Closing of the Bones Essay by Aoife Desmond


An accidental relationship is formed between two artworks simultaneously showing in two different spaces dedicated to the display of contemporary art work in Cork. Grace Ndirtu’s film installation and performance work ‘Healing The Museum’ is exhibited as part of ‘Mysterious Ways’ at The Glucksman UCC Gallery curated by Chris Clarke. A group show which ‘explores the ways in which ritual and religion inform contemporary artistic practices. Through performative ceremonies, totemic objects, and meditative environments, such works invite viewers to transcend the everyday, to experience art as a moment of spiritual awakening, and to reflect upon how art and belief continually respond and reflect upon one another’. Having made it to the top floor of the Glucksman gallery, we encounter Grace’s work as a black and white grainy projected video work with audio and an adjacent circular carpet with a woven black and white image of a mother and child. A sign says please take your shoes off before standing/sitting on the artwork. The video shows a black woman the artist herself holding a shamanic ritual in a gallery space hung with large paintings in ornate gold frames. A circle of women mainly white lie on the floor, another circular carpet forms the centre piece of this gathering possibly the same one. The artists voice instructs the women to close their eyes as she takes them on two journeys to the underworld, one to meet their spirit guides, the second to ask for the name of their unborn child, the women in this circle are pregnant.

To encounter Claire Murphy’s film work we need perhaps to be in the know, involved in the arts or connected to Claire personally. The Backwater Project Space is an exhibition space on the 1st floor of the Backwater Artists Studios housed in the same restored mill complex as the Lavit Gallery and Cork Printmakers on Wandesford Quay. The Project Space supports members of the Backwater Artist Studios with a place to test out the exhibition of their work in progress. Linked to this opportunity is funding for a commissioned text on the work like this one. Funded through an Individual Artist’s Award from Cork City Council Claire has produced a new film work which I have part mentored. Filmed sensitively in 16mm, she has staged and documented an intimate ritual ‘closing of the bones’, a post birth ceremony taking place in her own sitting room. We see two women, one lies on the floor, the receiver, one the giver moves around the inert body sometimes with light physical contact, sometimes more vigorously rocking and binding the woman’s body in fabrics. Shot in colour the choreography of the ceremony is the main event, we are gently lulled by it’s rhythm while also feeling held by the familiarity of the domestic space, textiles in a range of pastels with geometric designs, a lit candle reflected in the brass and marble tiles of the unlit fireplace, plants and random clutter at the corners of our vision, bright sunlight plays through the whole scene.

So two filmed rituals connected to child birth, play out simultaneously in two rooms dedicated to the exhibition of art in a small city in the south west of Ireland in May 2024. Grace’s work is part of a larger body of work ‘Healing The Museum’ dating back to 2012 which culminated in a retrospective at S.M.A.K. in Ghent, Belgium in 2023. This body of work is a form of institutional critique, critiquing the role and function of the museum, critiquing the museum’s frequent irrelevance to the real concerns of daily life, critiquing the museum as a space of privilege where community, ecology, blackness, feminism and indigenous voices are often unseen and unheard. In Claire’s work a different form of reclamation and institutional critique is at play. Here a woman’s body is reclaimed from a traumatic experience of childbirth. We listen to excerpts from two spoken interviews ‘Catherine’ describes the function of the healing ceremony, ‘Sarah’ talks about the trauma of her childbirth experience. Giving birth within the hospital, the apparent roughness
of the staff and process, somehow negated her agency. Now the healing ceremony within the domestic space closes that process, closes the bones, closes the spilled energies back into the womb and body once more. Shared in the exhibition space the viewer feels less voyeuristic then included, the artist as cinematographer has staged this ceremony in her home to in some way address the difficulty that she experienced in giving birth to her own son. This post natal massage ritual holds safe space for a woman hours or years after birth and allows difficult emotions and experiences to be released. Existing in many parts of the world but mainly held in Central and South America it is relatively rare within an Irish context with few women having undertaken the training to hold it. Grace is a British artist of Kenyan heritage but in her shaman role she adopts a pseudo Hopi First Nations ceremonial form. On first encountering her work, when I see it in the distance from the top of the stairs I think it is a work by Marcus Coates. Marcus Coates adopted the guise of a shaman to mediate conflictual contemporary situations such as London housing issues as a result of gentrification in ‘Vision Quest – a Ritual for Elephant & Castle’ 2009. Tongue in cheek Marcus’s performances teeter on the absurd, his costumes combining traditional aspects such as dead animal skins, drums and shakers with stylish suits and tracksuits, an utterly contemporary shaman moving glibly between worlds. Marcus moves through animal, human and vision filled lower worlds. Grace holds space and gives voice to the possibly unseen and unheard within the museum or art institution. Claire shares her home and an intimate ritual within the exhibition space to hold space for the personal as political and to prioritise a joyful honouring of childbirth.

In Ireland the space of a woman’s body has rarely been her own, controlled by state, by church, by men, by other women. Now in an age of women’s equality in the workplace and newly won rights to abortion, childbirth and mothering may feel like a space that is still not held in freedom. To work within our public or private healthcare system can leave one feeling vulnerable or voiceless. A system that in part functions to support it’s own functioning rather than to create an environment of holistic care. Often this leads patients/clients/mothers to seek outside support, to seek a borrowed ritual such as ‘closing of the bones’. These external systems attempt to address the lack of held ancestral female corporeal knowledge in Ireland that can support childbirth and other issues of health care. We see the vulnerability marked on Sarah’s body as her abdomen is massaged, we hear it in her voice as she describes excruciating pain and being silenced ‘You will not tell me what to do’ she confidently asserts. The film is presented with a sparse ambient soundtrack in the exhibition space. To the side blankets folded on the floor invite one to sit or lie and listen to the spoken testimonies on headphones. The gallery can function as a space of exclusion but also it can function as a place quietly held for otherwise silenced voices to be heard for healing and dialogue to occur.
Aoife Desmond is an artist, writer and educator based in Cork.

Mysterious Ways Exhibition text, Chris Clarke mysteriousways
Grace Ndirtu Healing The Museum S.M.A.K. Marcus Coates, Kate MacGarry Gallery

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