Four people huddle over a table at the back of The Space, the community arts centre in the Phibsboro Shopping Centre, on this bright and blustery Saturday afternoon.
Muhammad Achour, who trained as an architect, strides over to a wall holding a tape measure. “Maybe just here?” he says.
Other than a few Phizzfest posters, the walls of The Space are white and bare. But not for long.
A newly formed group called the Migrant Artist Community – that’s the working title, at least – is planning to hold its first exhibition here soon, loosely inspired by the theme of the movement of people.
The exhibition will feature works by 11 artists of different art and design backgrounds, who live in different parts of the country, from Sligo to Skibbereen.
Planning the exhibition hasn’t been easy going, says Antonio D’Souza, one of the organisers. “Without funds, there’s only so much you can do. Some people can’t afford to get here,” he says.
The exhibition’s curator, Laragh Pittman, set up an online campaign to cover the costs of venue hire, transportation, and a catalogue. So far, they’ve raised more than €700 of their €1,000 goal.
Pittman also thought of the exhibition’s title: Transhumance. The subtitle is The Nomadic Artist: Part of This Land.
The word “transhumance” evokes the nomadic idea of people moving their flocks to different pastures, she says. “Transhumance is the process of moving.”
When she mentioned the title to D’Souza, he texted her: “I am a nomad.” In the colloquial sense, that he’s moved around a lot, that is.
“That’s how I’ve felt my whole life,” he says. D’Souza was born in Nairobi, Kenya. His grandparents were from Goa in India. He was brought up in north London and now lives in north County Dublin.
Most of his life and schooling was in the UK, he says. But “I still didn’t know where I belonged, or where I came from, or who to identify with, or which culture to identify with.”
“I’ve been sort of struggling with that for the majority of my life,” he says.
At the exhibition, D’Souza plans to show a few pieces made from discarded gaskets, which are a type of seal that holds parts together – of an engine, for example.
D’Souza, whose background is in furniture and product design, and teaching, doesn’t buy them new. He likes them rusted, with oil stains, or heat stains. With them, he makes portraits, patterns, and more abstract pieces.
The portraits are to do with identity. Disjointed pieces coming together. They “show me exploring my own identity, I guess, and multiple identities”, he says.
A Place to Meet
Organisers hope the exhibition will be a catalyst to get the Migrant Artist Community up and running.
Muhammad Achour, one of the organisers, is particularly interested in engaging artists and architects in local communities.
That’s his sphere. He studied architecture in Aleppo, Syria, before working on a master’s in architectural science and sustainable design at UCD.
The aim of the new community is creating a network of people from all backgrounds, who can “show our identity within one space, one place”, he says.
D’Souza says the group is inclusive, not exclusive. It’s a place for artists who might not otherwise be included in Ireland’s art scene, like those from migrant, refugee, and asylum-seeker backgrounds, including those living in the direct provision system.
Says Achour: “Having this channel, also we can use art as a language to advocate for issues related to migrants here.”
Crossing the Threshold
Getting a new group like this into an art space is tough, says Pittman, who’s been involved with Phizzfest in the past.
There might be a years-long waiting list, or a curator with an agenda that doesn’t align with one’s own, she says.
But in this case, there was an open call. All they had to do was apply, which was welcome, she says. “Most arts spaces are really hard to get into.”
“This opportunity to come into this space didn’t come with all that baggage, really. It’s more grassroots,” she says.
The Transhumance exhibition is just the kind of thing the team from Phizzfest were looking to run in The Space, says board member Dorothy Smith.
“The idea is that it’s a multicultural community and arts space, so it’s a kind of complex thing to programme,” says Smith.
They’ve had The Space since October of last year, and have been holding events, exhibitions, and daily classes like judo and step dancing.
The Phizzfest team is in the thick of programming its 10th anniversary festival, which is coming up in May.
“Any time we’ve had shows here, the footfall out there is enormous,” she says, gesturing towards the glass shopfront. “It’s thousands of people walking by.”
People passing often poke their heads in, to see what’s going on. “I think because it’s in a shopping centre, people feel comfortable or a sense of ownership. They’re very non-intimidating places.”
“There’s no problem crossing the threshold,” Smith says.
How Things Evolve
Hina Khan, who lives in Kinsale, plans to get the “train, bus, anything” up to Dublin for opening night.
She’s planning to exhibit an untitled painting that’s symbolic, like most of her work, she says.
It’s about the social and political situation of the world, she says. “How things go from black, to red, to gray, and white. The contrast between sky and land, and how things are evolving.”
Says Khan: “Basically, there’s a lot of movement in the painting.”
Khan currently has an exhibition of paintings on in Laois. Painting is her focus. She trained in the miniature-painting tradition. “Details are a very important part of my painting,” she says.
Living in Ireland since 2015, Khan spent time in direct provision centres in Laois and Mayo, before getting her leave to remain in 2018 and moving to Kinsale, she says.
She’s done artist’s residencies in Dublin at the Fire Station Artists’ Studios, and at the West Cork Arts Centre in Skibbereen.
When she was in direct provision, where many people can’t work, or cook, there’s a lot of free time to fill.
“I thought, ‘I have to do something that makes me busy and happy, because it’s not easy to live in a direct-provision centre,’” says Khan. She decided to make art and exhibit as much as possible.
“When you are growing up in your own country, you flourish very easily,” Khan says. But in a new country, it takes time to build up connections.
Khan says the Migrant Artist Community is important as a platform for artists like her. “I feel that, in a group, we can work together.”
Transhumance – The Nomadic Artist: Part of this Land runs from 25 February to 4 March in The Space, Phibsboro. Artists exhibiting include: Muhammad Achour, Antonio D’Souza, Qandeel Kafeel, Hina Khan, Tomasz Madjczak, Roxana Manouchehri, Joe Odiboh, Kuasha Raihan, Rajinder Singh, Amna Walayat, Insaf Yalçnkaya.
[CORRECTION: This article was updated at 3pm on 12 February. Hina Khan’s exhibition in Laois is paintings, not photography.]