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

Tue, Jan 14, 2014, 03:00

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.”

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