The personal is political: Can you talk about your personal experience as an Irish/Women/Artist & arts-professional living in UK/Ireland/Northern Ireland in the late 80s and the influences in your personal and professional development?


When I came to live in London, I felt quite isolated. My partner encouraged me to go to a céili organised by the London Irish Women's Centre in Stoke Newington where I met some of the women, who in the early 80’s, had established the centre to support the rights of Irish women living in the UK. Their work challenged social, economic, cultural discrimination and enabled me to better understand structural impacts of racism.  The depth of their understanding was profound, and I learnt much about history and politics. Being involved shifted my awareness, made me appreciate the value of the voluntary sector and in many ways, was a watershed moment for my practice. […]

There was racism. I remember a pub right opposite the Chisenhale Gallery that had a sign on the door (predating the recent conflict) saying 'no blacks, no Irish, no dogs. Systemic racism towards the Irish community was amplified by the political situation. It was hard to navigate that. It made no difference whether you came from the North or the South here, once you spoke as far as people were concerned you were just from Ireland. I came from the North and a protestant background. People grappled with that especially when the conflict impacted on the mainland.

At this time I was aware of artists such as Lubaina Himid who were working hard for visibility of black artists. Lubaina was very encouraging to me personally and to many other women from minorities. Her work helped galvanise me. There were other inspiring role models and organisations such as 'Four Corners' and 'Camera Work'. Reflecting on this now, I think that in the UK at the time, there was a moment in which these often-hard-won initiatives were ground-breaking.

For some years I collaborated with the artist John Seth, who is from Anglo-Indian background. Our discussions were often around our experiences regarding about what it was like to be living in one place whilst having two identities: British and Irish or British and Indian. Those discussions were very important and informative in my thinking. I think there was something about seeking alignment and finding a theoretical framework for one's practice to make sense. Reading post-colonial studies, discovering Stuart Hall for example and feminist criticism were key to furthering and developing my understanding. In terms of ‘identity’ I always felt that I had one toe on the edge of a raft. I was trying to haul the rest of me up with the fear that at any time I would get dragged back or pushed away, defined only ever as a stranger and not part of this place or that.

I have lived here well over thirty years, have taught in one of the major UK art schools, etc but still do not feel that I fully belong, but then I do not feel at home anywhere! My understanding of the construction of personal identity has been informed by an experience of boundaries where certitudes have seemed momentarily finite but are in fact unstable, porous and mutable. I now see the world as a place where the task of understanding and inhabiting such boundaries can be a productive and even exciting struggle.


While in England, I was based in Leeds, and I was attending a hugely influential postgraduate course - the MA in the Social History of Art – which was taught by Griselda Pollock, John Taig and Tim Clarke. I had the privilege of being taught by Griselda, who at the time was working on the final draft of the seminal text The Old Mistresses. I was fortunate to be working and studying in an environment where feminist politics and feminist art politics were very visible, and the possibility of a feminist art-activism linked to an active, self-conscious feminist politics was embedded in my life experience.  This way of working and thinking crystalised through my early involvement with the ‘Pavilion Women’s Photographic Gallery’, which was such an important feminist-led initiative in North Leeds. All these experiences – the master under the guidance of Griselda and the work with Pavilion - had been my consciousness, and then when I came back to Northern Ireland, I suddenly discovered that Art History was thought very differently there, the curriculum was very conventional.  I don’t think there was even an Art History course as such at Queens or Ulster at that point, as a discipline it was considered almost marginal, and it tended to operate through the Open University. I became the Open University’s tutor for Art History of Northern Ireland as well and the Modern Art & Modernism course and being working in the Open University of Leeds previously I know that the way in which this discipline was taught at and promoted was highly politicised, and I felt I really identified with this kind of practice and way of thinking about art practice.

I still felt very much out on a limb, because of the way a lot of Art History was being practised then in the North. One important influence and inspiration comes from the fact that I found myself surrounded by a lot of contemporary art which - quite frankly - I wasn’t really that familiar with. This encouraged me to start working a lot more on contemporary practices, at that point I was an Art Historian who occasionally wrote reviews of contemporary art, but then I started thinking of myself as much more as a critic and as a feminist art critic. It was a catalysing experience, but also felt quite isolating, I think because people had just come through a very different education system, or moved to England and not come back, I felt that the way I was approaching things was very different from a lot of other Art Historians.

While settling in Belfast, I was beginning to make inquiries about how I could write and publish while living in NI and I found out about CIRCA – an all-Ireland art critic magazine initiated in Belfast 1981. I can’t remember what the first thing was that I wrote for CIRCA, but it was probably a feminist review of some kind…  I remember we were having a lot of informal discussions around feminism thinking and sharing a flat with Louise and Alice certainly meant that there was a lot of talk about feminist art going. It was a great experience for me, an emerging art historian, living with them when they were making things and being involved in various projects. I really had the chance to witness their process of decision making.


