Exhibition Profile | Black Sea, Blue Smoke

Manuela Pacella offers exhibition insights from her latest visit to Northern Ireland.

Claire Barclay, ‘Thrum’, installation view, April 2022, canvas, steel, steel wire, rust on linen fabric, linen thread, machined aluminium, grease; photograph by Simon Mills, courtesy the artist and The MAC, Belfast. Claire Barclay, ‘Thrum’, installation view, April 2022, canvas, steel, steel wire, rust on linen fabric, linen thread, machined aluminium, grease; photograph by Simon Mills, courtesy the artist and The MAC, Belfast.

From the summit of Cave Hill, the peak overlooking Belfast, it is possible to catch glimpses of Scotland’s west coast. I was so impressed when I first saw this view, that I immediately understood the reason for the productive exchange between Scotland and Northern Ireland. I wanted to reach that coast as soon as possible, crossing the North Channel by ferry.

The sea I come from is the Mediterranean. This sea brought me back to Northern Ireland and Derry, thanks to the sound project, ‘Black Med’, by Invernomuto – an artistic duo founded by Simone Bertuzzi and Simone Trabucchi in Milan in 2003. 

‘Black Med’, short for ‘Black Mediterranean’, is an expression coined in 2012 by Alessandra Di Maio, a scholar of postcolonial studies, which takes its cue from the book, The Black Atlantic (Verso, 1993) by Paul Gilroy. ‘Black Med’ describes the sea as a place of cultural hybridisation – as fluid as sound and a mnemonic container of the centuries-old crossings of goods, individuals, cultures, and religions. 

‘Black Med’ has been an ongoing project since its inception in 2018 for Manifesta 12 in Palermo. The project takes the form of listening sessions, and a website in which an algorithm selects music tracks associated with texts and images from an ever-expanding archive.

The duo presented a solo exhibition, ‘BLACK MED SECCO’, at Void Gallery in Derry (9 April – 4 June). A soundscape derived from the website was transmitted in the gallery, while a projection occupied one of the rooms. Visitors were invited to listen by sitting on large limestone rocks, as if they were perching on a breakwater barrier, watching the seascape.

While the reference to the Mediterranean roots me to my birthplace, Belfast (which has been a second home for years) welcomes me with a direct question: “Do you call this place home?” This sentence is printed on one of the postcards in the Process Room at Golden Thread Gallery. It forms part of the exhibition, ‘How Did We Get To: We Are Here’ (19 March – 30 April), a collaborative project with the Highlanes Gallery in Drogheda, featuring a selection of artists’ films from the British Council Collection and LUX. 

The films on display are by Ayo Akingbade, John Akomfrah, Duncan Campbell, Susan Hiller, and Rehana Zaman, each thematically exploring the representation of marginalised communities. Among the films I most enjoyed were: Susan Hiller’s The Last Silent Movie (2007), an audio montage of extinct or endangered languages; and John Akomfrah’s The Silence (2014), which brings together the film, Education of the Deaf (1946), and other footage from the British Council Film Collective. 

As a continuation of this exhibition, Peter Richards also curated ‘How Did We Get To: Know So Little?’ in collaboration with Docs Ireland, Belfast Photo Festival, and the Cathedral Quarter Festival, which continues until 9 July. The central work is the 1953 documentary, Statues Also Die, by Chris Marker, Alain Resnais and Ghislain Cloquet, interrogating the one-sided, colonial methodology upon which Western museum collections are largely based. Video works and a screening programme alternate in dialogue with the French essay film.

Relationships to the landscape are explored in ‘Blue Smoke’ at Naughton Gallery, with works by Hannah Casey-Brogan, Faith Couch, Aidan Koch and Poot Mendes (7 April to 29 May). The curator, Ben Crothers, was inspired by country singer Dolly Parton and her nostalgic relationship with the place where she was born, the Great Smoky Mountains region of eastern Tennessee. Blue Smoke is the title of a 2014 song and related album by Parton that visitors can play on a turntable in the exhibition, among eight other albums displayed. A portrait of the singer by Laura Callaghan opens the exhibition, dotted with vinyl wall texts featuring lyric excerpts from Parton’s songs. 

As distant as country music culture is from my own sensibility, there is something about the exhibition – embedded in the singer’s words and among the details of the artworks – that moves me. This probably has to do with a sense of belonging, whether nostalgia for childhood or our relationship with our immediate landscape. This can be a dreamlike belonging in Hannah Casey-Brogan’s drawings, collages, and paintings, or the all-too-realistic sense of an ancestral place, such as the indigenous Serrano land, where Aidan Koch moved to shortly before the pandemic, only to become trapped in the claustrophobic joint experience of lockdown and the El Dorado Fire. 

Faith Couch’s photographs are serene and revolve around the relationship of the body, specifically the black body, with the landscape, often observing the body itself as a landscape. They dialogue very well with Poot Mendes’s collages in which concepts of sexuality and masculinity are analysed within the Irish context, intermixed with American iconic elements.

The ancient relationship between Scotland and Northern Ireland, the exchange of knowledge, and ancestral memory, are all explored in ‘Thrum’, the solo exhibition of Scottish artist Claire Barclay, which occupies all three spaces of The MAC (15 April to 3 July). Known for her environmental installations, in which the exhibition space is both the source of inspiration and the place of realisation, Barclay is exhibiting a series of site-specific sculptures in fabric with metal inserts that communicate with the print works presented on the walls. 

Recurring domestic forms – including combs, mirrors and bowls – appear throughout the exhibition as inserts that evoke a close relationship with our bodies. They are familiar forms that have always existed and have not changed their function much; their immediate recognition connotes mundanity in the relationship with the viewer, despite the magnificence of some sculptures. For instance, in the Sunken Gallery, the large linen sheets look as if they have just been pulled out of the ground, while the cuts or crevices within them prompt us to navigate the secrets of our intimacy. 

This interiority is also present in the Tall Gallery where some of the artworks, especially those that use quilts or fabrics filled with feathers, allow for a warm and active physical interaction between the space and the sculptures. On the contrary, the large-scale piece in the Upper Gallery recalls a sort of industrial archaeology in its colour, size and shape, with the metal comb motif made monumental.

Inevitably, I return to the question on the postcard at Golden Thread: “Do you call this place home?” My response is yes, when a place is filled with warmth and respect, you can call it home. 

Manuela Pacella is an art writer, lecturer and curator based in Rome, Italy.