New exhibition tackles the concept of identity
An exhibition celebrating Irish people of colour is showing at the London Irish Centre as part of Black History Month this October, writes Adam Shaw.
The project, entitled #iamirish, includes a series of pictures documenting non-white Irish people aged one to 75. The photographs, as well as a series of panel discussions, are intended to raise the question of what it means to be black and Irish.
“We haven’t had anything like this for years and it’s even more important now because of the strange things going on in the world,” creator Lorraine Maher Faissal explained. “Hopefully it will open some form of dialogue as we’ve seen a lot of uncertainty and an increase in hate crimes over the past few months.”
Ms Maher Faissal, who was raised in Carrick-on-Suir, Co. Tipperary, added how she embarked on the project because she was tired of having to defend her Irishness.
“I grew up in Ireland with noone looking like me and I didn’t always feel included even though I always felt very Irish,” she said. “People would continue to scrutinise my Irishness even though I am very proud to be an Irish woman. This, sadly, is still the case for many.”
She also undertook the campaign because she wanted to change – from both the inside and the outside – the way black people in Ireland are perceived.
“The perception of black people, the only perception, was that they were the ones starving in Africa,” she said. “It was strange to see black people in Ireland and we often felt as if there was something wrong with us.
“But we have a rich history filled with very significant people and everyone should be aware of that.”
She explained how this concept has drawn a remarkable response from people who have engaged with the project, so much so that she now describes it as a “movement”.
“A mixed race Irish academic wrote to me saying how he had waited his whole life for something like this – I mean, how powerful is that?” she said.
She also recalled an email she had received from an Ennis-based parent whose children boast both Irish and Nigerian heritage detailing how much it meant to her. In the email, the mother talked of establishing pride in “an exotic mix” of both African and Irish roots and added how it would help dispel any feelings of abnormality seeing a black person speaking Irish or lining- up on the hurling field.
Ms Maher Faissal hopes the exhibition will go some way into answering the overarching concept of ‘identity’, particularly following the fallout from the Brexit vote in the UK. On 27 October, she will take part in a panel debate at the London Irish Centre alongside actor Michael Smiley, entrepreneur Jessica Huie, Professor Mary Hickman and historian Emma Dabari where they will question exactly what this means.
After its stint in London, which runs until 31 October, the project will make its way to Ireland.
•Donations to the upkeep and in support of the campaign can be made at www.gofund.me/iamirish