I was aware of the art being produced by women in the US through publications like the Artists Newsletter (which then morphed into the Artists Information Company), which I was subscribed to and so I was getting the newsletter monthly. A-N contained loads of information about artists’ opportunities and lots of practical information on materials and technique, but also information about organisations, groups, and collectives. Through A-N I became aware of the Women Artists Slide Library, and I was one of their members from about 1982. WASL produced a publication called Women’s Artists News, and I remember also getting the Feminist Art News along with that. So, I would have had quite a lot of information about what was happening with, across the board in terms of arts and feminist-informed art, which was the focus of my interest.
On a personal level, I was interested in feminist literature, i.e. Simone De Beauvoir’s memoirs, The Feminine Mystique and Sweet Freedom by Anna Coote and Beatrix Campbell – this last one was an history of British women’s liberation feminism, which had a big influence on my work. Another book that I have found very influential was Marina Warner’s Alone of All her Sex, which having been raised in a Catholic household seemed to me to explain an awful lot about both the behaviour of women in Ireland and the power of Catholic Church.

That moves me onto my personal experiences working as an artist, certainly the subject of a lot of my work at that time was based on mythologies and my experience of the claustrophobic and controlling Church/State. Around that time my children were at the stage of making their First Communion and I have to say I was disgusted and horrified by the whole thing, so actually a lot of my work reflected on that sense of repulsion I had for this institution. I had made a whole series of works that had little mummified babies wearing bonnets, with bandages going across and around their faces. This was representing the silencing of women, and the control of women’s bodies at the time. While contraception was available in Northern Ireland, it wasn’t in the South. I come from a family from either side, my mother is from Dublin, and I spent a lot of time there, so I was aware of the situation in both parts of the island. In the 1980s women that got married still had to leave their work if they were teaching or the civil service. That time was also marked by a series of dreadful events, like the Kerry babies case, the case of Ann, the tragic story of the young girl who died in a grotto… these kinds of things were in the papers, and they were the appalling and horrific consequences on a society that was deeply misogynistic.

I remember being in Dublin for a meeting when the second divorce referendum was voted with ‘no’. While it is important to mention that WAAG was set up to create opportunities for women to show their work, it was also operating within a context of the oppression of women, and this oppression being so much to the forefront in the media, and in the public opinion. Even though I do not remember the wider political context being addressed during WAAG’s meetings, it is within that wider context that WAAG happened. In retrospect, I am asking myself how comes that things like abortion were not being openly discussed. I suspect that taking a public political stake would probably have been causing inner conflicts. These issues were very controversial, even in a feminist artists’ group, and the priority at the time was to bringing women together, not take them apart.


I am originally from the South of Ireland. I have studied my undergraduate degree in Cork and then I moved to Belfast to do my MA. And later to San Francisco Art Institute to do a postgraduate there. In the 80s, Belfast was the only place in the island of Ireland with a Fine Arts MA course (in Ulster University). We were just six people attending at the time, and you could choose between the two main “fine arts” disciplines: sculpture or painting. The way art was taught was very compartmentalised. For instance, I was interested in drawing rather than painting – my drawing was an act of resistance in response to a middle-class, and male-centred art world that privileged painting as the highest status art language. The art system at the time felt very hostile to somebody like me. Nonetheless, I had to do some paintings in order to get assessed for my master’s degree, I couldn’t just present drawings… that was the state of art education at the time, so narrow-minded. I remember my tutor, Alastair MacLennan, had to give me the news that I wasn’t allowed to show only drawings for the degree show, there would have to be paintings too (even though he didn’t agree with that, and few years after he apologise to me). During my time in Ulster University, I was also made to remove one of my drawings from the foyer. The drawing was depicting a female body with opened legs and visible genitals, in the act of giving birth. There were complains about the work, it was too explicit, too graphic, and - more contentiously - it represented the female body from a women’s point of view, and this was exhibited in a public place. While in college I felt my art production was continuously examined through a lens that was not my lens, there was no room for critiquing or re-defining the medium and the content of the works we were producing. This was the fault of the curriculum and the institution itself rather than individual tutors like McLennan who were very experimental.  Feminism was hardly spoken of however, and not brought into the critical dialogue in any form…we had to search that out ourselves.  Female tutors or visiting artists were very thin on the ground, as were visiting tutors from the south of Ireland.  Though I did get to meet Paula Rego, my hero at the time.  There was a lot of cross-border cooperation between artists on the ground at the time, but this was not reflected in the teaching practice.  The college was very UK centred and looked to London for its influence.  Work of a ‘political’ or controversial nature could be censored or blocked by institutions of the time, like the Ulster Museum. 


Living in Northern Ireland for me was a political experience, which was linked with my previous awareness of activisms work in Cork: I was involved, for example in ‘The Women’s Place’ in the Quay Co-op – a very strong space for women's political organisation. When in college in Cork there was a huge movement of student feminism, so I was learning about it too from past generations of artists and activists. My deeper understanding of feminism thinking and practice and its relationship with artmaking became more coherent during my MA in Belfast, when I could have access to what was going on in Britain. Since then, I didn’t really know a lot about British contemporary Art, the resources in the library in Cork, especially around feminism, were very poor.

In Ireland, feminist ideas were coming from places like the Grapevine in Dublin (which later developed into ‘Project Arts Centre’), although I was never really involved with this organisation.  There was a lot of political activity and I suppose one of the pressing issues on the agenda was abortion rights, while queers’ rights were just beginning to tip around.

