Reinterpreting the language of traditional Irish craft

The next exhibition coming to the Kilkenny-based National Craft Gallery is ‘Modern Languages’, exploring contemporary international perspectives on Irish heritage.

The next exhibition coming to the Kilkenny-based National Craft Gallery is ‘Modern Languages’, exploring contemporary international perspectives on Irish heritage.

Running from October 21 until January, the exhibition sees five international artists and designers – Nao Matsunaga, Laura Mays, Deirdre Nelson, Ciara Phillips and Barbara Ridland – reinterpret the sometimes familiar, sometimes forgotten skills of Ireland’s craft tradition.

Curator Katy West invited these artists with very different relationships with Ireland to re-imagine Irish craft traditions in the 21st century. From the precision and planning that fashions a chair to the labour of industrial weaving or cottage industry knitting, these traditions still remain, but often only as nostalgic reminders of the past, having been replaced by methods of mass production.

“I hope visitors to ‘Modern Languages’ will discover things they already know about,” said West, “but presented in a way that makes them rethink the familiar. Indigenous objects made for centuries in this country are sometimes undervalued. I hope visitors will leave with an excitement over the work, but also with memories triggered by Aran knits, woven blankets, turf creels and currachs.”

The legacy of Ireland’s craft will also be explored through archival footage from the National Museum, Fáilte Ireland and Gael Linn, offering a counterpoint to the contemporary exhibits.

Nao Matsunaga is interested in the skeletal construction of Irish currachs and the manner in which they are stored and carried from dry land to shore. Their resemblance to architectural structures has made Nao consider the importance of boats and shelters in island cultures.

Laura Mays has contributed two series of chairs. By investigating the design behind the traditional Sligo chair, Laura has produced a modern perspective of furniture and has then applied this way of working to understand IKEA’s Stefan. The cheapest chair in IKEA, it retails at €16 and approximately 200,000 are sold per year worldwide.

Deirdre Nelson is investigating the myths and provenance of the Aran pattern, the culture of cottage-industry knitters and lace-makers. Carrickmacross Lace was introduced to Ireland around 1820 and became an important source of income for families during the famine. Nelson’s hacked IKEA mattress cover contains euro-sized Irish linen pockets edged with hand-stitched lace, referencing the makers who stored lace under their mattresses to keep it safe.

Ciara Phillips’ work uses the skills she learnt from her mother and aunts as a child growing up, including traditional textile techniques such as sewing, print and patchwork. For Modern Languages, she has spent time with weavers at Studio Donegal, on the production of designs for woven blankets. The resulting 11 blankets that are a reflection on the history and traditions of weaving in the area. Further works by Ciara explore the garments of Irish fashion designer Nellie Mulcahy.

Barbara Ridland has been looking at the similarities between the distinct cultures of the west coast of Ireland and her native Shetland. She observes similarities and differences in man’s involvement with the land and sea and the myths that have built up over time. She has created woven forms using recycled materials such as cardboard and paper for ‘Modern Languages’.