Dear Little Box an exhibition by Nicola Sheehan

 

 

Using her fingers, the maid pried open the lid of the great jar,

Sprinkling its contents; her purpose, to bring sad hardships to mankind.

Nothing but Hope stayed there in her stout, irrefrangible dwelling,

Under the lip of the jar, inside, and she never would venture

Outdoors, having the lid of the vessel itself to prevent her

– Hesiod, Works and Days, from a translation by Daryl Hine, 2004

Hope is a happy child.

She is always smiling. She doesn’t see the world as it really is. She doesn’t see the danger or the cruelty. Not yet.

– Fiona Whelan, Natural History of Hope, 2016

Nicola Sheehan’s practice often studies women from history and mythology who have been inaccurately or unfairly represented. As a result her work is heavily research based, and aims to empower these figures by studying and re-telling their narratives in an unbiased manner. It should not be surprising then that images of a solitary female figure, examining and cradling an open wooden case as featured in Sheehan’s Dear Little Box, reflect elements of the Greek myth of Pandora, while referencing and imaginatively rendering a real life figure, Kathleen Napoli McKenna (1897-1988). Pandora was crafted by the Gods of Olympus on Zeus’ orders as a foil for mankind. She succumbed to curiosity and opened a container releasing untold hardships on the world; sickness, death, and many other unspecified evils. In her haste to shut the container one thing remained inside – hope.

Born in Oldcastle, Co. Meath, Kathleen Napoli McKenna was witness and contributor to one of the most significant periods of modern Irish history. Napoli McKenna showed bravery, resourcefulness and dexterity in her work for the Propaganda Department of the First Dáil during the War of Independence, the London treaty negotiations, and the Civil War. Welleducated and an expert typist, Napoli McKenna worked on the production of the Irish Bulletin, an underground publication providing a daily summary of information edited for the First Dáil from its founding on 11th November 1919 until the Truce, on 11th July 1921. As well as typing every edition, Napoli McKenna also made multiple copies of each by hand using a mechanical Gestetner duplicator which she frequently had to carry from secure locations around Dublin to evade arrest by British forces, her ‘dear little box’ (Napoli McKenna 2014, 78) referenced and presented by Sheehan throughout this exhibition. Despite the capture of a number of the Bulletin staff as well as the capture of the office files and equipment on 26 March 1921, it never missed an issue thanks to Napoli McKenna’s resilience and commitment (Maume 2019). By her own words, ‘nothing was ever published in [the Irish Bulletin] which could not be substantiated by inconfutable truths’ (McKenna 1970, 508). Napoli Mckenna died in Rome in 1988.

Prior to viewing Sheehan’s Dear Little Box, Napoli McKenna was not a figure this writer was familiar with, despite her activity throughout such a pivotal period of Irish history. Carol Coulter (1993, 3) notes that, ‘not only in Ireland, but throughout the colonised world, women came onto the public stage in large numbers through the great nationalist movements of the beginning of [the last] century… However, their involvement in the revolutionary movements was not matched by their place in the newly created states’, and their legacies are just as often diminished, if not forgotten and lost to time altogether. Writing as part of Cork University Press’s Síreacht series around the centenary of the events of 1916, Heather Laird (2018, 16) posits that, ‘state-centred histories… are invariably patriarchal histories, celebrating the success of men while sidelining female involvement’. In examining historical figures such as Napoli McKenna and exploring their legacies Sheehan dismantles historical frameworks and decentres familiar notions of power and the political and, consequently, ‘expands the category of the historically relevant… produc[ing] a body of scholarship more attuned to that which is at the margins of conventional history’ (Laird 2018, 17). Dear Little Box at its core commemorates Napoli McKenna and highlights her story for a contemporary audience, in so doing calling attention to the fact that, ‘commemoration matters not only because of who and what it does or doesn’t draw attention to but because these inclusions or omissions have consequences. State-centred history writing of that sort that is reinforced by commemoration has class and gender ramifications’ (Laird 2018, 15). Sheehan’s work foregrounds the realities of class and gender inequality, highlighting the work of a working-class, female figure, and drawing attention to layers of invisible and intangible power that dictates what stories our culture tells about us, whose stories get told, and who chooses those stories, historical figures, and events to be commemorated.

Sheehan’s work presents a duality between the feminine, signified by iconographic tropes such as manicured nails, a pearl necklace, high-heeled shoes and a dress, and physical labour, identified by artefacts like the printer’s roller and duplicator to establish a dichotomy in this series of images. This is a nuanced and layered work celebrating and commemorating the life and career of a female figure whilst also highlighting the mechanics of the works own creation and recognising them in turn. Sheehan’s own body frequently forms the subject matter of her practice. The inclusion of her body within her work allows Sheehan to form a deep connection to the character she is representing, lending a performative aspect which is captured via digital photography. The materiality of her pieces is, however, both digital and analogue, as these images are reproduced and printed on paper, displayed as accurately scaled depictions of the artist’s body, allowing for as precise a representation of female self and accomplishment as possible. Hung side-by-side in a uniform triptych, three life-size images recall Zallinger’s March of Progress, imbuing them with a sense of gravitas that solicits consideration from the viewer. Sheehan places herself in the frame, reconstructing an imagined moment in history and performing as Napoli McKenna in various poses – crouching in side profile in front of the open Gestetner duplicator in Kathleen with Duplicator; standing in a full frontal pose with her head turned to the right, with a printers roller in her raised right hand and an inking board in her lowered left in Kathleen with Roller and Board; and finally standing in profile bearing the physical weight of the apparatus against her stomach, supported on her elevated left leg, with a hand gripping either side of the wooden case in Kathleen Balancing. The modest and sensible period style dress along with accessories such as a pearl necklace and platform heels worn by Sheehan in each panel not only reference existing images of Napoli McKenna, but also signal to a contemporary viewer historic ideals of femininity – as the Angel in the house, meek, unselfish, self-sacrificing, and excelling in domestic duties. Sheehan disrupts this iconography however by isolating the figure, removing all semblance of the domestic and instead empowering her with the practical tools of printmaking.