When I moved to Belfast, I started to come out more coherently as a lesbian and understand local feminism within the framework of the occupation of Northern Ireland, the Troubles, the working-class struggles, the war. I would have been on different boards and working with different organisations like ‘Women’s News’ and the ‘Lesbian Line’ which was part of Cara Friend, a NI gay-help line and the organising of different events that surrounded the International Women’s’ Day celebrations in Belfast. These events linked up a lot with the ‘troops-out’ movement and centred on women political prisoner who had been strip-searched and the many human rights violations happening in the British Prison’s services at the time. Getting to know in first person the situation in the North was really an eye-opener for me. I was living with Fionna and Alice in the Lower Ormeau Road at that time, which was an interface area, and I suppose I started to see what was happening as a cause of imperialism, and it was progressively getting more cultured into political consciousness during my time living in Belfast.

Shortly after I graduated, I ran a touring exhibition of our MFA show in Derry, Dublin, and Cork. Through this I worked in residencies and projects in Derry as a recent MA graduate. The time I spent in the city was very formative, and I got the chance to meet Nancy Spero and Leon Golub, both were working on projects run by the Orchard Gallery in Derry [Walsh refers to the double exhibition ‘Nancy Spero: Selected Works 1954-1986’ and ‘Leon Golub: Selected Paintings 1967-1986’ both held in Orchard Gallery, 15th July-12th September 1987.]

I was wanted to travel to the US, and I got a £200 bursary from the Alice Berger Hammerschlag Foundation to finance my trip that summer (1987). It was a great opportunity, the grant could be spent how I wanted, I just had to write a short report to tell them how I did spend the money.  I had this idea of doing presentations and exhibitions of contemporary Irish Women artists’ work while travelling, so I asked the artists in WAAG & NIWAG to give me their slides before leaving Ireland… and that’s what I did, I was travelling around the States, being hosted in people’s houses and had exhibitions and various presentations of contemporary Irish women artists in America.

I managed to do an exhibition of Irish women artists in New York later in 1987 while staying at Leon Golub and Nancy Spero’s loft, and I organised another event in the Irish Art Centre in New York. On the back of that, I was invited to present the work at a Women’s Collective in San Francisco, and at the San Francisco Art University, the School of Art in Chicago and in other places… It was all organised through artists’ connection, I was trying to make the most of my 200 quid, and I was so interested to be there, as an artist and as a queer person. I got the chance to attend the first ever LGBTQI+ march in Washington (well it wouldn’t have the QI+ back then!).

The experience of being in a crowd of queers, like a million queers from all over the States, coming from as far as Hawaii and the Yukon in Alaska, and the act of ceremonially unfolding each of the AIDS quilts, was really powerful for me and it really informed my feminist practice and thinking. It was quite an incredible experience to see the impact aids had made on the queer community, and this physical tradition of quilting becoming how the images of each represented counted person, their life and death celebrated and documented, sharing in this massive grief and loss.  And then, hanging out with a load of likeminded people, a load of lesbians who were organising politically and culturally in America… We were used to feeling (and being) so illegal and so fugitive back in Ireland and it was so important for me, once in U.S., to be hosted under feminist and queer flags. My understanding of an inclusionary feminist activism at the time included both lesbian, bisexual, and heterosexual, and many people from different cultures all affected by homophobia, misogyny, poverty and racism… There was a strong sense of connection between all our struggles: women were coming together, the marginalised were coming together, and many of the marginalised were women, were queer… as activists, we were trying to work out class issues, national politics, imperialism, and colonialism. Racism seemed part of all these problematic issues as a result of imperialist abuse of power and control.  

In Northern Ireland, we were mainly white feminists/lesbians organising around the cultural and social dynamics of artistic representation, sexism, occupation, sectarianism and the conflict. Within the arts, women were so underrepresented. In Art Schools the teaching was mostly led by men, who often used their position of power to take the advantage of young female students (and there was no metoo# stuff going on!). And for many young women the experience of being in the Art School was quite negative, there was a constant, frustrating feeling of being pushed to the side and being dismissed professionally.

During my time in Belfast, those issue started to be finally talked about in much more coherent ways, suddenly we were all saying, ‘sure we have all, I have done this, I have done that, I am this, I am that and yet still I can’t get the work seen as it should be seen’. This space that we were making for ourselves was being opened by women in WAAG and NIWAAG. 

Self-organisation: How did your group self-organise? What was its structure (formal/informal; hierarchical/anti-hierarchical, institutional/anti-institutional)? What inspired it, what did work and what didn’t?


We had regular meetings at the Irish Women’s Centre, I think it was every month or so. We discussed work and planned upcoming projects. I don’t think we took minutes as such. We had to produce funding applications and reports which provide some formal record of our activities, such as the IWIG annual reports where there were accounts of ‘Prism’ and the ‘Eye to Eye’.

There was no plan to constitute, IWAG was a collective, a loose collective of shared interests that primarily was set up to enable Irish women artists find some visibility in UK.


