Words by Seren Bell
If you’re anything like me, you come from a long maternal line of red-haired Irish Catholics and your grandmother was the prize seamstress in Tarcowie. If not, there’s a good chance part or all of your family immigrated to Australia within living memory; or perhaps you just like to knit and talk. In any case, here’s your chance to learn a little about the role of craft in Irish-Australian immigration, and in building communities equipped to withstand hardship.
I spent some time with Irish-Australian Adelaide-based glass artist, Ursula Halpin to talk about her upcoming show at Sister Gallery, Náire Orthu, one of the hidden treasures of FRANfest. Ursula has spent the past two years earning her Honours and, like so many before her, has gone deep down the research rabbit hole. Ursula is exceptionally invested in understanding, giving credit, and giving voice to the generations of Irish craftswomen before her. Her enthusiasm for telling their stories and carrying on their traditions is infectious. Her mother, Ursula explains, became a muse;
These craft circles have become central to Ursula’s practice, so much so that Náire Orthu will be accompanied by “very casual [craft] workshops. So…people bring the things that they’re making whether that be knitting, sewing, lace making or whatever and we just sit around having chats and tea and coffee and scones”. She hopes that what comes out of the workshops, “whether they be chats about how people get on, how we make, how we skill share, or just women supporting each other through life”, will form a foundation for a series of such events.
Ursula’s interest in women’s relationship to craft lends itself perfectly to FRANfest, something she says is humbling and a privilege to take part in. Ursula is interested in how FRANfest allows women artists to tell their stories, and how “we see ourselves as women in the arts industry, how we see ourselves with our practice, how we carry the legacy of the women in the 1970s. How we change those messages…because they do change. There’s lots going on at the moment, so it’s pretty exciting.” Humbled though she may be, Ursula’s work is as refined, considered and skillful as it is steeped in history. Her glass lace, created through “stitching out the glass” mimics Irish lace to create objects of remarkable detail. Each of Ursula’s pieces is titled in English and Gaelic, allowing the audience to “get a sense of what it means...just a way in for people without giving too much away, because I like people to be able to bring their own stories to the work”.
Ursula immigrated to Australia from Ireland in 1998, the first thing she mentions when I ask her to introduce herself. Her shows give her an opportunity to express her culture and use Irish Gaelic language, something she says is rare, living in Australia. The experience of growing up in Ireland has given Ursula a strong awareness of the ways in which women are subjugated across the globe. She explains that Náire Orthu means ‘shame on you’ or ‘shame on you all’ in Irish Gaelic and that the show is looking at how “in Ireland women have been always treated as second class citizens, much like [women in] the rest of the world”. Particularly, the work looks at the role religion has played in the restrictions of women’s rights and freedoms in Ireland and the traumatic effects of these restrictions. “At the moment in Ireland we’re fighting for abortion rights…we’re also recovering from the legacy of what the church did to women in Ireland in terms of mother and babies homes and the laundries, and so the work looks at how women have gotten together and healed…[and] how craft plays a role in healing trauma”.
At a time when Australians are in the midst of conflict over individuals’ rights and freedoms -the restriction of which is so often justified by religious or political doctrine- Ursula’s exhibition and workshops offer a much-needed salve, and a reminder of the lasting effects of human rights violations.
Náire Orthu opens this Friday September 22nd, 6pm at Sister Gallery and runs until October 20.
Craft workshops run on October 7th and 8th with more to be announced.
Sister Gallery is located on Sixth Street, Bowden
Follow Ursula @ursulasglass