‘A long-term devotion to complexities’: women, art and activism
by Allan LEONARD
3 June 2023
As part of the Belfast Photo Festival and hosted by the Ulster Museum, several panels of women spoke about how the realms of artistic practice and activism have evolved over recent decades, with consideration of future change. National Museums NI curator, Anna Liesching, explained to the audience of several dozen that the motivation for the day-long symposium was the current exhibition of work by Hanna Starkey, a collection of 21 two-metre portraits of peace women.
The first panel theme was “change makers”, which explored academic research about activism. Claire Pierson (University of Liverpool) began with an argument that women’s exclusion in politics is not as overt as that experienced by members of the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition during the multi-party talks, but remains so in three ways: (1) women are treated as “space invaders”, with their authority questioned, particularly in matters of security and peace; (2) women become complicit in giving legitimacy to pre-set outcomes in policy consultation exercises; and (3) activism requires developing policy beyond formal equality to “transformative equality”.
Jamie Hagen (Queen’s University Belfast) reviewed public protests that sought to subvert “state narratives”. This includes a role for museums and visual politics, highlighting the important question of what stories are told and how are they told. Hagen also pointed out that rights are not singular — “Dykes for Abortion” reflects solidarity in campaigning for human rights.
Emma Campbell (Ulster University) spoke about her dual roles as an abortion rights activist and artist. She gave a fascinating account of how suffragettes were monitored by photographs taken of them as they left prison. Campbell applied this to a Victorian-style taxonomy to create “Passport Butterflies” — profile images of campaigners then adapted to avatars to be shared on social media: “Don’t underestimate the power of visual sharing.”
An audience member suggested that the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition should be re-formed, because of the continuing misogyny in the political system. However, Campbell counter-argued that women’s issues shouldn’t be pushed into a singular party. Likewise, Pierson gave an example of how the LGBT community doesn’t want “an 11th UN resolution” for their specific issue, because they already see themselves as part of gender politics: “Feminists are not just women.” Both underlined the intersectionality of political work done outside the confines of government forums.
The second panel discussion explored the future of activism and the importance of “allyship” and working across differences. Danielle Roberts (senior policy and development officer, Here NI) spoke about her feminist activism in several campaigns and movements, including Reclaim the Agenda.
Elfie Seymore (founding member, Anaka Women’s Collective) discussed the “Kind Economy” campaign, with migrants and refugees sharing skills amongst themselves, in light of the fact of regulations preventing them from taking up employment.
Emma Jane Dorian demonstrated the intersectionality of human rights under discussion, by explaining that the work she does at the Rape Crisis Centre is available to anyone impacted by sexual trauma, regardless of their sexual orientation. In this way, she described her organisation’s work as a movement as well, and in response to the present absence of devolved government in Northern Ireland: “It’s important to keep doing work on the ground because that’s what people at the top need to see.”
Sipho Sibanda (deputy chair, BME Women’s Network) reflected on her recent unsuccessful effort to get elected to Belfast City Council — “my shortest-lived political career” — yet pointed out how public policy continues to affect migrants more acutely, such as migrant parents without extended family to help with childcare. She said that she hated the term “asylum seekers” rather than “people seeking asylum” — “These are people who need help!” — and that racism in Northern Ireland is real: “We need to have challenging conversations in our living rooms, calling out family banter.”
Roberts asked the panellists a set of questions on challenges, wins/successes, and further actions to take. The absence of a Northern Ireland Executive was cited as important — Sibanda argued that implementation of legislation for Northern Ireland through House of Commons orders is not sufficient, and Dorian replied that “our activism is only going so far without an assembly”. The role of the media was also discussed — Roberts said that the media narrative will focus on a community and voluntary sector that is divided “when we’re not”, and Sibanda echoed this: “We need to keep working together.”
During the lunch break, a selection of artistic work by members of the Anaka Collective was displayed in the room, reflecting perspectives spanning cultures, locations, subjects, mediums, and issues.
Ailbhe Greaney hosted the third panel discussion, which was a conversation about the potential power of beauty in photography as a form of activism.
Sarah Allen (head of programme, South London Gallery) spoke about a forthcoming exhibition on the theme of activism and feminism. She gave the work of Zanele Muholi as an example, who depicts the effect of hate crimes against black people, but also the joy and intimacy in queer couples.