When we created NIWAG, Fionna was certainly the one who put in most of the heavy admin and organisational work. Our idea was to have an organised presence specifically for those artists based in Northern Ireland. At the time, the border was very policed, and the presence of this legal boundary of two jurisdictions of statehoods felt very real compared to now. NIWAG organisation itself was quite informal, the only reason why NIWAG was constituted was because we were applying to Northern Ireland Arts Council to get fundings to develop our projects, so to be eligible to apply we needed to be constituted as an organisation that operated in Northern Ireland.

For us in NIWAG, it was about taking agency and running with it. We wanted to show how many women artists were living and working in the North.  

Despite being the first organisation on the island of that kind, NIWAG was definitely much more provisional that WAAG and it had a shorter life, it had less orthodoxy I think, we were doing more pop-up stuff… Northern Ireland at the time seemed to be a ‘sedate’ place for art. Because of the 'Troubles' going on, the mainstream artworld seemed to strive for a neutral middle space. Political, community and feminist activism happened more at the unfunded edges, this DIY creative energy was untidy and didnt follow an art market. It was a quite a statement to have a group like ours crossing borders, where you have me, Fionna an academic protestant Northern Irish woman, and other both Southern Irish and Northern Irish artists.


I feel that Fionna was instrumental in pursuing women artists’ organising from the Northern Irish end. In the first year, WAAG and NIWAG were totally separate organisations.

Later in 1988, it was decided that NIWAG was to become affiliated with WAAG. From the newssheets I gathered that both Catherine McWilliams and Rita Duffy were the Northern Ireland representatives, but after the 1988 there was no further specific activity in Northern Ireland after the Derry Conference, apart from a few meetings between Belfast-bases artists. NIWAG became the Northern Ireland Branch of WAAG, and became part of the overall organisation, and we were catching up through the newsletter and regular meetings. There were also meetings and get together happening in Galway and Cork – which was great, because it could reach to more artists in the island. People from the south or West would not necessarily get to Dublin often and might had not the time nor the resources to go to the meetings.


In WAAG, there was a collision between the ambition to be inclusive and at the same time having the responsibility of being an organisation that represented the work of women artists. […] It was difficult to navigate in a situation where there was a stark lack of funding available for artists, especially if not established or if not represented by any gallery, so the artists from WAAG participating in international exhibition ended up being the ones that were able to finance themselves… 

Another point of contradiction was whether it was actually beneficial for women’s’ visibility being part of women-only ‘separatists’ events, which in a way were ghettoising those artists that were often excluded from mainstream exhibitions.

But there were definitely successful outputs, such as putting together a slide library of Irish women artists, on the model of the UK women artists slide library. Along with the programme of events and exhibitions, the slide library was another attempt to prove that women were doing valid work within the contemporary Irish art scene.


WAAG itself operated in a very kind of formalised structure, with AGM’s and regional meetings, NIWAG was quite different in comparison, we were trying to take a much more collective approach as such, and this was causing sometimes a bit of tension I between the two areas.

The way that WAAG was operating was trying to be echoing or replicating the same institutional structures that I felt we should have been proactively involved in critiquing and subverting. Which is a difficult thing to do if you are on the side of the “oppressed” or “underrepresented”.

While WAAG artists’ work was particularly pointing and hard hitting, it was clear that WAAG […]  had a very strong an institutional identity and I felt it lacked institution’s political critique, which might have actually led to a different outcome. Obviously, this is a personal opinion that comes from the idea I have on feminist spaces, informed by my previous experience of working in the Pavilion, which ethos were very much based on a collectivised feminist politics as a means of subverting and intervening within the institution. But it is also important to point out that the Pavilion was supported by an active relationship with feminist politics and feminist pedagogy departments at the University of Leeds - through the position of Griselda and people who had come after her. It was operating within a very different context than Ireland, and in retrospect I can say that it was difficulty to try to run something like the Pavilion, without the same of support network or funding structure.


Breeda and Pauline did an excellent work showing what was achievable. They were coming from a privileged position, but they have the bravery to go beyond that, and organise shows and events that were as inclusive as possible.  They were “open-to-all” shows, there was no selection, so the standards widely varied between mid-career artists, young graduates like me and Sunday painters. Every self-described “woman artist” was included, there was no censorship. For this reason, everybody ran wild. For the first time, artists could just do what they want as they want, in an inclusive, anti-hierarchical and supportive environment. It was extremely liberating and looking back at WAAG now I can see how ahead of its time it was, and made many people very nervous, as we had all been educated in such a hierarchical system.  Interestingly, WAAG still gets so little recognition or attention today, as if it were a kind of aberration and not a break-out movement.


It was then a tendency to have a less hierarchical structures in women`s groups. But I thought that for our ambitions we needed more structure. We were all very busty many of us with small children so there needed to be a timeline and deadlines. A structure allowed us to function, but it was still very informal, as many of us were friends.

We had a constitution, so it was a little more formal than a group of friends or you know, it was hoping to make change through yeah, a more formal organisation that could interact with government departments and you know, be taken seriously.

Catherine McGuinness was a High Court Judge in the South of Ireland at the time, she had very strong feminists in politics, and we asked her to look at the constitution we had drawn up and she helped us form that. We were very ambitious in the setting up of the group, and structure it in a way that would function properly. 

