world. I’m interested in working in the public realm, I have a socially engaged practice. Most relevant to this exhibition I did a project called We Claim in 2016 – 2017. We worked with young migrant women and looked at how they felt about the 1916 commemoration, the centenary, did they feel represented?
We made a banner with 2 of the women and we represented an Alice Milligan tableau vivant image of Queen Maeve and her daughter, a call to arms, to rise up. We used the title We Claim to keep it open. We claim being citizens of Ireland. We made a beautiful book, modeled on Cumann na mBan papers.
This is the onus of my practice now – taking something historical and reinterpreting it in a contemporary way. I was interest in this exhibition in why is the banner celebrated, and why is it resurfacing? Not just in protest but also in galleries. There have been some beautiful exhibitions lately; Grayson Perry, Jeremy Deller that use the materiality of the banner.
As a sculptor I’m interested in the materiality. You can see each stitch, each shape or object all becoming a wider landscape or conversation. There’s that conversation of the context and then the actual issue. There’s a relationship there. Banner making is a very easy way to tell a story. There’s something human about it.
What is so special about the power of the banner to communicate?
Take Ed Hall, he works with loads of people 60 to 100 sometimes, and every voice is heard in the end object, that’s really powerful. And it’s taking something out of the gallery or museum, often walking them on the street. Our We Claim banner ended up on the Abbey building on Eden Quay. It’s a public performance, a statement, but it’s not aggressive – the power is in the object. Also a banner can take 4 to 12 people to carry – you need to arrange shifts, how to carry it, it can be uncomfortable. It does something to your body – you need to be upright. The physicality is interesting.
What was it like to curate this exhibition, what were the challenges? It was really interesting trying to find out where these incredible historic objects were, through the Irish Labour museum, having chats with Ed Penrose and trying to find out where banners were. Many end up in attics and garages. Just getting hold of them was difficult.I believe there’s more banners that were going to go to Votáil 100 in the Oireachtas in the next month. And obviously the Artist Campaign to Repeal the 8th banners which are down in EVA in Limerick, we couldn’t get.
There seems to be a strong dialogue both aesthetically and politically with the UK?
Yes. It was initially unexpected. It was an extra layer. You can make sense of it in terms of the labour movement, and its traditions. I suppose I started with what was already here – Jer O’Leary’s banners are here in Liberty Hall. I wanted to create a conversation with Trade Union banner making in Ireland and the UK, looks at the shared aesthetic and labour concerns but also broaden that out to include other use of fabric and banners for protest and political statements. We have our own history that should be unearthed, conserved and celebrated. I feel like there’s a lot more to be discovered.
Do you think these pieces of history and of art deserve a bigger audience?
Well when you look at the amazing piece from the Women’s Workers’ Union which dates back to 1911, featuring an image of St Brigid, who was a renegade saint in a way with a strong pagan connection. In a sense it proves the enduring power and potentiality of banners.
I want to unearth more of these hidden treasures. Brian Treacy and I feel that the longer-term vision or question is why isn’t there a museum or space to dedicated to the conservation and celebration of banners through the ages. There is enough cultural ephemera to be located in a public place. We could look to something like the People’s History Museum in Manchester which fulfils such a role in the UK.
You can take a look at the curators website here.