Learning through art, for life’s sake

Education People: Teacher Gemma Tierney gives art lessons with a difference using Amnesty International’s art programme for schools, Voice Our Concern

Gemma Tierney, art teacher in St Aidan’s Community College, Cork. Photograph: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision

Gemma Tierney, art teacher in St Aidan’s Community College, Cork. Photograph: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision


The series Sectarian Murders by the Belfast photographer Paul Seawright, in 1988, placed news reports of violent events during the Troubles next to photographs of the sites of each killing. Because the news snippets don’t identify the religion of the victims, and the scenes portrayed don’t feature security forces, broken glass or riots, there’s a banality to these streets, parks and playgrounds that serves to amplify the senselessness of the violence and the waste of life.

Seawright, who has gone on to document human-rights issues through photography in Afghanistan, Africa and the US, is the professor of photography at the University of Ulster. However, his work is not on the Leaving Certificate art syllabus.

Gemma Tierney is an art teacher at St Aidan’s Community College in Cork. She is frustrated with the current art syllabus for the Leaving which she says leaves no room for students to engage with artists such as Seawright. She believes art has a valuable role to play in leading students to engage with subjects they might otherwise never tackle in any depth; these include human rights, politics and philosophy.

During an art teachers’ conference three years ago, Tierney discovered the Voice Our Concern programme which was devised by Amnesty International to support teachers who want to explore human-rights issues using visual arts, literary works and music.

“I attended a weekend workshop run by Amnesty International at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, ” says Tierney. “Seawright was just one of the artists I was introduced to. I found the workshop fascinating but I wondered how the class would respond.”

At that time, she had a fifth-year group that she describes as “challenging”. “It was a mixed group of mainly boys and not the most obviously motivated group I’d ever had. I wasn’t sure how this group would interact, or how they would respond to some of the issues that these new artists present.”

It was a lot more successful than she could have hoped.

“I asked the students to engage with particular artists working on issues that they would not have had exposure to before. We looked at the work of Shirin Neshat, an Iranian visual artist, of Vic Muniz from Brazil and of Joe Sacco in Gaza.”

Neshat’s work features photographs of Iranian women in traditional Islamic dress, often with Arabic poetry inscribed on the visible parts of their bodies. Neshat says her pictures are inspired by the idea that “in Islam a woman’s body has been historically a type of battleground for various kinds of rhetoric and political ideology”.

“This is not a subject these students would have been exposed to in any depth,” says Tierney. “They really surprised me. These fifth-year students were every bit as capable of having deep insights into the work as I, with my degree, am. They engaged in the exact same way. They were open to expressing personal responses in front of the group and applying what they saw in Neshat’s work to situations closer to home.”

Muniz also caught the students’ attention with his mixed-media work in the world’s largest rubbish dump, Jardim Gramacho on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. Through his images the students came into contact with the lives of those who live around the dump and make a living picking through its contents.

Sacco, a comic-strip artist in Gaza, intrigued the students with his presentation of a conflict they knew little about.

“They went on to look for more work by these artists and found other interesting people,” says Tierney. “Students would often come up to me in the corridor to show me images they had found on their phones. They came to class enthused and looking forward to it.”

Art as motivator
Tierney hoped the students might be prompted to examine human rights issues through their own art, but she felt it was something she couldn’t push.

“I really enjoyed expressing myself through art [when I was] growing up, and part of the reason I became a teacher is that I wanted to help other young people to experience that. It was the only way I could express myself honestly without being self-conscious, but not every child can identify with that.”

The group was suitably moved to ask Tierney if they might work on their own photography projects. “I wanted that to happen but I didn’t expect it, or the level of commitment they showed,” says Tierney. “They formed groups and spent time in each other’s houses, devising themes and setting up scenes. One or two wanted to work alone and look at deep issues, almost like a form of therapy or a chance to say something about their lives. The opinions were raw but no one was embarrassed because they were all putting so much into it. That’s a big development for that age group.”

The students tackled themes such as domestic abuse, abortion and the imbalance of power in some personal relationships. The six weeks were well spent, says Tierney, but very difficult to incorporate into a packed Leaving Cert art curriculum.

“Right now our curriculum doesn’t lend itself to projects such as this, and while I have used aspects of the Amnesty programme in my class since, I have not been able to revisit the entire programme with another class,” she says. “It’s disappointing because it’s so much more beneficial than much of what is currently studied.”

Tierney longs for the art syllabus to be updated. “The syllabus is not evolving at all,” she says. “It’s 40 years old and so broad that it’s hard to get good results. It is a stagnant subject that doesn’t allow for contemporary art practice. There’s no performance art, no conceptual art and no multimedia. We need an entire new course and we are hoping that the new Junior Cert cycle might help.

“The Amnesty programme is great because it gives students a chance to really engage with art and respond personally. There’s very little room for reflection in the current scheme.”

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