We worked collaboratively from project to project, and then we had an annual meeting and elections every year, so everyone had a chance to say what they thought or what they wanted, so your voice could be heard. I also think it was very important to travel to meet WAAG members based in Galway, Cork and Belfast … it helped people share thoughts and experiences, through conversation with us, they could say what the situation was for them and what the problems were for them. At the same time, it is hard to hear all the voices, you might be open, but people aren’t going to tell you everything about what is going wrong …

There was a real urgency about what we wanted to do in what we felt was a desperate situation. Getting funding was difficult and required such an amount of work, like to even get a catalogue together or to get money to travel to Europe or bring work outside the country…Most of the time we were asking different members to do things, you asked me about the group who wanted to do research and statistics about women artists in Ireland, I wasn’t involved in that work group, but we were all doing our little bits. Getting together was important to update the others about what we were at. It was such an intense period, and when you look back you realise it was a very a short-lived organisation.

Friendship & Collaboration: How integral was friendship between peers to the success of the group? Was friendship beneficial in allowing women to work in a different way in comparison to other contemporary collective practices’ structures?


Some of us were friends before the formation of IWAG. Others became friends through our work together. Alanna O'Kelly, as I have mentioned, was already a good friend and certainly my friendship with her was key. I am not sure if Alanna knew Francis before the group formed or later. After forming IWIG I became friendly with Rosie McGoldrick, Carole Key and Fionna Barber. I see friendships as an active "rhizomatic structure"- as theorised by Deleuze and Guattari in their work A Thousand Plateaus (1980).

There were alliances and networks that would emerge much later. To this day Fiona Barber has a significant impact in the UK and Ireland. I seem to recall she was, when I first met her in London, at the beginning of her theoretical and art historical practice, which involved writing in depth about a lot of contemporary Irish women artists. Her friendship and scholarship across the board has meant a lot. Certainly, meeting Fionna was helpful to someone like me who didn't have a formal art education. I listened to her eloquence around the efforts we were making to make change. She had a very clear understanding of what was going the time and was a key ally.


There were many connections happening, for example between the IWAG in London and NIWAG in the North… And that was directly linked with the artists that made these connections happening. An example is Alanna [O’Kelly], who - after being a member of IWAG and being involved the London’s arts scene - moved back to Dublin and started working there. Another artist that was a key “connector” is certainty Anne [Tallentire]. Anne came to Belfast to perform ‘Altered Tracks’ as part of ‘Identities’, at the opening night. It was a version of the performance she did for ‘Off the Map’ in the Chiesenhale. So again, that was forging very strong links between artists and our organisations.


During my MA and shortly after I graduated, I was sharing a flat in South Belfast with Louise Welsh and Fionna Barber. Louise and I were in the master course together. […] She was a great friend and a great example to me. I didn’t take part in the establishment of NIWAG or WAAG as far as I remember, but as a recent graduate, I was very keen to exhibit my work and take part in as many opportunities as possible. Compared with my experience in college, it was so liberating to be part in WAAG’s shows and projects, it was just great to be accepted in such an experimental project, and to meet like-minded people.


As part of WAAG, I made many long-lasting friendships. I was friendly with Alice Maher, and many years later then when I was working in NIVAL in Dublin I use to stay at her flat and she stayed over occasionally, and we had wonderful chats…  in NCAD at the same time Pauline Cummings and Louise Walsh did a job share in the sculpture department, so I was in contact with them too. I would have been very friendly with Jenny Haughton for a long time, but with the kids growing up and being involved in different things (I was doing a PhD in Ulster at the time) it does not leave enough time to socialise.

Friendship was certainly key. To a certain extent, WAAG & NIWAG genuinely supported artists through a celebration of other people’s exhibitions and events. In the WAAG’s newsletter there was always a list of members and associates’ activities. Although there was not so much in terms of opportunities of working collaboratively between artists.

Another important thing to remember is that none of these organisations were existing in a vacuum, there was all kind of crossovers and reciprocal influence, it is important to look at them as multiple layers - as you said previously - of the same environment, regardless the inbuilt contradictions.


We were all working in each other’s kitchens or living rooms or bedrooms… . 

I think also happening around the same time was the Irish women’s camp and other connections that where queer women were crossing the border to be together and to make connections which for me developed a very strong and diverse community of lesbian based (but not exclusively) cross border Irish culture. An example is the ‘Co-operation North’ funding for the ‘Lesbian Line’, allowed us to meet with the others and we were able to pay for travel, subsistence and accommodation or gesture towards accommodation, we were meeting in houses… there would be lots of women in the North going down for these two events and it was such a significant moment for making friends and connections.



Friendship was key to the support structure of WAAG. While there were some formal meetings there were many informal, in the pub, chats and discussions. Friendship was very important between artists, organisers, historians, and writers. [Friendship] was very important [to nurture connections with other European-based groups such as IAWA, International Association of Women Artists] and we remained friends with many international artists through WAAG. I think we all made friends in different countries and the friendships lasted a long time.

