A PORTRAIT OF AN ARTIST Crossmolina artist Niamh O’Malley in her studio at Temple Bar Gallery + Studios in Dublin. Pic: Dragana Jurišic/Courtesy Ireland at Venice 2022.
Crossmolina artist Niamh O’Malley’s exhibition ‘Gather’ returns from Venice to the west of Ireland
The Venice Biennale is considered one of the most prestigious event for contemporary artists, attracting crowds of up to 800,000 people and often described as ‘The Olympics of the art world’. To have your work exhibited at the biennial event is considered a major honour for any artist and last year the honour of being Ireland’s representative fell to Crossmolina native Niamh O’Malley.
Her exhibition ‘Gather’ was part inspired by her surroundings of her childhood in north Mayo but Niamh readily admits that while growing up in the shadow of Nephin, the Venice Biennale was a long way from her mind.
“People ask me did I always want to show events at Venice Biennale. I had no idea what Venice Biennale was and I never even heard of it as a young person,” she laughs during an interview with The Mayo News last week.
Niamh grew up in a typical west of Ireland family. The eldest of six children, her father was a small farmer while her mother Mary was a school teacher in Crossmolina NS where Niamh went to school.
It was not what you would describe as an ‘arty family’ but from a young age Niamh was attracted to the creative world and she knew it was the path she wanted to do down.
“I was a child who liked drawing and making things but beyond that there was no focus on visual art in the family or anything like that. I didn’t see any galleries until I was an adult,” she admitted.
“When I was growing up art wasn’t really a thing I was aware of. I just liked drawing, reading and making things. I had a really good teacher Sr Fionnula Keaveny [in Gortnor Abbey Secondary School, Crossmolina] who was a true artist herself and gave me a bigger sense of what it could be. The art room was a place I was very comfortable in and wanted to spend all my time in and double art were the best days. It was a place where I was very comfortable from day one.
“I applied for art college and I just wanted to do it clearly from early on. But I didn’t have a sense of what it was and didn’t know anything of what it meant as a career at that point. It was something I found out later.”
Having attended art college in Belfast in the early 1990s, Niamh embarked on a successful career specialising in visual arts and using the landscape of her childhood as inspiration for much of her work.
“I grew up right in front of Nephin and having this mountain in front of your house, I don’t know, if you can never claim it didn’t have an affect on you. It inspires who you are.”
Niamh said that her parents were always supportive of her career choice but joked: “I think maybe they would have liked me to go into art teaching because at least it was a proper job.”
Now based in Dublin, Niamh teamed up with the Temple Bar Gallery Studios and pitched the idea of ‘Gather’ to Culture Ireland and Arts Council to represent Ireland at Venice Biennale.
After an extensive interview process, she was eventually chosen to represent Ireland at the exhibition which ran from last April to November.
“You could never have imagined doing something like that and it was beyond my expectations in my career so far. It was absolutely amazing and you are with amazing artists from loads of different countries and you are seeing their work and your work beside them, it was incredibly exciting. I was very proud to be there. My family all went over and they were all blown away and did not think it would be so exciting. Apparently they are going to go back to the next one.
“You have about 90 countries from all over the world and they put on an exhibition in Venice. We were beside Oman and Chile and the Philippines and Lithuania. You walk around and you hear people say things like ‘have you been to France?’, ‘I think Serbia is amazing this year’ or whatever. It is kind of like a bizarre Olympic village of arts where each room has a different country and they are put in what they think represents the best of their country. You don’t know what you will encounter from one second to the next, it is really exciting.”
Following the success at the Venice Biennale, Gather returns to Ireland with an Irish tour kicking off in The Model in Sligo on February 3. Using steel, limestone, wood, and glass, Niamh shapes and assembles objects to create a purposeful landscape of forms.
As the name suggests, Niamh says the exhibition is a call to gather and is expected to bring her work to the west of Ireland.
“Gather is an important word and people need to be in the space and not be virtual. It is really important that people can get to see the work in person even if they have seen tonnes of images of it online. It will feel very different standing in the room with it and the Model is a beautiful space.
“Hopefully there will be a broad sense of what I do and what I have been doing over the last few years. I am based in Dublin but I come home a lot and it is important that the exhibition begins in the west and is not always in Dublin where things start. There is no reason not to have it first in the west and for me it is really important to do that and decentralise the whole thing and allow people to see it,” she explained.
Having had to wait until she was an adult before she was able to visit a gallery, Niamh says she is encouraged by the greater access young people now have to art in Mayo and encouraged them to embrace their creative side.
“When I think back I could never have imagined where it [career in art] would have brought me. It is quite an expansive world to be part of in that you move around and travel a lot and meet new people all the time.
“Galleries are amazing resources and places where lots of things happen and really are community centres and public spaces. I did a show a few years ago in five venues in Mayo and when I met the school kids from different areas and I was so conscious of their ability to ask really good questions and their comfort around it. They took it as normal that this could be a pathway or career choice and it is amazing of how it has changed. Nobody else in the year applied for art college and it wasn’t something that was a known career choice and that has really shifted and is great. People from all over should be making art and looking at art … it is not just for the few, that is for sure.”
Ireland at Venice Irish tour of Niamh O’Malley’s ‘Gather’ exhibition, following its success as Ireland’s representation at the 59th Biennale di Venezia 2022, begins at The Model in Sligo, launching at 6pm on Friday, February 3.
Also note that ‘Gather Mayo’ will brings together parallel creative voices, in language and film, who produced work alongside Niamh O’Malley’s exhibition at the Linenhall Arts Centre, Castlebar, on Saturday, March 11.