In this week’s blog, artist Alison Lowry discusses her ‘(A)dressing our hidden truths’ exhibition, currently on display at the National Museum of Ireland:
In 2017, Dr Audrey Whitty was invited to open my solo show ‘(A)Dress’ at the Millennium Court Arts Centre in Portadown. In this exhibition I wished to examine issues that can be hard to talk about – issues that can effect our whole society, such as rape, domestic violence and childhood abuse.
Audrey was taken with what she saw and persuaded the National Museum of Ireland to bring the show to Collins Barracks in Dublin and alongside new work, this created the exhibition, ‘(A)Dressing our hidden truths’
After the official ‘go-ahead’ was granted, I had 6 months to create the new site-specific pieces. The new work would examine the legacy of the Magdalene Laundries in Ireland. Thankfully I had already started my research, as I had presented an installation piece about the Laundries at an art fair in the Saatchi Gallery in 2018.
Presenting the work in a museum context I felt obligated (but not by the National Museum of Ireland) to give a clear account of how the various institutions operated. Compared with presenting work in an art gallery, I felt that there was less room for ambiguity and interpretation. It was clear that I needed to have survivor testimony running throughout the exhibition, as this was not my story to tell. Testimony came from a mixture of pre-recorded oral testimonies (for example, those undertaken by Justice for Magdalene’s Research over the past number of years) and first-hand accounts given to me during interviews.
The exhibition tried to represent Ireland’s ‘history of containment’, so ,to this end, the walls were painted one dark, rather somber, colour. This also helped to draw the visitor’s attention to the spot lit artworks, survivor testimonies and soundscapes in each area. I am very proud of the many collaborative works in the show, as working with other artists can bring many unexpected outcomes and can always help you see things in a new light.
The Magdalene Laundries operated in Ireland from the eighteenth century to 1996. It is estimated that 30,000 Irish women went through the laundry system in that time.
Originally, their rationale was to rescue and rehabilitate ‘fallen’ women, but by the twentieth century their ‘inmates’ included a range of unfortunate women. These included young women who arrived from mother and baby homes who were being punished for their ‘sins’, victims of rape and incest, females with learning disabilities and girls and women sent by the courts. The laundries became commercially driven and their ‘inmates’ were used as free labour by the religious orders who ran them.
The regime was harsh and unrelenting. On entering a laundry the girl or woman’s name was changed, her possessions were removed and she was given a uniform to wear. Women were expected to work long hours in awful conditions with very little food. Talking was forbidden and punishments were frequent.
The Irish State enabled the Magdalene laundries to continue running all those years.
But in February 2013, Enda Kenny acknowledged this wrong and apologised publicly in the Dáil to all those affected. Here is an excerpt from his speech:
“The Magdalene Women might have been told that they were washing away a wrong or a sin but we now know, to our shame, they were only ever scrubbing away our nation’s shadow.
Today, just as the State accepts its direct involvement in the Magdalene Laundries, society too has its responsibility.
I believe I speak for millions of Irish people all over the world when I say we put these women away for too many years because we put away our conscience.
We swapped our personal scruples for a solid public apparatus that kept us in tune and in step with a sense of what was ‘proper behaviour’ or the ‘appropriate view’ according to a sort of moral code that was fostered at the time, particularly in the 1930s, 40s and 50s.
We lived with the damaging idea that what was desirable and acceptable in the eyes of the Church and the State was the same thing and interchangeable.
Therefore, I, as Taoiseach, on behalf of the State, the government and all our citizens deeply regret and apologise unreservedly to all those women for the hurt that was done to them and for any stigma they suffered, as a result of the time they spent in a Magdalene Laundry”.
Between the exhibition’s opening in March 2019 and its temporarily closure (due to the Covid pandemic in March 2020) the show received an estimated 265,802 visitors.
Dr Audrey Whitty, Head of Collections and Learning at the National Museum of Ireland, has this to say about the public’s response to the exhibition:
“Since the opening of the ‘Alison Lowry: (A)Dressing our hidden truths‘ exhibition in March 2019, the public reaction (documented through a series of visitor comment books) has been nothing short of overwhelming. The general response has tended toward what can only be described as purely visceral – raw emotion and guilt that people, those who in many cases were our most vulnerable of fellow citizens, could have been treated in such abominable ways. Other feedback and commentary has focused on the powerful impact such seminal art, such as that created by Alison Lowry in particular, can have on the road to justice for the many thousands of women, children and families affected and by descent still affected, as well as the need for collective and state memorial, justice and knowledge. Many statements by museum visitors have also been those of gratitude that Alison Lowry has produced such master works thereby highlighting the themes and events behind their inspiration, and a sense of the start of righting wrongs by their actual interpretation and display in the National Museum of Ireland”
The Museum has since reopened its doors to the public and the exhibition comes to an end in December 2020.
Alison Lowry is a visual artist living and working from her studio, ‘Schoolhouse Glass’ in County Down. She graduated from University of Ulster in 2009 and has since won numerous awards for her art work, including a residency at the world famous Corning Museum of Glass. She is especially interested in how art can help to narrate and investigate aspects of our collective history and also how it can be used to tackle subject matter that can make us feel uncomfortable. Her current exhibition, ‘(A)Dressing our hidden truths’ at the National museum of Ireland in Dublin will continues until the end of this year.