Support networks and experimentation as acts of resistance: What was your group’s strategy to resist and counteract the status quo? Many women artists were implementing practices that were very innovative at the time, such as artists moving image and performance art. How did your group platform and support these experimental practices? 


Our artistic practices were pushing at the edge of the tradition and of the canon that we were all expected to validate.

Enabled by our collective expertise we sought to operate professionally both in terms of work and exhibitions. All outward facing publicity such as connections with media were designed to a high standard to counter any preconceptions that we were naively amateurish. Some community- based, grassroots, art groups and projects consciously adopt a DIY aesthetic as a politically critical gesture. However, back then we felt it was important for us to avoid being judged or dismissed as "less than" more established  organisations even though we had far fewer resources. We wanted to ensure the artists connected to our project would be taken seriously.


I think that most critics were reluctant to consider [women’s work] experimental practices because of the canonical status of painting and expressionism at that time.

The fact that so many women were doing challenging work - through the experimentation of different kinds of media - was connected with the feminist debates around art practice in the early eighties and the discourse around women of representation in art. I feel that this was very much more relevant in England, for some women it was quite difficult to pursue traditional artforms there. […]

My experience of Ireland was different, there were many women artists such as Alice Maher that were also painters, so you didn’t have that kind of division between a “feminist-informed art making” and conventional media of expression.


For us – women artists - it was essential to have the platform to experiment new media (videoart, performance), or mixed media (sculpture with textile art, ceramics, multi-media installations…) and new materials (body hairs, natural materials, found objects…). Cross disciplinary and cross cultural. Our artmaking was a conscious stance in rejection of the establishment, an act of resistance to the classist and misogyny attitude of the arts and society. We felt that in the late 80s, traditional sculpture and painting were just not enough for our needs and aspirations. The critics and art writers of course hated us, WAAG projects were described as “ghetto” exhibitions and the artwork were labelled as “vagina-art” because there was quite a lot of works that had to do with the female body and the conditions of being a woman in Ireland at that time. The word “feminist” was used as a slur at the time, as was synonym of being a “lesbian” (used as a derogatory term). I like the fact that WAAG purposely chose the slur ‘WAGs’ for their name’s acronym. It has the power shout of reclamation about it. 

You have to understand the kind of lived experience of feminism that we were engaged in in Ireland.  It wasn’t theoretical nor abstract for us.  We were living in a country where our body was (and still is) completely policed, from our birth to our death. The condition of women in Ireland was sickening, and we weren’t even aware of the whole picture...[2] We were worth nothing, absolutely nothing in the eyes of the State, and that’s what galvanised many women to approach feminism / feminist groups or a more direct-action activism. That is why we were labelled as doing so-called “vagina-art”, that’s why our work was so visceral, angry, and outraged. We finally had a place to express ourselves and it felt like a “volcanic explosion” of feelings & aspirations that had been suppressed for too long. 

At the time of WAAG, we felt that some things were beginning to shift in Ireland (i.e. the ROI joined the European Union, the power of the Church started to crumble…) but still women’s bodies were constantly under pressure, under stress. Denial of reproductive rights, of contraception and divorce implemented by the State[3] were deliberate acts of state violence against the female body, and we personally experienced this oppression daily. Of course, queer and trans rights were not even mentioned in society at the time.

There was a huge sense of frustration and hopelessness among many women in the Island. Initiatives like WAAG gave many emerging artists like me the confidence and support to develop my ideas, think laterally, question established norms, and employ multi-faceted processes - as an artist, as a feminist and as an advocate for women’s / basic human rights.


The work that myself and other artists were making was critiquing - physically and politically – the positions for women in society and the effects of patriarchy - although we didn’t use the word patriarchy that much then - we were very much exploring this type of oppression towards women and women’s experience. There was also an interest towards re-claiming of histories going on at the time- re-imagining and re-casting myths, fairy tales and legends. It was a way to find ourselves, and making new her-stories, reshaping a past that had erased women’s stories and lives.

As an emerging (women) artist just graduated, I felt quite hopeless – there was no opportunities, little fundings… Initiatives like NIWAG/WAAG happened just because some women that were occupying a more privileged position decide to put up with all the hard work in to make things more accessible, it was just though consistent hard work and strategic organisation that they were able to keep doors open, the gap was held open by literally the sore feet of these women, keeping their feet in that door - and they were able to do it because they were the ones that could afford to do that – keeping that door open for those who could not do it themselves.

The provisional space that the likes of WAAG and NIWAG held was so important, and I remember specifically Pauline Cummins and Breeda Mooney from WAAG being phenomenal organisers that put a massive amount of work in the organisation.  And there were also others very active, for example Patricia Hurl, Therry Rudden, and many others.

This also can have effects on these artists practice, and when women did a lot of organising sometimes this is affecting their own creative space - so that is a hard one when speaking about self-organised, volunteer-led working, you are giving over your time with kids and partners and your activism and then a lot of people don’t get the space to develop their own practice. It is worth mentioning that there is a lot of costs in terms of the energy and time that somebody dedicates to such initiatives, which is usually under-recognised.


