Female artists and the Troubles


Sir, – Several people have brought to my attention an article published on May 6th by Michelle Doyle, a curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

In the article, she implies, on the basis of a single exhibition (“Directions Out”, 1987), that I am a misogynist, that I deliberately did not position female artists in the exhibition and, by further implication, that this was true of other exhibitions that I have curated. None of these assertions are true.

Her so-called evidence is the absence of female artists in the show and she alleges that I “attempted to defend” my selection by pointing out that female artists were not working in the area considered by the exhibition: serious socio-political art of the non-journalistic variety produced, in relation to the Troubles, by Northern Irish artists. I did not attempt to defend anything. Rather I pointed out a fact. Over the past 30 years no-one, to my knowledge, has been able to cite a female artist who was producing thorough-going socio-political work in relation to the Troubles at the time of the exhibition. In fact, those who did later, such as Mhairi Sutherland and Marie Barrett, were first written about by myself in the pages of the Irish News and The Irish Times and were discussed in my 1989 book Art, Politics and Ireland.

Ms Doyle then cites Una Walker to back up her supposed argument, evidently unaware that Walker was and is not only a substantial sociopolitical artist herself, but also that I am her husband. If anyone has a grievance it is her as I originally selected Walker for the exhibition but the then director of the Douglas Hyde Gallery refused to allow her inclusion on the grounds that the Dublin critics would be hostile to what he thought they would see as nepotism. As the exhibition was the first one that I curated, I was not in a position to argue. I did, however, write in the catalogue about both Walker and Rita Duffy who, although she had not produced a substantial body of work on the Troubles at that period, I believed was someone to watch out for. Ms Doyle fails to note this.

Furthermore, Ms Doyle claims that the exhibition themes were war and violence. They were not. They were the socio-political reactions of Northern Irish artists to the Troubles, which is a rather different thing. Ms Doyle claims that Alice Maher was an obvious candidate for the show, clearly unaware that Maher was from the Republic of Ireland (and thus not a candidate for the show) and had not produced work in relation to the Troubles.

It is bad enough to have an art historian provide a biased and inaccurate account of one exhibition, but to have the same historian make accusations on the basis of one exhibition 30 years ago beggars belief. Why didn’t she look at other exhibitions I curated, such as “Parable Island” at the Bluecoat (1990) or “Rolling Devolution”, a touring exhibition of Scottish and Irish art (1995-97), both of which had a substantial representation of female artists? But that would not have fitted in with her thesis, would it? Her tone – the sneering reference to Abbey director Fiach Mac Conghail being “just like McAvera before him” – quite clearly casts me as the villain. – Yours, etc,



Co Down.