Tuesday 15 October 2019

Women of Ireland

An exhibition by local artist Lisa Butterly and photographer Lisa McCormack celebrates the lives of Irish women, writes Margaret Roddy

Colletta Dalikeni (Dundalk, DKIT)
Colletta Dalikeni (Dundalk, DKIT)
Old school friends from Dundalk.

The exhibition Women of Ireland - Stories We Share which was created by Louth visual artist Lisa Butterly and photographer Lisa McCormack opens on Friday in UCD to mark International Women's Day.

The exhibition is the brainchild of Lisa Butterly who holds a BA and PhD in History from MU and an MA in Art History from UCD. She is a self-taught artist who has taken part in group exhibitions and staged her first solo exhibition in 2016 in The Copper House Gallery, Dublin.

Her artwork was featured in the first RTE documentary exploring Irish outsider art in October 2015. The same year, she reached a wide audience as a result of her artwork through the Late Late Show with Ryan Tubridy.

'The idea for the exhibition came to me about five years ago,' she explains. 'I wanted to do a celebration of the women of Ireland for the Decade of Centenaries and make a permanent collection grounded in history and art history.'

'I approached Blackrock photographer Lisa McCormack as she had the skills needed to make the portraits.'

McCormack, who graduated in photography from DIT is a successful and award-winning wedding and portrait photographer. She willingly agreed to get involved in the project which tells the visual story of 50 sitters, from schoolgirls to Ireland's first lady, Sabrina Higgins.

The idea, Butterly explains, is for the portraits to represent the history of women in Ireland since 1916, presented in a purely visual language.

Each portrait tells depicts personal stories and shared national histories, with Butterly creating the sets and props which help the viewer to decipher the stories depicted.

Consequently, each portrait is a chapter, every sitter is an actor and the stories they tell are the ones that we share.

Butterly says she was anxious to represent women from all walks of life. 'They're your mother, my mother, your sister, my niece,' she explains.

Some of the sitters are well known like Sabrina Higgins and MEP Mariead McGuinness, others have earned recognition in their chosen field, while many are what Butterly calls everyday women who will never make the headlines but make a great contribution to society by influencing their families and communities for the better.

'There are portraits of 50 women from all over Ireland,' she says. Some sitters jumped at the opportunity to get involved in the project, while others who were asked demurred.

'Not everyone wants to be in a public exhibition,' she concedes.

While the portraits tell their stories with the help of props included in the sets, Butterly says that the viewer must take time to study the images and read their message.

'Each portrait is a chapter which makes up the story of women in Ireland,' she says. 'There's no text as I'm trying to pull people back into being able to read an image.'

Her background in art history means that the composition of the portraits is inspired by well-known works of art.

The picture of her mother Vera, a former teacher from St Malachy's NS, and her friends, for instance, is based on Raphael's 'The School of Athens' featuring a group of philosophers in mid discussion.

'They are all there, Socrates, Aristotle and Plato but in the form of women.'

Other portraits feature singing teachers Geraldine McGee from Dundalk with Dr Veronica Dunne who travelled by train from Dublin for the sitting for their portrait which captures the two friends at each in each other's company.

Caroline Macken sits among books with her daughter Olivia who has Downs Syndrome as Butterly says she wanted them to take their place in collection along with other women of Ireland.

Dr. Colletta Dalikeni, co-leader of DkIT's WELCOME College of Sanctuary Project, is pictured with books while wearing a dress featuring striking ethnic patterns, while Butterly's niece Naoimh Butterly appears in a portrait reminiscent of Roisin Dubh or Cathleen Ni Houlihan, figures who often featured in the art of the Celtic Revival of early 20th century Ireland.

Butterly says that in devising the project, she wanted to create a legacy, not just for herself but also for the women who are portrayed in the collection.

The portraits provide a visionary and respectful view of Irish women in the 21st century with the imagery contains personal moments, untold secrets, public and private stories. These stories include voting rights, politics, religion, disability and access to the workforce in the broader context of women's relationship to the Irish State. Similarly, themes such as emigration, immigration and asylum-seeking are explored in several portraits. Notwithstanding these important national perspectives, the portraits also reveal the value of friendship, motherhood and family as well as exploring notions of home and belonging.

Each portrait acts as both a record of the lives of Irish women, and as an agent of change and encouragement for future generations across the world.

The exhibition opened in NUI Maynooth in January and was displayed in DkIT for two weeks before moving to UCD, where it will be opened on Friday to mark International Women's Day, and will be on display for the month of March. A selection of the portraits will travel to the Glucksman Gallery, Cork in April to form part of the Parted Veil Exhibition.

Butterly pays tribute to her collaborator Lisa McCormack for embracing the project and lending her talents as a photographer to bring her vision to life.

As she had to self-finance the project which received no state funding, Butterly is grateful to all those who supported it by providing furniture and materials for the set.

The pair are now working on a companion exhibition Men of Ireland, which in a similar vein, will portray Irish men from all walks of life.

The Argus