Many women in Ireland were already part of consciousness raising groups in the 1970s we were realising that we needed to talk to each other more openly and to share our experiences

In WAAG we tackled the feeling of isolation that many women artists felt, and by traveling to meet each other we were able to share our experiences. By organising exhibitions to allow the work to be seen, by having visiting artists to share their skills and by having a collective voice to question the status quo. Along with our organised exhibition and conferences, these actions gave us great encouragement and confidence.

It was great to have people to talk to and to feel you were part of a group of people who were fighting for the same things, and the international connection was so important because there were artists who were way ahead in using video and video installation and had the support from government for studios and equipment and you could see ‘oh look, we should have what the Dutch have’, ‘we should have the support that the Swiss or Germans have’, so it was also that people understood the potential and importance of that work, our peers and friend in Europe completely accepted that you would make videos, or completely accepted that you would have an installation of photography as your work, whereas in Ireland it was more difficult to be taken seriously if you used video, so for me those links outside Ireland with other Europe-based women-led artists groups were very important.

Legacy: Looking back, what do you think has been the legacy of IWAG/NIWAG/WAAG in the Irish/Northern Irish art production of the 90s? And what has been its immediate influence in terms of gender equality and women’s rights? Did any of the members continue to work together? What is the legacy of these women artists' advocacy groups today?


IWAG was a relatively small-scale project that had a short life over for a few years. It drew to a close due to members' various commitments such as work, life, family, and care responsibilities. [.] Although hard to quantify I think part of the legacy of IWAG would be the sense of confidence that some of us felt having had association with the group's activities, the confidence to take our work into places that we might not have done before, and the confidence to speak on behalf of colleagues and others.

I imagine, it would depend on perception. I mentioned before, the experience in WAG probably had an impact on Fiona's thinking. IWAG certainty had this effect for me. It gave me the courage to go into higher education and not to be afraid to think about complex issues related with identity, which is something I would have struggled to make visible, so in many ways there is a massive legacy, but one that would remain at a meta-level.

Initiatives such as IWAG were active for a short period of time, and members didn't necessarily end up working together. I think though however modest, something positive did emerge from our being acknowledged, heard and seen. We felt more confident to acknowledge the extraordinary contribution of Irish women artists both in UK and Ireland. Some friendships, networks and projects certainly grew from it.

Over the years, and with the understanding of how difficult it can be to push against unconscious and conscious bias in education and the art world in general, while teaching where I had a little agency, I sought to create opportunities for Irish artists.

On a positive note I was invited by the UK artist Monica Ross to give a lecture at Central Saint Martins having seen my performance Altered Tracks in Off the Map and having been in the audience at the Eye to Eye event co-organised with the Women Artist Slide library.  Our contact is an example of how a significant network of support emerged through friendship and solidarity.

I think younger artists and communities continue to find the voice and confidence to speak in ever more innovative ways about the trauma of being ‘othered'. They need to share new life skills and understanding to survive in an alienated environment and yes, I think friendship is key to survival within the art world, and beyond.


Some members became focused on their individual careers because the collective work was unsustainable in the long term, mainly due to economic reasons. But many of them – like artist Alice Maher - further develop some of the ideas coming from the groups making visible issues around gender, identity and Irishness.

I would like to think that the consciousness raising and the growth of awareness that WAAG & NIWAG advocate for, had a considerable positive effect, contributing to a sea change in how issues of gender and identity and Irishness have been perceived, in the art world and beyond it, from the 1990’s onwards. At the same time, it is risky to generalise. Working at the same time of WAAG and NIWAG, there were artists like Dorothy Cross who were quite successful and who wanted to remain independent from these initiatives.

On the other side, some collaborations between artists continued after the dissolution of WAAG, most noticeably Louise and Pauline’s duo-project “Sounding the Depths” (1992). This project – showcased in an institution like IMMA – represented a real sea-change, an important shift in culture politics towards the exploration of identities (gender and national) in post-nationalism scenario.[1]

In the context of milestones exhibitions like ‘In a State’ at Kilmainham Gaol[2] - which was the 75th Anniversary of the Easter Rising - it was so important to have (finally) portrayed a range of issues around feminism and identity, including queer identities (manly through Louise’s work). The presence of many artists coming from WAAG in that exhibition was an indication that a change was being made, and that identity politics were discussed in mainstream art environments.

I personally felt it was very important to influence another, new, generation of artists, and contributing in this way to the ongoing debate around feminism in the arts. That’s quite an intangible legacy of these women’s groups and collectives… In the nineties, the whole art world was very much focused (again) on the singular individual, but there was still a need for artist to come together and self-organise, specifically in those places at the periphery of the art market, and it is interesting that organisations like ‘Catalyst Arts’ began to emerge around that time.


I am glad to say that groups like WAAG and NIWAG would be anachronistic now. I think representation of women in cultural events has ceased to be an issue today. I did surveys for the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition in the 90s, particularly looking at Arts Council funding to see what the distribution of grants in relation to gender was - and there was no indication of bias that I could see. Nonetheless, on a further thought while reading this transcription, I can’t help feeling that the position of women has now become less and less certain. Especially in recent years, as the influence of the extreme right starts penetrating societies, women's rights come under attack 

WAAG and NIWAG took on their shoulder the groundwork that needed to be done and couldn’t wait longer. Maybe it is just speculation on my part, thinking that having raised the issues and questioned how things were being done, institutions and organisations and those individuals that were making decisions were required to be more mindful and more deliberate in their decision making - rather than just following a traditional path. If in some organisation or exhibition or whatever there were no women in it, I think people would certainly notice after NI/WAAG’s work… and after a while the counting stopped, I can’t remember when, but at some point, and was not necessarily anymore to check if women had been included or not, it just ceased to be an issue.

