Column | Speech Sounds

Iarlaith Ni Fheorais outlines the curatorial methods and ideas underpinning a recent show at VISUAL

‘Speech Sounds’, installation view, VISUAL; photograph by Ros Kavanagh, courtesy the artists and VISUAL. ‘Speech Sounds’, installation view, VISUAL; photograph by Ros Kavanagh, courtesy the artists and VISUAL.

In Winter 2020, I was invited by CEO and Artistic Director, Emma-Lucy O’Brien, to be Curator-in-Residence 2021 at VISUAL Carlow. I commissioned six artists – Ebun Sodipo, Jonah King, Kumbirai Makumbe, Maïa Nunes, Joey Holder, and Jennifer Mehigan – to produce new work. This culminated in the exhibition ‘Speech Sounds’ (9 June – 21 August) which was presented at VISUAL as part of Carlow Arts Festival (CAF). ‘Speech Sounds’ included work by the commissioned artists, work selected through VISUAL and CAF’s ARTWORKS open call, and work loaned from the Arts Council Collection. Curated with Visual Arts Curator Benjamin Stafford, ‘Speech Sounds’ featured 23 artworks – including sculpture, sound, painting, film, photography and installation – by Emanuel Almborg, Jenny Brady, Once We Were Islands, Paul Hallahan, Dita Hashi, Austin Hearne, Vishal Kumaraswamy, Bridget O’Gorman, Eoin O’Malley, Kinnari Saraiya, Matt Smith, Brian Teeling, Frank Wasser, Francis Whorrall-Campbell, Mary Duffy, Maïa Nunes, Jonah King and Sue Huang, Ebun Sodipo, Marielle MacLeman, Kumbirai Makumbe, Jennifer Mehigan and Eleanor Duffin. 

‘Speech Sounds’ is the title of a short story by American sci-fi writer Octavia Butler, which takes place in the aftermath of a global pandemic that has left most of the survivors without the ability to speak, read, or write. During the early days of the lockdown, I retreated, as many did, to sci-fi movies and novels. Reading these texts through a Crip lens – the critical reading of disability – it became clear that many of these narratives share concerns with the body, communication, and disability. Specifically looking at ‘Speech Sounds’, these stories reveal problematic views of the ways disabled people communicate. I wanted to hold space for artists interested in the body, language, the speculative, and communication. This included works exploring the languages of disability and access, love and loss, of living and imagined languages, the material of words, and dialogues with history. 

Shown in the Main Gallery, Jenny Brady’s 2019 film, Receiver, explores Deaf history through a heated phone call, a protest at a university for Deaf students, reflecting on the Milan Conference of 1880, which led to the banning of sign language in a school for the Deaf. Upstairs in the Digital Gallery, Emanuel Almborg’s film Talking Hands (2016) explores the history and ideas around the Zagorsk school for deaf-blind children near Moscow in the 1960s and 70s. Using archival 16mm film, the work features scenes of children caressing bronze monuments and using sign language for the blind in which hands converse. These works explore the languages, cultures, histories, and acts of resistance by Deaf people, in the struggle for language rights and liberation.

In Frank Wasser’s Work in Relapse (2021) the artist pairs a photograph taken by his hospital bed with a towel taken from the hospital embroidered with the words ‘Hospital Property’, attending the artist’s concern with institutional critique and power. In the 1989 photograph, Cutting the Ties that Bind (Heroes), Mary Duffy makes a “vibrant statement about my life and the lives of other disabled people, our commitments and our values”. In Non-Verbal 1, 2 & 3 by Bridget O’Gorman the power of written word over the body is excavated, mimicking anatomy posters; the scream is both prescription and symptom, giving voice to the intelligibility of the body in pain. In relation to race and gender, Dita Hashi’s moving-image work, SAMRAA (2021), pulls from the archive of Arabic popular music, to evoke the historical and social meanings of an Arabic term with racial and gendered designations. These works reveal the symbolic weight bodies hold, and how we might read and disrupt these meanings. 

The written word leaves a mark on the body in a temporary tattoo by Francis Whorrall-Campbell, featuring a quote on learning and failure from The Undercommons (Minor Compositions, 2013) by Fred Moten and Stefano Harney. Brian Teeling’s human scale prints feature phrases from J.G. Ballard’s dystopian novel, Concrete Island (London: Jonathan Cape, 1974), giving a fleshy immediacy to the written word. The ways we connect back to the past and to ancestors is evoked by Maïa Nunes, using interviews with their aunt, archival material, and music to uncover histories of slavery and migration in the Caribbean. Referencing ritual practices of the Shona people and speculative interstellar travel, Kumbirai Makumbe imagines the body in-between time and space, in the sculptural installation, Pre-Intertopia (2022).

The team at VISUAL worked with skill and grace to make this ambitious exhibition happen. VISUAL’s Production Manager Anthony Walsh, Benjamin Stafford and I designed a wooden structure, dividing the main gallery into four corners, creating a more intimate space. This was installed alongside 23 artworks by technicians Tadhg McSweeney, Jimmy Snobby, Saidhbhín Gibson, and Laura McAuliffe. Learning Curator, Clare Breen, curated a playful Learning Gallery where audiences could experiment with alternative ways to communicate. Interim CEO, Paula Phelan, held sensitive conversations with partners to ensure artists and audiences were supported in their experience of the exhibition. Finally, I am deeply grateful to have worked with Benjamin Stafford, who led on production, and who provided invaluable guidance and support throughout. 

Iarlaith Ni Fheorais (she/her) is a curator and writer based between Ireland and the UK.