Culture desk

Flowers and Portraits: An Art Exhibition Shares Many Sides of Traveller Culture

To the right of the entrance to the Hugh Lane Gallery, the artists behind its latest exhibition have trailed colourful crêpe-paper flowers in a line around the floor, over the mantelpiece, and down the other side.

It’s a warm welcome for visitors, says artist Seamus Nolan. He put together the “Traveller Collection at the Hugh Lane” exhibition, with staff from Pavee Point and others.

Women from the Pavee Point primary health unit made the flowers. “We were told they wanted a lot of flowers. We made 500 flowers,” says Nancy Collins on Tuesday.

For Collins, seeing the portraits on the wall by artist Mick O’Dea, and on loan from Pavee Point, is special, she says. “It’s very rare to see Travellers like this.”

“I think it’s really important that Hugh Lane got in touch. Travellers aren’t included in Irish history,” she says.

Kept Alive

The exhibition brings together art and items that reflect Traveller cultures. In a sense, Nolan has played the role of a curator as much as a creator this time.

Mary Collins, standing beside Nancy Collins, points to the flowers. “This is a very old tradition,” she says. “Women used to make them to put under the holy statues.”

The flowers were meant to be traded or sold for other goods, Mary Collins says, and were important to keep up when there were no fresh flowers available. “Years ago, they’d make them to make money,” she says.

Now, though, there’s so much you can buy that they’re not always appreciated, says Helen Collins, who has come along with the others.

But flowers mean a lot to the older women in particular. They remember making them often, and how they were part of a bigger story, part of their cultural history, she says.

“It’s even lovely seeing it coming into the main doors,” she says.

Inside the gallery, the exhibition includes tinware and portraits by O’Dea of men and women including Pavee Point’s director, Martin Collins. There are flowers, and recordings of songs, photography, and video.

“A lot of art work about Travelers is done by non-Travelers,” says Nolan. This exhibition is different, though, he says. It was put together by people from the Travelling community, given agency and control over representation.

Jessica O’Donnell, the head of education at the Hugh Lane, says the gallery was looking for ways to get people from the local neighbourhood involved. And the Pavee Point offices are in Dublin 1.

Displaying Traveller art and culture also brings new audiences in, O’Donnell says.

Nolan won a call-out for socially engaged art, which funded the show. He had become more curious about Traveller culture, in part because of the Irish government’s March 2017 recognition of Traveller ethnicity.

“People on the street don’t know the history because it isn’t taught,” says Nolan, softly. He remembers learning trad music in school, but not about the many highly regarded Traveller musicians, he says.

“I wanted to use my privilege as an artist. […] I think communities should be instrumentalising the artist,” he says. But it was tricky, speaking about these issues as somebody who isn’t a Traveller, trying to be an ally.

Fourth Opinions

For more than a year, Nolan gathered material and research. He used his own judgment to select music, paintings, tinware, and other items from the gallery’s collection.

Then he took it along to Pavee Point for some second, or third, or fourth opinions. “They might say they don’t like something that speaks of the poverty subculture,” he says.

As part of the exhibition, Nolan’s research and findings – the newspaper cuttings, photographs, and other nuggets – will all be archived at Travellercollection.ie, alongside other relevant collections.

“The research is about getting to know people so they know you’re not trying to take advantage,” says Nolan.

He remembers his grandmother inviting Travellers from the area into her kitchen, back when they would still call to the door.

But that’s changed now, he says. There seem to be fewer interactions, these days.

In the coming year, the project will grow, he says. He hopes more people will get involved and that Travellers will be in charge of the narrative.

“It’s an oral tradition, so when stories are told the culture is alive,” he says.

“Traveller Collection at the Hugh Lane” runs from 22 June to 23 September 2018.

Zuzia Whelan portrait
Zuzia Whelan

Zuzia Whelan is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer. You can reach her at zwhelan@dublininquirer.com.

 

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