Feminism, Brexit and the Irish Border: Rita Duffy at the Courtauld Institute of Art


(Images are low-res screenshots of overhead projections, taken on an iphone on the night. Go to http://www.ritaduffystudio.com for proper images)

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Low-res screenshot of “Soften the Border” by Rita Duffy

Edwin Coomasaru, a post-doctoral Fellow at the Courtauld Institute introduced Rita Duffy as ‘an artist getting to the heart of the turmoil around us.’ His introduction asked what feminism/gender have to do with Brexit. For answer, he gave us a lightning tour of recent statements, tweets and newspaper headlines to remind us of the inflammatory rhetoric of eg Boris Johnson, pointing out that both Leavers and Remainers use metaphors of powerlessness and that descriptions of effeminate masculinity come thick and fast as Britain is represented as being pushed around by EU bullies. It’s in danger of becoming an EU colony, according to Breitbart. This is classic military strategy, Dr Coomasaru tells us – before showing us a tweet from Nadine Dorries reminding everyone that David Davis is ex SAS, trained to survive and trained to ‘take people out’; followed by a headline from Clare Foges of the Sunday Times “Our Timid Leaders can learn from Strongmen”: i.e.  Trump, Putin, Dutarte, Erdogan… (yes, those individuals are name-checked in that article).


Then we got Arlene Foster declaring that the Good Friday Agreement is not sacrosanct. He didn’t mention the DUP’s ‘red line’ being ‘blood red’ but I think we’d all got the point. The audience was quite agitated by now, (well, this section of the audience was agitated, you’re lucky the notes are in any way legible) so it was a good time to bring on Rita Duffy.

She reminded us at the outset that the Border is not an Irish Border, it’s a British Border (Take that Boris!) The border in Ireland is the beach.  (Oh, we were in excellent hands, here). Rita Duffy lives on the Border. She talked about the experience of women on both sides of the political/religious divide being similar: ‘a paradox of similarities’ and quoted someone whose name I really wish I had caught: People who grow up in war zones are like clay pots fired at too high a temperature – ‘we have fatal cracks we spend the rest of our lives trying to fill.’

The tradition of murals – she loves the idea of taking art out of the galleries and began to make mural sized images herself. She showed slides and talked us through her work, including her Divis Flats project (Drawing the Blinds) and looming portraits of communities divided by walls, and massively dark portraits representing paramilitaries and soldiers. You couldn’t give these away in Belfast then, she said. They were eventually bought by the Imperial War Museum. Other images included a painting of the parka Mairead Farrell was wearing when she was shot( “a haunted garment”) and an orange jumpsuit: “Guantanamo, amas, amat …” Irony is a key feature of Duffy’s work.

She told a story about a policeman who bought a painting, and said if there was anything he could do …? She asked for an AK 47; then cast it in chocolate. That same policeman carried it through security on its way to be displayed in the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. It was also shown during the West Belfast festival. In London people talked about the smell of chocolate. In Belfast they read the serial number and wondered where she’d got the original.

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Low-res screenshot of “Laundry Day in Derry” by Rita Duffy

“Laundry Day in Derry”, a painting of hundreds of bright clean shirts hung out to dry across the top of William Street, recalls the iconic photo of Edward Daly waving a white handkerchief while trying to help Jackie Duddy on Bloody Sunday (that photo was taken on William Street).

Recent work is playful, using humour to puncture prejudice and historical posturing no matter how entrenched they might be. She began to make artefacts that pun episodes or slogans in our history: Nurse O’Farrell’s Suture and Save (Repair the Nation) riffs on the famously airbrushed photograph of Pearse surrendering to General Lowe in 1916. Those nurse and soldier dolls ask: who gets to tell the story and in what way? Who has to stay silent inside the story? “Somme Sticking Plasters” tell their own story. The Unite Ireland Sewing Kit tea towel – with map – is a bestseller. “Don’t be surprised,” Rita Duffy tells this hall (by now) full of students, “if this is the outcome of Brexit.”

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Low-res screenshot of artist’s photo

The items sold in her 2016 “Souvenir Shop” are familiar by now or should be. Items from that project have travelled around the world and found their own correlatives – in Washington her Civil Rights March pillow was displayed alongside a Martin Luther King ‘I Have a Dream’ pillow.

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Low-res screenshot of artist’s photo of a “Souvenir Shop” installation (Washington)

“Soften the Border” was a colourful textile installation on the bridge between Belcoo (Fermanagh) and Blacklion (Cavan) aimed at softening the Border with cushions. It was adopted and added to by locals furnishing soft items and witty afterthoughts of their own. Shown on TV, it went viral, which led to surreal happenings like Al Jazeera turning up to interview a local farmer on the bridge.

Someone commented on the prevalence of food in her work, which she put down in part to feeding growing men.  But seriously, she talked about the Irish tradition of hospitality, how insistent we are about feeding people.  And about famine, then, the memory of it; and the hunger strikes.  To refuse food is a particular insult.  It says, I do not accept you, I do not accept your food, I will not give you friendship or respect.  Someone else mentioned her use of fabric, material etc.  She referred to the history of linen in the North.

Her most recent project involves groups of women North and South – including a group of Travellers who know all about being prevented from passing – coming together to knit, sew and make dolls. There is a group that meets every Tuesday evening to knit and sew together, during which time tea is drunk, biscuits are eaten and stories, inevitably, are told … the withdrawal of funding from Brussels will mean this kind of human communication and exchange will be stopped. It’s a chilling thought. This whole evening was like a masterclass in how skilfully art can subvert politics through invention, intelligence, wit and above all, openness. It is light years away from the posturing and jingoism that constitute the contribution of supposed leaders and policymakers. I wish even one of them had been in the Courtauld Institute tonight. Which is a question in itself – the arts have power, but do the powerful pay attention?

[P.S.: Has she read Anna Burns’s Milkman?  Not yet, but it’s the first thing she’ll do when she gets home and isn’t it brilliant that she won (the Booker)?]

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7 Responses to Feminism, Brexit and the Irish Border: Rita Duffy at the Courtauld Institute of Art

  1. Ann Marie Hourihane says:

    Wow, I’ve never heard of these projects in Ireland. Am very ignorant- that’s why I need Libran Writer. Off now to see if I can buy a Unite Ireland sewing kit somewhere. Ann Marie Hourihane

  2. Martina Devlin says:

    Laundry Day in Derry is also reminiscent of bunting used as tribal territory marking. So the artist’s subversion of that via washing hung out to flutter in the breeze is doubly welcome.

  3. suewriting says:

    Lia, I’m a fan of Rita Duffy’s work for many years. You’ve just added to my appreciation. Many thanks. x Sue

  4. Tina O’Toole says:

    Almost as good as being there …almost. Thanks for the public service, Lia, it’s much appreciated!

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