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Opinion: It's time to celebrate the women of Irish street art - they're breaking barriers for us all

Lucy Medlycott brings us the stories of female street artists in Ireland, who seek “to subvert, to question and to transform”.

Lucy Medlycott

WE ALL KNOW that women face struggles in society, obstacles to be overcome, stereotypes and social expectations to be negotiated, barriers to be broken down.

Every time a woman breaks a barrier, she breaks that barrier for others too. Each time that we break a social expectation another barrier comes down – making what was impossible, possible.

My field of street arts is deliberately situated outside barriers, confounding expectations and stereotypes. Street arts begins on the outside, not just physically – in a street, a field, a car park, a forest – but also socially, mentally and philosophically. It fundamentally originates from a place of revolution and desire for change. It seeks to subvert, to question and to transform.

I want to celebrate here some of Ireland’s women in street arts, women who creatively embody the revolutionary space of street arts, women who are breaking down barriers for us all. And they are doing this within the public space in which street arts by definition operates – boldly presenting their visions in public, for all to witness and absorb.

HOLLY T PROFILE Holly Pereira

At the Irish Street Arts, Circus and Spectacle Network (ISACS) we have been noticing a growing female contingent of artists, with voices that are becoming more daring and less inclined to fit the normative expectation – more revolutionary.

Take Snatch Circus for instance. A duo based in Belfast, these two women want to change the system. They push their bodies to physical limits, lifting, throwing, carrying, leaping – while at the same time raging and daring society to stop them. They are not afraid of anything, fear does not even come into it… what comes into it is pure unadulterated anger, frustration and nerve.

Their work addresses issues such as female reproductive rights, sexuality, violence against women, abortion, menstruation and all with a wider message of environmental concern and raging against capitalism. They live it, they think it, they feel it and they are not afraid to speak about it, using their bodies in ways that challenge our expectations of what a woman’s body should do.

Snatch Circus’s Angelique is, after all a two-time Australian axe throwing champion!

These women are not trying to be delicate, subtle or gentle. They wish to confront and upset.

Minaw Street Arts Collective would be another example – a group of female visual artists who work on large scale mural art. The Collective formed as a show of solidarity with each other, supporting creation in a world traditionally outwardly dominated by male artists.

Holly Pereira is a member of the Collective, an illustrator and muralist based in Dublin, who trained in fine art at NCAD. Holly admits never considering painting in public: “I never thought of painting on walls when I was in NCAD, or even in the decade after I left art college. I’m not sure why, maybe I was a little intimidated – it takes a lot of courage to work in such a public way,” she said. “I think if I was a young girl, and saw another girl painting happily on a wall, I might have considered it earlier. I’m delighted that there seem to be more women painting murals in Ireland right now.”

Holly’s work explores and is inspired by traditional Eastern European folk art – stemming from female craft movements over the centuries like embroidery, enamelling, floral displays using bright contrasting colours.

This she combines with text, which is sometimes provocative as in the case of her ‘Welcome to Dublin’ piece which proclaims, “Welcome to Dublin: Home of Hotels, High Rents & Homelessness”.

It’s all done in such a way as to subdue the readers eye, belying the punch of the message.

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Loosysmokes, meanwhile, are a contemporary circus duo, much of whose work has centred around night time, and so in a danger zone, a zone which in both fairytale and reality is not a place to be if one is female or alone.

Their work embraces this dangerous space – women climb through trees, fly through the night and dare the darkness to engulf them. It takes nerve and it flies in the face of gender expectations.

Why should women be afraid of the dark? It screams of the right to this space for all citizens. Loosysmokes encourage the audience to enter into another world, a world after dark, in a forest, a warehouse, Phoenix Park, bringing the audience through into the dark side…

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Laura Murphy would be another example, a dance artist by training whose recent creation Abacus is an exploration of women’s work, which has been performed as a circle show in public spaces such as Temple Bar Square.

Source: murphylauraireland/YouTube

The piece features nine women dancers, lifting and swinging, twirling and clashing 18 buckets to the beat of an industrial drum. Abacus led to the creation of Tide, a short film which takes place on the strand in front of the Poolbeg chimneys – a film created in the midst of the pandemic that explores the futility of our repetitious lives, and a feeling of routine and endlessness.

The pandemic has of course highlighted our cultural losses, our social losses, our emotional and connective losses.

It has also highlighted our desire to continue to create, with many artists who were traditionally inspired within the four safe walls of the formal art institution now seeking new alternatives and brave new dawns – ISACS’ membership has jumped by over 25% in recent months.

Moving work into the public space requires these artists learn a new approach, different ways of thinking, and a learning, an appreciation and an acknowledgement for those brave and barrier-smashing artists who have gone before. So, when Cork City Council approached ISACS to develop and present a programme for street arts, we were only too happy to oblige.

The resulting Streets Ahead programme is currently running, with strands for those already making street arts, those many newcomers, and finally a Community Strand, for those who are interested in transforming their community through the techniques of street arts.

Speakers range from international experts like Floriane Gaber, a teacher of the history of Street Arts, Circus and Theatre at Amiens University and at Paris 8 University, to Holly Pereira. Want to know more? You can find it all out here

Lucy Medlycott is Director of the Irish Street Arts, Circus & Spectacle Network. 

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Lucy Medlycott

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