Isolde Brielmaier (deputy director, New Museum) spoke about the ultimate showing of Tyler Mitchell’s work — I Can Make You Feel Good — at the International Center for Photography in New York (where she was guest curator). The exhibition displayed a potential “black utopia”, with images of black joy and pleasure beyond contemporary broadcast images of “striving, struggling, fighting, defending”, as Brielmaier put it.
The panel conversation focused on change and leadership, particularly within cultural institutions. Brielmaier talked about the conversations that take place behind the scenes, saying that it was important to call out institutions for their work, and that collaboration with artists was crucial. Allen added to this, with her story of working with local communities in a substantial way: “It is not an easy task and you need to embrace failure and make a long-term devotion to the complexities.” Brielmaier responded that museums should be spaces for community building.
The final session was held in the museum room exhibiting the work of Hannah Sharkey, Principled and Revolutionary: Northern Ireland’s Peace Women. Eva Grosman (chief executive officer, Centre for Democracy and Peace Building) hosted a conversation with renowned peace activist Ann Patterson and campaigner Helen Crickard, both of whom whose portraits were on display.
Ann Patterson recalled the origins of the Peace People protest movement in 1976 against ongoing violence. Mairead Corrigan had called a gathering at Ormeau Park, where many across the community attended; afterwards, there were protest rallies in individual neighbourhoods, culminating in a large rally at Trafalgar Square, London. Patterson said that the killing of children during the Troubles changed the attitudes of women on both sides of the community, where they began to ask themselves after news of a child’s death, “What will that mother do now?”
Helen Crickard told her story of her involvement with the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition, emphasising the collection of women across all classes and backgrounds, in contrast to women in traditional parties: “In the end, Brid Rodgers would toe the [SDLP] party line.” Upon reflection, Crickard said that rather than serve as a buffer for others at the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Women’s Coalition “should have taken power itself” to realise its own vision. She was also critical of the media’s narrative of the end of the Women’s Coalition, “as if party politics was the sole reason of our existence”. Post-party politics, Crickard co-founded the Reclaim the Agenda campaign — a coalition of feminist, youth, LGBTQ+, and community organisations, as well as organising events for International Women’s Day.
Grosman posed some questions to both, starting with how they felt about the situation within communities 25 years after the achievement of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. Crickard felt that women and working-class people have been left behind; Patterson argued that after the great work to achieve a “yes” vote in the 1998 referendum, “People should have worked together afterwards, instead of their own agendas.”
There are over 30,000 annual incidents of domestic violence in Northern Ireland, Grosman claimed; she asked how do we make this a bigger issue on the policy agenda. This reminded Patterson of the work she did whilst with the Quakers, working with prisoners, who she said brought violence home with them post-release; she argued that women’s centres should have been kept open. Crickard said that the Troubles normalised violence against women, whether perpetrated by paramilitaries or security forces; her response was to endorse the Raise Your Voice Against Sexual Harassment campaign.
Grosman remarked on the vibrancy of Starkey’s imagery and content in the room, and asked Patterson and Crickard what inspired them. Patterson replied that she has always been involved with grassroots issues and people, and has found that politicians adapt their rhetoric to the work of activists: “The issues are the same all over the world. Women want to learn what next steps to take. They do amazing work.” Crickard spoke about the decriminalisation of abortion in Ireland and the campaign behind this, while noting that women’s rights will always be under attack.
A member of the audience asked how the two felt about the lack of any collective memorial to the victims of the Troubles. Patterson answered that she didn’t want to see any more memorials: “We have enough memorials!” Crickard said that memorials have become so contentious: “But I want to see justice.” To heal from trauma, Patterson suggested a goal of normalising truth, where the outcome is not “who did it” but to ensure “that it will never happen again”. Crickard thought that the Communities in Transition programme is not working in any truth-seeking exercise amongst paramilitaries: “There needs to be more work with men, to get them to come to the truth.”
Patterson said that the exhibition should be dedicated to the women in north and west Belfast who worked for so long to keep the peace:
“We used to stop the kids from being beaten up at night when the soldiers would come back in and beat the hell out of them after stone-throwing… The next morning the women would be clearing up the rubbish, getting bread, making lunches, and getting kids ready [for school]. The women had been up all night because the helicopter had not stopped the whole night… They really were the peacekeepers.”