Artsdesk: Little Houses. Big Ideas.


Posted 3 months ago in Arts & Culture Features

BIMM jun-jul 22 – Desktop

Young people from the community close to Collins Barracks document their experiences of the pandemic and its impact on the community, and wider society.

 

Little Houses is the result of a collaborative effort by various people and groups, but principally by two institutions: the Stoneybatter Youth Centre and the National Museum of Ireland. As quarantine measures were imposed throughout 2020, schools closed and children were required to isolate and learn from home. At the same time, the team at the National Museum were putting their heads together, trying to figure out new strategies to engage with the public in spite of the fact that their doors were shut. The education officer Helen Beaumount recalls that she attended a committee meeting of the Stoneybatter Pride of Place community group just after the pandemic was announced and invited any ideas they might have. The very next day “Tanya McEntagart, then the senior Youth Worker for the Stoneybatter Youth Service, called me and we talked about the potential of young people recording their responses to the pandemic somehow or selecting objects that might represent how they were feeling about lockdown, etc.”

Hearing about the proposed collaboration, one of Tanya’s colleagues, Johanna Visser, told the National Museum about a project in the Netherlands that she had earmarked for its potential fit with the Youth Centre’s misson. “The project in the Netherlands was being run by Stoereloer, a collective of artists, and it invited young people to create a miniature space which might reflect their ‘world’ during lockdown.”

The idea strongly appealed to the team, and youth workers were soon travelling with art materials to visit the homes of isolating schoolchildren who lived nearby Collins’ Barracks in Dublin 7. They asked the kids to make a miniature room, in the style of a diorama, to express their feelings about their home and the effects of the pandemic on their lives. Out of this simple thought, an entertaining, intriguing and surprisingly emotional exhibition has sprung forth, creating a deeply rewarding experience for the museum’s visitors.

The thoughtful design of the miniature rooms lends to their aesthetic and educational significance: the majority are constructed from three separate interlocking sections that consist of a wall and an area of floor. These individual sections are what each child from the locality worked on, which means that every full room is actually a combination of three different artistic visions. “Stoereloer had the concept of bringing three spaces together to make one. Their idea was that, in this way, you were bringing together three people who might not know each other previously. This was at a time when we were all isolating from each other, and so making the point that we are all connected, even when we are apart, was one that had a lot of merit.” The connections and harmonies that emerge when the children’s artworks are combined is a pleasure to witness, and the strength of their cohesion speaks to the universal emotions and desires of these young Dubliners, navigating their way through exceptional circumstances in a strange, new world.

As with any group exhibition, it’s hard to pick out just one or two works to discuss, and in a show this size – there are over fifty names listed as contributing artists – the challenge is even greater. Every single contribution feels rich and layered, rife with unexpected choices, and arresting, fun details. They all deserve attention and thoughtful elaboration.

One of the first things that strikes you is how much the artists relished the opportunity to exercise their creativity and imagination, creating experimental home spaces, like Maisie Smith’s artwork, which she describes as “a bit bonkers” in the programme materials. Her floor is a swimming pool and a large bird looks through the window from outside, which is an inspired role-reversal, inasmuch as the artist states she “liked looking out at the birds and the trees” from her own bedroom window. The Keogh Hendrick household is similarly ingenious: sisters Mya and Cassie imagine their rooms are capable of intergalactic transport as they voyage through the stars with pets Bo the bunny, Zoe the cat, Peep the dog and Gloo the fish.

 

Other artworks testify to what makes a child’s life enjoyable, despite the restrictions. Katie Smith’s room is covered with Harry Potter paraphernalia, and the artist is depicted in the centre, avidly reading her books. Manase Stefan crafted a space to accommodate his younger nephew Yanis, who is one-and-a-half years old. “Yanis comes to stay with us a lot and that is why I made the seat for him.” Viktor Simon played “many games during lockdown” and Asia Procopia is thankful for “TV shows and movies” that helped the time to pass. Isabel Moran includes her “mammy and our books,” alongside references to “nature walks on sunny days” and “keeping busy with art.” All of these rooms, and the others like them, are nostalgic reminders of the playful spirit of childhood, communicating a sense of simple and unaffected joy to the visitors passing by.

But there are other, discordant notes in the chorus of voices here. Perhaps the most powerful aspect of the exhibition comes from its demonstration of the unease and sadness that afflicted our young people, as the years of the pandemic wore on. Heidii Nyaba’s room is dominated by a sign that loudly instructs its inhabitants, who carry masks, to remain two metres apart at all times.

 

Frank McKenna depicts himself on his bunk-bed, lying beside his teddy Sheepy, as he dreams about playing football.

“I usually go to Boh’s football training every Saturday morning but I couldn’t during lockdown. I really missed it.” Angelina Keogh has a passion for ecological spaces, and her artwork, populated by blooming flowers and stones, represents what was absent from her life during the pandemic: regular visits to her beloved Phoenix Park.

Maisie Smith, mentioned above, created a wall covered with polystyrene packing peanuts that have faces, some happy, many angry or upset, to express the feelings she experienced during the lockdown. In the top left corner she has placed a large orb, like a Christmas decoration, which is supposed to capture the force of “‘COVID’ looming down on me.”

As you can tell, the supporting programme materials – and especially the exhibition flipbook – are a fantastic resource for understanding the artworks. The text and Andrew Sheridan’s photography work, in tandem with the physical objects, to present the visitor with a fascinating insight into the psychological and existential journey that young people have travelled over the pandemic period. Taken as a whole, it’s clear that Little Houses is something special: not just a sensitive exhibition of children’s art, but also a culturally significant visual diary of the youth in Ireland, which possesses anthropological value as much as aesthetic.

In his treatise Education Through Art, the philosopher and art historian Herbert Read discusses why children are compelled to make art from an early age. According to his developmental model of the mind, children are compelled to communicate their thoughts and feelings as they grapple with their understanding of the world, and artistic activities like drawing compensate for the insufficiency of their verbal skills. In a poetic phrase, he describes children’s art as “an overture demanding response from others.” Little Houses is a wonderful example of Read’s theory – an overture that we can’t help but respond to.

 Little Houses is running at the National Museum of Ireland, Collins Barracks, Dublin. Admission is free.

Words: Tom Lordan

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