Locks to Mincéirí identity


CROWNING GLORY An image from ‘Crown lakeen’, which runs at The Linenhall Arts Centre until October 31.

Exhibitions exploring hair, culture and identity have opened in two Mayo venues

Consciously or unconsciously, we often see hair as a signifier of a person’s identity. From skinheads to foppish fringes, Afros to bobs, hairstyles can make a statement about group affiliation or belonging.
Two unique photography exhibitions exploring hair as a powerful symbol of culture and identity are being launched this week at the Linenhall Arts Centre, Castlebar, and the National Museum of Ireland – Country Life, Turlough Park. The exhibitions are part of a fascinating Mayo arts project entitled ‘Crown – Hair and Identity’, which focuses on Traveller/Mincéirí women and girls and the subject of how hair is intrinsically linked to identity, ethnicity, culture and gender.
The exhibition at the Linenhall Arts Centre, ‘Crown lakeen’, opened on October 2. It explores hair and identity from the perspective of the teenage girls who participated in the project, and  forms part of the Linenhall’s arts programme for young people.
Meanwhile, over at at the National Museum of Ireland – Country Life, an exhibition entitled ‘Crown beoir’ opened in the Courtyard Gallery yesterday (Monday), October 5. It features the women project participants and considers the same themes but brings more life experience to the subject matter.

The exhibition names draw from the Traveller language Cant, with ‘beoir’ meaning ‘woman’ and ‘lakeen’ meaning ‘girl’.
‘Crown - Hair and Identity’ was originated by Breda Mayock, who worked with Traveller women and girls in the Maple Youth Centre, Ballinrobe, and Mayo Traveller Support Group. She collaborated with photographer Orla Sloyan, to photograph the women with a special emphasis placed on their hair.
Explaining the project further, Ms Mayock said: “The way in which we treat our hair can tell as much about where we come from as our language or accent. In almost all societies hair is a strong form of self-expression. Exploring hair rituals and practices in minority cultures is particularly compelling because hair often communicates an unspoken expression of identity.
“Exploring hair with Traveller women offers an opportunity to celebrate this aspect of Traveller culture. Hair is an intensively private matter but it is also a form of self-expression that is publicly visible. It can convey how we want to be seen and also determine how we are seen. Traveller women’s hair as a subject of elaboration symbolises a unique form of creative expression and identity.”
An indigenous ethnic minority group, Irish Travellers or Mincéirí have been part of Irish society for centuries, all sharing traditions, cultural values, language and customs that make them a distinct group.
Traveller women have a unique aesthetic expression. These exhibitions aim to quietly explore how they express themselves and their sense of identity through their hair – through long luxurious locks often twisted into plaits, rolls, ribbons, top knots and curls. We also learn about what these women say about their hair, its physical appearance, its traditions, its rituals, and what it means to them.

Linenhall Arts Centre, Orla Henihan, Arts Access Officer, described it as ‘a joy’ to present ‘Crown lakeen’ as the venue’s 21st annual exhibition curated specifically with young audiences in mind. “These photographic portraits are a wonderful celebration of Traveller culture and identity, and the girls featured have shown a real generosity in sharing this with us,” she said. “Young people constantly amaze us with their insightful reflections on the art work in our gallery, and we really look forward to sharing this exhibition with them.”
Welcoming the exhibition to the National Museum of Ireland, Rosa Meehan, curator, said: “The Museum is delighted to host this dynamic exhibition. We are very grateful to the women who feature in the photographs.
“In this gorgeous portrait exhibition, these women generously share the beauty of their hair and hairstyles. We are all familiar with hair and perhaps know a little of different traditions around hair. This exhibition gives us an opportunity to explore and deepen conversations about identity and culture from the female perspective and from within the richness of Traveller Culture.
“Sincere thanks is due to the artist Breda Mayock and to photographer Orla Sloyan for their empowering work and for bringing this exhibition to the Museum. This is a very beautiful and engaging exhibition and one not to be missed.”

Short film
The voices of the project participants will also be heard in two very special short films created by the award-winning filmmaker Mia Mullarkey. They will feature the Traveller/Mincéirí women and girls, their portraits, the connection they have to their hair and their expression of their unique Traveller identity.
The National Museum of Ireland – Country Life will launch its film as part of Mayo Social Inclusion Awareness Week (October 12 to 18) while the Linenhall Arts Centre will be making a film aimed at younger audiences as an engaging resource for schools to explore the exhibition themes.

For more information on the project and the exhibitions, visit www.crownupclose.ie, www.thelinenhall.com and www.museum.ie/countrylife.