By David Jo Murphy.
Leanne McDonagh is a name that will be familiar to many of our readers. She was the breakaway success on the RTE TV series Norah’s Traveller Academy where she launched her fledgeling art career. Since completing the RTE series Leanne has built upon her existing body of artwork to expand her auto-ethnographic themes further. The key to getting ahead in the art world is exhibiting in galleries and Leanne has managed to get her creations into galleries in Dublin and Cork and prints of her work are becoming highly sought after items.
Leanne graduated from Cork’s Crawford College of Art and Design in 2011 then went on to undertake postgraduate studies, completing a Higher Diploma in Education, which set her up for a career in teaching. Not only is Leanne an artist who is inspired by her community to create, but she has also worked in schools in the Cork area to teach and inspire the next generation of young Traveller artists. Leanne is a regular speaker at Traveller groups around the country and despite her hectic schedule, has taken time out to be a mother to young twenty-two-month-old Tommy and is expecting her next baby in April 2018 with her charming husband Thomas.
Leanne is one of the most active and visible Traveller artists in Ireland.
Leanne is one of the most active and visible Traveller artists in Ireland and from the moment she appeared on our TV screens you could not help but admire her drive, ambition and creativity. Leanne defines herself as “more of an artist than an activist,” nevertheless her new series of mixed media pieces are all about “challenging perceptions and creating a dialogue about homelessness.” With her new exhibition in the Triskel Gallery in Cork, Leanne is bringing her work to a much wider audience, as it will be on display for three months right in the heart of the city. According to Deirdre Creedon (Access Director at Cork Institute of technology) who spoke about the significance of the exhibition “Leanne is the first member of the Traveller community to create a body of work for public exhibition.” Given how often Travellers have been the focus of outsiders’ depictions of their community, this is an important milestone and it is a fitting way to celebrate the official recognition of Traveller ethnicity. When we were chatting at the launch Leanne mentioned that Deirdre was one of the people who really believed in and supported her throughout her education. Leanne joked that it’s nice to see some of her school-teachers here and that she “wasn’t always the most well-behaved student in school”.
I work well under pressure. I’m a bit of a perfectionist.
Since she last appeared on the pages of Travellers’ Voice, Leanne has been working hard to create a body of work that touches on issues at the heart of the Traveller community in Cork. Last year Leanne worked with schools in the Cork area teaching painting to young students. The programme was a huge success and it was a proud day when Leanne and her students hosted their own exhibition entitled ‘Selfie’ in the prestigious location of Cork City Hall. In other areas Leanne has gone beyond the canvas over the past two years, presenting auto-ethnographic research at two anthropology conferences and contributing research to the Irish Journal of Anthropology. When I asked her how she finds the time for everything she “I work well under pressure I give myself plenty of time to create good quality artwork. I’m a bit of a perfectionist and I will not exhibit anything if I’m not completely satisfied with it.” Another thing Leanne said about her work ethic is that Norah Casey advised her “never to turn down an opportunity” and this has made Leanne one of the busiest artists you could meet.
Norah’s Traveller Academy was not the first time that Leanne’s family has featured on TV. In 1973 the RTE made a documentary called Four Roads followed the family as they drove their horse-drawn barrel wagons to the annual fair in Ballinasloe. The film was screened as part of the Fermoy Friendship Week with the TNC (Travellers of North Cork), which Leanne and her family helped to organise, along with a Traveller art and culture exhibition. I had a quick chat with Johnny, Leanne’s father, who has fond memories of being filmed as a child. He said he remembered that it only took a few days of filming and it was a nice thing to be involved in. Leanne also talked about the documentary and how it is the only footage she has ever seen of her Grandfather who passed away at a young age. He is distinctive in the video as part of one of his fingers is missing.
Over the past year, Leanne took a lead role towards the launch of a newly curated Traveller Culture Exhibition (Toraig on the Tober) in the Cork Public Museum. This was a long-term collaboration between the museum and the Cork Traveller Women’s Network (CTWN). More recently Leanne has been involved with the TNC (Travellers of North Cork) research; addressing the shockingly inadequate provision of Traveller accommodation in the Cork area.
During the creation of a Traveller Accommodation Rights Charter with the TNC Leanne visited many Travellers in their homes throughout Cork and documented the under-provision and under-spending of the Traveller accommodation budget. The interviews and photos from this research formed the basis of Leanne’s current exhibition at the Triskel Arts Center in Cork. Speaking at the launch of the exhibition Tony Sheehan (Artistic Director at Triskel Arts Center) said that he has learned a lot about the shocking conditions that many Travellers are still living in and that the “country is in denial about what is going on.” Sheehan praised Leanne’s artistic journey saying she is always “mindful of the humanity contained in each of these images.”
The careful and sensitive depiction of Travellers and the very real and pressing issues affecting them is something that has been at the forefront of Leanne’s artwork, as she explains; “Through experience and research I can state that the permanent and transient Traveller sites that do exist, do not meet basic standards for living safely. Many are in need of immediate attention while others should be evacuated and overhauled. The simple matter of fact is that local authorities are not utilising the money allocated for Traveller accommodation and it is about time that they were held responsible for such. Up until now many depictions of the Travelling community have been sensationalist and stereotypical which tends to fuel the negative relations between both settled and Travelling communities. As a Traveller myself I want people to see the everyday realities of those who are usually misinterpreted by an outsider’s view, a view which is inaccurate and alarming. The work that I create aims to be both subtle and contemplative, hoping to draw the viewer in, inviting them to explore and discover for themselves. I achieve this by capturing images that are hazy and whimsical in their appearance, images that need to be explored and questioned in order to be understood.”
During the launch of the Accommodation vs Assimilation exhibition, her family and friends came out to share in Leanne’s success as her young son Tommy played with his father in the gallery. There was also a large public turnout for the exhibition as many students and Cork residents ventured out in the freezing rain to celebrate an important exhibition. In contemporary art when so many exhibitions tend to be narrow and autobiographical, Leanne’s work stands as a powerful statement that addresses the Traveller accommodation crisis, whilst at the same time striking back against voyeuristic and negative depictions of Travellers in arts and the media. In her opening address, Leanne paid tribute to the participants and the TNC accommodation research group “who allowed me into their lives; some are here tonight and without whom this exhibition wouldn’t be possible.”
The Accommodation vs Assimilation exhibition ran from Thursday 7th December 2017 until Sunday 25 February 2018 in the Triskel Arts Centre on Tobin Street in Cork City.