THEO PANAYIDES meets a woman 20 years after she first arrived on the island, and finds a creative using art to tell the stories of those less fortunate
The old town of Paphos is becalmed on a grey Sunday morning – but, in her studio, Miriam McConnon is bustling. “I’m good when I go really fast,” she says at one point, meaning she gets lots of work done when distractions fall away and she can concentrate on painting – but she also moves fast and talks fast, words pouring out in a mild Dublin accent. The colours in her work have changed significantly in the past decade or so, they’ve become soft and earthy; “There’s a beauty in subtlety”. Has she changed as well? “Maybe, yeah, more subtle,” she muses. “I was more loud – can you imagine? I used to talk more!”
A stack of slim folders is deposited on one of the paint-spattered school desks (the three-room space is used for teaching as much as painting). I glance at the handwritten labels on the covers: ‘Peter’s Story’, ‘Mahmoud’s Story’… These are some of the migrants featured in Miriam’s latest exhibition The Refugee’s Armour, ending today (October 22) at the Olivier Cornet Gallery in Dublin; a related exhibition – probably with the same title – will open next month at Diatopos in Nicosia. The folders contain photos of objects belonging to the young men, as well as interview notes summarising their stories. One is 24 years old, from embattled Daraa in Syria; another is Iraqi, attacked by Isis before making the journey to Cyprus (he only survived by playing dead), now confined to a wheelchair with a broken spine. Oddly – or not so oddly – there are no photos of the subjects themselves. “Absolutely everybody says ‘D’you want to take a photo of me?’, and I say ‘No, that’s fine’… It doesn’t sit well with me. The ethics of it matters to me.”
It’s unclear what ethical line gets crossed by showing the migrants’ faces, then again Miriam seems exceptionally sensitive to the fear of exploiting her subjects. “Let’s talk about an artist who takes someone’s trauma, or personal narrative, and makes pictures about it, and sells them in a gallery. Is that ethical?” She’s just back from Ireland, where she gave a talk at Trinity College Dublin and organised a panel discussion on this very subject. She’s lived in Paphos since 2003, having previously spent a memorable year at the Cyprus College of Art in Lemba, but has always gone back and forth – and Ireland, I suspect, also looms large in her moral landscape, Miriam being part of the generation (we chat a few days after her 46th birthday) that came of age during the epochal changes in her homeland.
When she was growing up, in a typically large Irish family of five children, Dublin was a backwater and the Catholic church ruled the roost; there was no divorce, no contraception, definitely no gay marriage. The family weren’t exceptionally devout, “but yeah, it was like prayers before bed and Grace before meals, and that feeling of you had to go to Mass every Sunday… But then, when we hit our teenage years, everything changed in Ireland really”. Miriam shakes her head: “I’m an atheist now, I don’t believe in anything – but I definitely carried a lot of anger against Catholicism for a long time”.
All the social changes in the country made her socially aware; she taught Art in an outreach programme in the early 00s, working in a methadone clinic with recovering heroin addicts, long before she moved to Paphos and started working with migrants. Then there was the guilt, a constant sense of being “a privileged generation”. Her dad (an accountant) had grown up dirt-poor, at a time when many kids walked to school without shoes on their feet; earlier generations had lived through war, or the struggle for independence. A certain guilt persists even now, informing work like The Refugee’s Armour – a sense that “you didn’t earn the privilege of having an EU passport… or having a third-level education without having to pay for it”. It explains, in part, why she’s drawn to people who are “on the margins, or pushed out”.
How did she get the migrants to trust her, though?
Miriam shrugs: “They’re friends of mine”.
That’s another part of her life – not just the hours spent painting and teaching, not just raising her two kids (there’s Sophia, who’s almost 18, and 14-year-old Alexis) but also, for instance, volunteering at The Learning Refuge, a centre trying to help refugee children in Cypriot schools with their “homework challenges” (mostly language skills; Miriam is fluent in Greek, after so many years). She’s also befriended migrant parents at her kids’ schools – “so for me to make work about them, it’s not really ‘othering’ somebody. They’re people I know. It’s quite natural to maybe sit down and say ‘Tell me your story, is it okay if I make some work?’ – the way a musician might write a song [about it]”. The question of how (or whether) the refugees themselves are helped by this process is, she admits, a good question – but then she also recalls the “ceremony” that invariably took place when she visited her subjects in their homes to hear their stories. The whole clan would gather, as for a ritual; in one case, the young man’s mother got quite upset as the story was told, “and there was lots of hugging… It was really emotional”. Miriam apologised profusely, but they assured her it was fine. “I wonder,” she sighs, “how many times, in their journey, did people actually ask them: ‘Who are you? What have you been through?’.”
That’s one potential view of Miriam McConnon – the privileged European seeking out unfortunates to unearth ‘what they’ve been through’, the better to transmute it into art; the bubbly, voluble, outgoing woman who admits that being good at promoting one’s work is as vital in today’s cutthroat market as actually making it. (What happens to the grumpy, inarticulate artists? “A lot of them fall by the wayside… There’s some fantastic artists just not on the radar at the moment.”) That’s one view – but shift the lens a little, and another emerges. Her bubbliness shouldn’t be confused with carefree insouciance; and, though obviously not a migrant (at least not that kind of migrant), she’s been through some stuff herself, especially health-wise.