And there is certainly an indirect legacy, in terms of collective working and advocacy. For example, people like Alice Maher who was involved in significant aspects of WAAG and NIWAAG, few years ago became one of the leading ‘Artists for Repeal the 8th’, along with artist Cecily Brennan. A lot of artist-led activism certainty re-emerged in the arts and beyond at the time of the ‘Repeal the 8th campaign’ in the south of Ireland. And this influenced artists in the North too, Array Collective is the example of that.


It showed me the power of solidarity with peers, and confidence in the idea that another alternative is always possible. I was not an activist in early life, but collaboration & solidarity were approaches to practice that I carried through into my later career, for example during my participation in the “Artists’ Campaign to Repeal the 8th Amendment” or my recent collaboration with Rachel Fallon for “the Map” during The Magdalene Series at Rua Red in Dublin. Other artists in WAAG started important collaborations, for example Pauline and Louise for the work “Sounding the Depths”. Pauline and Louise also initiated a lecturer job-share in NCAD, which was quite an uncommon thing at the time. So, work practices were changed, influenced by different ways of thinking. Many people involved in NIWAG/WAAG went into education (as students or lecturer), so they carried out the ideas which were tested in NIWAG/WAAG: experimentation of contents and materials, non-hierarchical and collaborative approaches to art making, as well as an interest/involvement in activism.


he most important legacy was visibility – and this goes back with what I was saying about queer identity, we were trying to just be visible actually, it was really important to list and demonstrate that women’s work existed and it was as high a calibre as their male counterpart, and why the reason there was no women artists visible was because nobody had tried to make them visible, so we had to do that to ourselves and for ourselves. It was a real self-organising energy, and it created an invaluable precedent that could then be referenced.


Standing up to be visible and counted was strategically important for women and queers, for women and people in the UK and in the U.S., it was also a race issue, this wasn’t so prevalent in the island of Ireland because the majority of the population was still very white. Nonetheless, we had here a real class issue, where there was a real lack of women from working class background getting access to the arts. On another side, lesbian women were feeling like they couldn’t show themselves because they would be marginalised- and worse- as sometimes the penalties for stepping outside of ‘your allocated lane’ as a woman in Ireland – especially via a ‘deviant sexuality’ – this rejection, controls and the punishments for ‘getting above yourself’ could be very painful and terrifying.


There was still plenty to be sticky about, but visibility was the big energy we were activated by, making it impossible to ignore us again, making it impossible to say we didn’t exist and to try and show the quality and the calibre and the engagement that was contemporary, that was critical, and it was loud.


Exhibitions and events including women started to take place, and it was great to see women grabbing space and looking at a catalogue and saying ‘look, this happened and isn’t that great’. I remember the ICA showing ‘Women and Pandora’s Box’ and ‘About Time’, talking about women and performance, these were really important moments, they weren’t still in mainstream but we were starting grabbing things to bring them into the centre, wanting to be that centre, a centre - either because we were coming from outside or trying to be radical and trying to open up spaces outside the establishment, in our own terms - dealing and opening up with issues and experiences that affected half the population.


Today’s legacy is hard to quantify… Some of these archives, like WAAG, are currently held in NCAD [NIVAL], so hopefully that will inform and inspire young artists… I think these archival materials still hold that energy towards making change that was fuelling WAAG and NIWAG, as well as the research you are developing, which will hopefully get more people interested in the women-led collectives’ scholarship.


What we have already said about visibility is very important for me, as well as the fact that at the start of the 90s there seemed to be more women teaching in the arts departments.

Generally speaking, I think WAAG has allowed a lot of women artists to be more confident and that would mean being more ambitious in their work and expectations… I don’t think women artists were content to be ignored anymore, so it was ‘no, that is not good enough’, and partly it was just about saying ‘well, you have to get out there and fight’ for what you want.

Along with organising exhibitions, we also produce our own catalogues and create critical dialogue around WAAG’s work. This includes critics and journalists that understood feminism, and history of art from a feminist perspective… it was just small stepping stones, we were aware that it is hard to make change, and change is slow in Ireland.

When I have been writing about WAAG and about that time in Ireland, what emerged from it was the fact that many women were involved in education, for example Louise Walsh is still teaching in NCAD, Alanna O’Kelly was and still is an educator, as well as Patricia Hurl and Patricia McKenna. I think that work was very important because they were passing on the feminist approach to art making and finding overlooked herstories and teaching students about the women artists who had been swept under the carpet or hidden or ignored. This had a big effect on the next generations of artists and is one of the key legacies of WAAG. 

After WAAG came to an end, I also began teaching in NCAD and brought video and photography into the discussion, which was not happening before that, so I think attitudes have changed in lots of ways.