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'Everyone thought the people in flats were locked up and comfy - I wanted to scrape away the surface a bit'

Photographer Jeanette Lowe and artist Leanne McDonagh explore inner city life and Traveller families in new work about how the pandemic has affected Ireland.

Jeanette Lowe
Jeanette Lowe
Image: Gillian Hyland

IT’S BEEN A strange year, and perhaps you haven’t had a moment to even stop and think about the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on your life.

Often we turn to artists and creators to help us parse our own emotions and thoughts. With such a strong tradition of writing and artistic exploration in Ireland, RTÉ has asked a number of creators to explore the impact of the coronavirus for a major new online exhibition.

Called Illuminations, it features work by Sara Baume, Dermot Bolger, John Boyne, Moya Cannon, Paula Meehan and more. 

TheJournal.ie spoke to two of the participants, photographer Jeanette Lowe and artist Leanne McDonagh, who set out to explore distinct communities with their work.

For Lowe, that was the ‘invisible frontline’ living and working in Dublin’s inner city.

Meanwhile, McDonagh looked at kinship, and how it has held the Traveller community – of which she is a member – together throughout years of discrimination and marginalisation.

Recording the invisible frontline

Jeanette Lowe - Gillian Hyland (1) Jeanette Lowe Source: Gillian Hyland

Lowe has done a huge amount of work already in photographing life at the Pearse House flats, where her grandmother grew up. Lately, she’s also been recording the demolition of social housing flats in the city.

Both of these fed into her work for Illuminations, which is portraits of the ‘invisible frontline’ workers, taken in their flats.

“What I want to do is [have viewers] look at the uniform but question the environment,” she explained. “I think there are stereotypes out there about people who live in social housing, and ‘everyone is on welfare’ and ‘it’s all take’. But I just want to say there’s an awful lot of people out there giving to us and we don’t realise. And maybe think twice about that.”

Lowe works as an artist in residence at Holles St Maternity Hospital. She met a few people from Pearse House who were working in the hospital, and that got her thinking about the invisible people on the frontline.

“Because we are all very aware of the frontline, and in our heads it’s the health workers, the doctors, the nurses, the ambulance drivers, the emergency services,” she explained. “But there’s a whole other layer of frontline workers that essentially when the city was in lockdown were keeping the whole shebang going by going out to work. There were people who had to work – they had no choice.”

“I was recording the invisible frontline. I only scraped the surface really,” continued Lowe. “For me it was just recording how the pandemic had affected this inner city community and people who were going out to work.”

She said these included people who work for Dublin City Council, sweeping streets, and people who do home help. One woman at Pearse House told her she was afraid she might pass the virus to her neighbours in the flats because she had to leave for work.

They had to contain within the community because of lockdown. What I found talking to the community is there’s obviously a good sense of community spirit coming back. The inner city communities were very well known, particularly in the 50s and 60s – as somebody said when people had nothing, the sense of community was much stronger.

Lowe wanted to highlight the invisible frontline at Pearse House because she realised this reality “is something that is not permeating out there”.

“Everyone is getting the impression the people in the flats were locked up comfy playing bingo. So I started to look, to see, just to scrape the surface away a little bit. It was quite interesting.”

I just felt that it’s something that’s not really recorded and at the same time we see other stories from the inner city where a couple of people can get a whole community a bad name.

Lowe wants to show that “when you talk about a block of flats you’re not just talking about a couple of families, you’re talking about the equivalent of a small village down the country”.

“I like to challenge people’s stereotypes of people. I’d like people to look twice at the person who’s serving them coffee, or looking after their parents who are sick or old,” said Lowe. 

‘Lockdown reinforced how important family is’

Leanne McDonagh - Gillian Hyland (1) Leanne McDonagh Source: Gillian Hyland

Leanne McDonagh is a young artist based in Cork. When thinking about what she could create for Illuminations, she realised that the Covid-19 pandemic had hit home to her how important family is.

As a member of the Traveller community, she also realised that the role of family is special here too. For Illuminations, she took a series of photographs – in her signature abstract style, which is full of movement and colour – of family members spending time together. 

Her first piece is an image of a grandmother and a granddaughter. “My two kids couldn’t meet with their grandmothers [during lockdown]. That really hit home with me and was something I wanted to capture,” she said. “In the wider sense lots of people worldwide came to realise that connection between grandparents and grandkids is important, and how it can be lost quite quickly.”

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She added: “On another level, within the Traveller community, grandparents and the family unit plays a massive part in everyday lives.” Her work depicts Traveller families, and is aimed at everyone. “When you see the piece it’s more the feeling of the relationship,” she said. “No matter who you are you will be able to relate back.”

She said that when she realised some people don’t see their grandparents often, or don’t have a big role in their lives, it “blows my mind”. “My grandparents were my second family,” she said. She would see them at least once a week, and her cousins too.  Lockdown meant her own children couldn’t see their grandparents. 

“The boys missed their cousins and grandparents awful,” she said. 

Leanne McDonagh - Kith & Kin from Kinship (1)

Her second photograph is of a grandfather and his granddaughter, and she sees it as demonstrating the passing down of information to the next generation,  thus highlighting also the oral tradition within the Traveller community. 

Her final piece – Like-minded Lass – shows a group of girls hanging out, demonstrating “the strength of solidarity between girls within the community”.

The photo also reminded her of her friendships with settled women. “I say all the time not all Travellers are the same, but we can relate to a lot of shared experiences and the idea of Like-minded Lass is a nod to that.”

McDonagh doesn’t see herself as a ‘Traveller artist’ but explains that her work always reflects her lived experience as a Traveller woman. “Our kinship is our resilience and this is what the images are inspired by.”

What does she hope people get from her work? “The biggest thing is that even though we might be seen as a different or separate community, at the end of the day we all have universal experiences of relationships, mother, father and grandparents.”

For both Lowe and McDonagh, the pandemic has been a strange time. “Early on I panicked a little bit,” said McDonagh. “I like my routine and I like to know what’s happening.” But as she grew to accept the situation, she said it helped her take stock of her work and her priorities.

“I am very hopeful that on the other side of this all the things we have taken for granted before will now mean so much more,” she said.

Illuminations is available to view now on the RTÉ website.

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