“I’ve had a tough few years,” she admits. “I tend to work a lot; I work through it.” Her dad died suddenly, then her brother passed away during Covid – in Australia, of a fast-spreading cancer that killed him soon after diagnosis (and of course they couldn’t visit him, due to lockdowns, nor was there a funeral). Miriam’s own health suffered a setback eight years ago: “I got very sick, and my immune system collapsed… I didn’t realise how sick I was”. She went about her normal day, she had no choice – “My world here isn’t built in a way that I could ever take time off from being a mother or anything” – but meanwhile her body was attacking itself, an autoimmune disorder that manifested as APMPPE, a rare inflammation of the eye behind the retina. She had searing headaches, and a weird tingling feeling in her veins. Her vision began to deteriorate; she came extremely close to going blind. The lesions behind her eyes eventually healed – but she still, even now, has “blank areas”, she tells me, bringing out a pencil to do a quick sketch of how she sees the world. There are indeed blank areas, random blobs of nothingness in each eye impeding her vision – a strange, ironic fate for a visual artist.
How an artist sees the world (though usually not so literally) is of course the whole point of art – and Miriam’s particular worldview is a potent one, as outward-looking and socially aware as herself. “When I finish the work, I don’t really want it around,” she says at one point, gesturing vaguely at the half-finished canvases – some rolled up, some tacked on the walls – in the studio around us. “It’s gone. I’m not making work that I think is beautiful, and I want to look at it… It’s work that contains these stories and has this kind of job, and it’s a vehicle for that – so then you put it out there, and see where it goes”.
Social relevance is key. The new exhibition deals with migrants (their ‘armour’ expressed through paintings of personal objects, especially suit jackets, juxtaposed with actual garments loaned by the men which they wore during their journeys) – but an earlier exhibition, presented last year in Dublin, was called Lost Lace, and dealt with Covid. “I made personally 10,500 handkerchief roses over a period of about a year… Each one represents a life lost to Covid in Ireland and Northern Ireland.” Each rose only took about 30 seconds to make (she used handkerchiefs donated by people – personal objects again – and cotton sheeting cut into little squares), but making so many was still a huge undertaking. There was also a website, where families could write about their loved one who’d died – “some people wrote loads, very personal things” – and she also worked with a poet who composed four poems, loosely inspired by the families’ elegies.
Can art heal, then?
“I think it helps, yeah. I think art is great for throwing up things for discussion, and to talk about. And maybe for us to face things: the acknowledgment that something was lost – and we’re here, and there is solidarity in that.” Art can facilitate connection by providing a pathway, like the personal objects in her paintings which evoke a person without exposing them: “We can connect to a cup, because we all have a cup in our house”. Art supplies common ground, like the bicommunal project she co-ordinated in 2016 which was actually called Common Ground. Art can be a safe space, allowing the viewer to ponder their emotions – or indeed their prejudices, as with her new show which she hopes can “counteract the toxic narrative” of the young-male migrant as a threat to society. “One show’s not going to change [things] – but it will create discussion, and make people think.”
True enough – but there’s also another reason why Miriam chose to collaborate with a poet on Lost Lace: “To make it not an art installation, but a project”, a project (with another artist also involved, and some “overlap of different disciplines”) being presumably more likely to get funded than an installation. Miriam was gifted right out of the gate – she studied at the National College of Art in Ireland – but she’s had to expand her idea of art over the years and she’s had to hustle constantly, writing applications and trying to stand out from all the other artists; supply overwhelmingly exceeds demand in the art world. Where does she see herself in 10 years’ time? Hopefully still making work, she replies optimistically – but perhaps it can become “a bit easier… It’s tough, you run out of energy”. She’d love to do a residency somewhere – maybe in Paris, at the Irish Centre – or perhaps a Master’s. She wishes she had more support, more resources.
Still, life is good, all things considered. She walks, she plays tennis, she goes to the beach, she reads voraciously (currently Old God’s Time by Irish author Sebastian Barry). Paphos has grown by leaps and bounds from the sleepy small town where – she recalls – it was rare even to see groups of women on a night out together when she first arrived. Nowadays, when you include the migrants and digital nomads, just about every country in the world is represented. Miriam’s kids are almost grown now, her creative side is in rude health, her actual health is much improved (she also went through skin cancer, a basal-cell carcinoma, probably due to her immune system being down) – and, if she sometimes feels a bit displaced, that only brings her closer to the subjects of The Refugee’s Armour.
The bubbly, bustling surface isn’t quite the whole story; sadness lurks behind every façade – but what can we do? “You can’t wear your sadness,” she notes ruefully. “It’s very damaging for others around you.” Instead she works, and hustles, and talks very fast in a mild Dublin accent. Her own protective armour, so to speak.