She reduces her 3D figure to a 2D form, almost like a paper doll. While Sheehan flattens her figure she does not eradicate its identity altogether, rather giving it a new form, akin to hieroglyphic characters, using imagery as language. This manipulation of form recalls work by other contemporary female Irish artists, who explore identity through the physical movement of the body. Sheehan’s figure remains easily identifiable, and what appears as a woman observing and carrying a plain wooden box evolves into a modern interpretation of Pandora – this is not the Pandora of Greek myth, terrified by what she has released to the world, but rather one that takes ownership of the sad hardships produced by her ‘dear little box’ in the knowledge that they are never without hope – hope for an end to war, hope for an end to suffering, and above all, hope for peace and equality.

Gestetner Roller places the viewer within the box of the duplicator itself, disrupting their perspective and submerging them in a pool of green dye, spread across the page in waves like oxidised copper. The mesmeric swathes of liquid absorb the viewer’s attention, and contrast the stark simplicity of the large-scale triptych whilst foregrounding the methodology and materials of printmaking. The Girl in the Green Tam, an assemblage of pieces relating to Napoli McKenna, includes direct statements from her taken by Sheehan from Napoli McKenna’s interview with the Bureau of Military History as well as an image of Napoli McKenna herself. Memoir, the artist book contains Napoli McKenna’s first hand accounts of her time with the Irish Bulletin, extracted from her submissions to The Capuchin Annual in 1970 and 1971, as well as from her memoir, A Dáil Girl’s Revolutionary Recollections (2014), published posthumously by her daughter. The book’s pages feature digital prints as well as typewritten quotes from Napoli McKenna, which have been duplicated by the artist via scanning and reprinting, an act directly referencing Napoli McKenna’s own printmaking actions, interpreted in a 21st century manner. The text in the original typewritten pages, as well as the text in the final book (to a lesser extent due to its reproduction), hold a purple hue, deliberately chosen by Sheehan in reference to the distinctive purple tone of mimeograph ink. Combined with the slight green hue of Sheehan’s triptych of portraits, which allude to a distinguishable green tam o’ shanter cap discussed by Napoli McKenna in her recollections of her time with the Irish Bulletin, these hints of colour in otherwise monochromatic works provide a subtle but identifiable reference to women’s suffrage. Purple, white and green, were commonly associated with support for the emancipation of women – purple for loyalty and dignity, white for purity and green for hope.

 

Dear Little Box is an exhibition not just in homage to Napoli McKenna, but to the act of printmaking itself. By foregrounding the tools of the craft and presenting them as art objects in and of themselves, Sheehan allows the viewer to consider the form and mechanics of the printmakers roller, Gestetner duplicator, and their products. In transitioning private stories to a shared public realm, as Sheehan does with Napoli McKenna’s, we can draw on Arendt’s description of the public realm as a space of shared interest, where a plurality of people work to create a world to which they feel they all belong. Sheehan’s work highlights key questions around the power and representation of gendered working-class experience, embodying recent movements such as #WakingTheFeminists which made clear that, ‘we deserve the lives of our women to be woven seamlessly into the fabric of how we express our culture, nationally and internationally’ (Donohue et al. 2017, 6). Sheehan makes clear through her work that Napoli McKenna is a figure deserving of commemoration, which she deftly executes in thoughtprovoking and considered work.

References

Arendt, H. (1958). The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Coulter, C. (1993), The Hidden Tradition: Feminism, Women, and Nationalism in Ireland. Cork: Cork University Press.

Donohue, B., et al. (2017). Gender Counts: An analysis of gender in Irish theatre 2006-2015. #WakingThe Feminists.

Hine, D., ed. (2004). Works and Days, Theogony, The Homeric Hymns, The Battle of the Frogs and Mice. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Laird, H. (2018), Commemoration. Cork: Cork University Press.

Maume, P. (2019), ‘McKenna, Kathleen Napoli’, Dictionary of Irish Biography . Available at: dib.ie/biography/mckenna-kathleen-napoli-a9612.

McKenna, K. (1970), ‘The Irish Bulletin’, The Capuchin Annual.

Napoli McKenna, K. (2014), A Dáil Girl’s Revolutionary Recollections. Dublin: Original Writing Limited.

Whelan, F. (2016). Natural History of Hope. In: Two Fuse, Freedom?. Cork: Cork University Press, pp. 99-104.

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