Visual Artist Helen Barry reflects on her time working with The National Neighbourhood: (Y)our Story.
What I would do if I was them, but I am not them, they are them and I am me.
Setting the perimeters of where and how far the exploration and inclination of my practice sits changes with each new collaborative work. If I am to create a platform or vessel with a group that offers them a voice, it is imperative that I first and foremost listen. I have learnt to watch myself so that my experience does not determine the artistic and aesthetic content. It becomes more challenging when we have shared or lived a similar experience, or something fuels or excites my own enquiry. I am at an advantage and yet disadvantaged. I hold a wealth of visual signs and symbols that gives me an aesthetic language that could if I let it, say it all for them; but I am not ‘them’.
One Voice was one of the women’s groups I worked with on the South Circular Road. Their lives emitted volumes of ‘concrete poetry’ fueled with so much emotion and experience that was intertwined with the dust, destruction and regeneration of their community. I had spent 10 years working within the regeneration of Ballymun, and witnessed a similar experience and emotion; a community with a comparable disposition and demographic also struggling with forming it’s new identity around the scars of its past. In both cases, individual participants need to feel that their contribution moulds what we will create together. It is vital to sit and listen.
I am loathe to use the phrase ‘socially engaged practice’ to describe my work either, because I don’t understand the term or don’t wish to, the latter perhaps the more accurate. I find the terminology cumbersome and alienating. The term ‘new genre public art’ offers equal ambiguity though it’s language invites those of an inquisitive nature to want to know more.
I am at a constant quandary to define what it is that I do, not only to others but also to myself. I frequently get bogged down with associations I hold of words rather than see the potential that words may actually offer. If I engage in a collaborative practice and the collaboration becomes the practice in itself, once the collaboration is over does the ‘piece’ or ‘practice’ no longer exist even if there has been an artistic outcome?
This time the ‘outcome’ – ‘The 99 Names Of Allah’ – is hanging in the Chester Beatty Library, one of the most prestigious galleries in the world.
Yet what becomes of my relationship – in this case with the Amal Women’s Association of the Dublin Mosque – now?
I wonder do other artists grapple with what happens with the friendship that has formed, the challenges faced and the conversations and laughter shared when a project of this kind is complete?0