Everywhere Shanaya Ahmad has lived in the world – India, Dubai, Romania, Ireland – she’s brought the small silver glass her grandmother gave her when she was born.
There’s a custom in India of giving silver objects to people when a baby is born, she says.
“They might give you a bowl or a plate or a spoon, or a glass, or some ornament to wear – a bangle or an anklet,” she says, sat with others around a big square table in a room at the Dublin Mosque on South Circular Road.
It’s the weekly Wednesday coffee morning of the Amal Women’s Association, and at first, everyone is knitting quietly.
Giving silver objects is considered auspicious, says Ahmad. The glass reminds her of her grandma too, “walking in the house with wooden sandals”, she says.
Ahmad was five when her grandma passed away. Her daughter uses the glass now – although, technically it’s on loan.
The glass is just one of the items that artist Laragh Pittman has collected for her Invisible Museum, a project that’s hard to describe in a neat soundbite.
Pittman is going to display the objects that these and other women loaned to her, like an archive. All of the artefacts are things women brought with them when they moved to Ireland.
“[It’s] trying to say that people come here with all the complexity of their backgrounds and stories,” Pittman says.
Silver and Books
Ahmad says her glass is a symbol of the countries she’s lived in and the people she’s met. “I think it’s like a country, and the people, we are like water.”
They’re fluid, she says. “We keep flowing from one place to another. We keep mingling with different people.”
They’re neutral too, she says. Like water. “Colourless and neutral, we shouldn’t have any colours – black, white, brown. So I believe in that concept, and I think it symbolises that,” Ahmad says.
As she talks, Ahmad crochets a small square of turquoise yarn. Others are crocheting quietly, too.
There are trays of cakes on a table against one wall. Mona Abdelfattah’s young son reaches for a plate of sweets nearby.
Abdelfattah is talking about a little model pyramid she brought with her from Egypt six years ago.
It reminds her of home, she says. “Most people around the world know that Egypt’s famous for the pyramids.”
She was proud when another one of her sons came home one day and said he learned about the pyramids, and how the Egyptians built them.
Abdelfattah remembers going to the pyramids with her family when she was about 10, and crawling up stairs inside of one to a small, dark room. Most people are too afraid to do that, she says. But she wasn’t.
Niera Belacy is sat further around the red-clothed table.
Among her prized possessions? A book her father gave her by the Nobel Prize-winning Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz, she says.
She studied the book, about pharaohs, in school. Her dad bought this copy in the library in Alexandria, so it’s particularly special.
Belacy, who is coordinator of Amal, says she hopes to save it for her 10-year-old daughter.
The Invisible Museum
Pittman was born in England to Irish parents. She married an Irish man and had two children here.
She has lived in Dublin for 23 years. At times, she says, she feels like an outsider.
An idea central to the Invisible Museum is that Irishness isn’t just one thing. “Everything is in flux all the time,” she says.
Pittman’s been getting to know the women here for a few years now.
When she first went to the mosque, she did art with the women’s group: printing, bead work, a quilt they all made together for Culture Night a couple of years ago.
As Ahmad sees it, the Invisible Museum project is a “beautiful concept, where people are supposed to correlate an object they carry with them to the culture and how it integrates with the Irish community”.
The Invisible Museum is part of an exhibition running at the Kilmainham Courthouse, next to the Gaol, 10–15 April.
The exhibition, called “Citizen Artist”, is a combination of art works, performances, artefacts, a publication, and talks that marks the end of a two-year residency by five artists, including Pittman.
Other projects include Fiona Reilly’s Department of Time Keepers, about the nature of time and precarious work, and Seoidín O’Sullivan’s Hard/Graft, about green space in the city.
There’ll also be paintings about public housing in Dublin 8 by Pat Curran, and Mark Holburn will be serving a brief sentence on the steps under the courthouse as part of his project Rebels for Art.
A Coffee Pot
Over time, the coffee morning picks up steam. More people are moving, carrying things around.
Some women pass out flyers, others are meeting in the corner about upcoming projects. Eventually, the women pack up their yarn and scatter in all directions – some to pick up their kids, others onwards to more meetings.
Two women sit in the corner, packing a mountain of donated food, toiletries, and clothes into boxes. The group plans to deliver these boxes to refugees in direct-provision centres across the country, ahead of Ramadan.
The Amal Women’s Association loaned a brass coffee pot to Pittman’s Invisible Museum.
Made in the Arabian Peninsula, the design is typical of nomadic Bedouin people of the desert.
It’s a symbol of hospitality and these weekly coffee mornings, says Pittman.
UPDATE: This article was updated at 16:39 on 11 April 2019 to include a reference to Mark Holburn’s project.