At a time of momentous political decisions, the UK is seeing a rise in civilian protest. On the eve of the date slated for Brexit, Alan Cristea Gallery has invited four women artists to consider the theme of protest – as well as that of remembrance – in a group show of drawings. Each artist has as much her own topic of investigation as her own method of working but, together, their contributions make for a thought-provoking and challenging display that could scarcely be more relevant.
Studio International spoke to the four artists ahead of the opening of the exhibition.
Through her work, Miriam de Búrca (b1972, Munich) seeks to draw attention to burial sites in Ireland known as cilliní, where, as recently as the 1980s, anyone deemed unworthy by the Catholic church of a burial in consecrated ground was laid to rest – or, rather, not to rest, since theology teaches that their unblessed souls remain for ever in limbo.
These unfortunate and unknown strangers include stillborn or unbaptised babies, unmarried mothers, those who have taken their own lives, the mentally ill and excommunicates. The absence of headstones adds to the wilful desire to make people forget and to suppress this long chapter of Irish history. But De Búrca believes it should be remembered – those buried should be remembered – and, by making careful drawings of the plants growing on the graves and, in the process, paying absolute attention to detail, she seeks to pay back some of the attention that those buried have been denied. Having finished with the sods of earth in her studio, she then returns them to the graves, hoping further to show a sign of respect and return some of the lost dignity.
Working with hand-ground Japanese ink, Joy Gerrard (b1971, Dublin) makes small drawings and large canvases depicting bird’s-eye views of mass protests, here specifically anti-Brexit and anti-Trump marches from June 2018. Consciously working from media images – primarily stills from helicopter footage – which she collects in their hundreds, Gerrard selects those images that she will turn into her monochrome drawings, getting to know the image and memorialising it in the process.
From these, she then may select a couple to work up into a large canvas – using the same medium, but to very different, almost abstract effect. This time, she works from the drawing, concentrating on areas of tone and shade, creating a strong composition, built up in small sections. Overall, her aim is to make visible the masses who attend these protests, which she strongly believes can make a difference. Her work not only takes protest – and remembrance – as its themes, but it is, in itself, a form of protest.
Mary Griffiths (b1965, the Wirral) has long been making drawings of (frequently derelict) industrial sites. A year and a half ago, she was introduced to Astley Green Colliery, a former coalmine in Lancashire, which was closed in 1970 and knocked down but for its winding house and headgear – rare examples of 1908 working-class engineering. Spending time at the site, walking around the surrounding geography, reclaimed by nature with trees, grass and mosses, and talking to the volunteers (the colliery is now a museum), Griffiths filled myriad A6 sketchpads with figurative drawings, focusing on aspects that intrigued her, from details of the machinery to a visiting colony of pigeons.
From these drawings, she then extrapolated her larger abstract works, made on plywood, with layers of acrylic gesso, and even more layers of graphite, pushed into the board and burnished, before being cut into with an etching needle. Using thousands of straight lines, placed at minutely different angles, she creates an oscillating effect reminiscent of the surface geography of the region. One work, Wild Honey, for example, represents the seams of the coalmine, the waterways and the main roads. Griffiths sees her work as “an identification of the remarkable work that was done in industrial areas” across the country, and it is important to her to capture something of the “gravity and splendour” of the working-class engineering.
Barbara Walker (b1964, Birmingham) describes herself as a “scavenger” for information. She typically works on topics that are new to her, whereby she is learning and being stimulated. For this seven-year (to date) project, looking at the contribution of black soldiers to British war efforts – from the first world war to the recent and contemporary wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – she has spent time in archives, ranging from the Imperial War Museums to the US Congress, and even on eBay.
Although the soldiers she draws are unknown to her, she feels they become like her children, and she gets to know them over time. Her works vary in scale, from small, often embossed pieces, to larger-than-life wall drawings. These latter are washed off at the end of the exhibition and live on only in photographs and, most importantly, people’s memories. Walker uses simple materials and methods, and her goal is to seduce the audience, and give the anonymous soldiers power: claiming a space for them and giving them a voice. Studio International spoke to Walker while she worked on her wall drawing for the exhibition.
Protest and Remembrance
Miriam de Búrca | Joy Gerrard | Mary Griffiths | Barbara Walker
Alan Cristea Gallery, London
28 February – 30 March 2019
Interview by ANNA McNAY
Filmed by MARTIN KENNEDY