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New exhibition in Brent explores Irish diaspora stories

A Brent artist’s exhibition currently on show at Willesden Gallery explores the Irish diaspora and being displaced as a psychological state.

V E S S E L S is from second generation Irish artist Emma O’Rourke who grew up around Brent in areas like Harlesden and Queensbury and whose family came from Portlaoise, Mayo and Cork.

The exhibition aims to shed light on the theme of displacement, what it means to belong and how we make a home.

V E S S E L S is inspired by the Brent Museum and Archives where the artist has been conducting ongoing research into the history of Irish immigration to London, the mental health challenges faced, and the traditions and values passed down without explanation.

Emma told The Irish World: “I was born in Brent and it was last year that I got a studio in Wembley Park so I’ve come full circle and I’ve come back and I started researching at the Willesden Museum and Archives, researching Irish migration to London.

“And I’ve been doing that for about a year and I have uncovered so much stuff, it’s been really eye opening, I think seeing so many common themes that the generation I am from are not really aware of.

“There’s common themes like mental health, and then there’s a lot of issues with homelessness and Irish women and things that just sort of been repressed really, that I really wanted to dig out and respond to.

“I think it was 1979 When Irish women were able to get contraception which is crazy when you think about it, it’s really not that long ago.

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“And things like the PTA act when that came in, and how the rates of mental health were considerably affected by that.

“There was a really high portion of people in Brent who were Irish but there was still a lot of underlying things that were going on that people probably weren’t made to feel welcome.”

Emma O’ Rourke, VESSELS, Willesden Gallery, Willesden Library, 29th November 2022.
Photos by Amanda Rose/@amandarosephoto

The exhibition looks at the questions of identity that are key to Emma’s work.

“Most of my friends have got an Irish parent so I guess it’s where we sit within all of that really: Not being British, you don’t have an Irish accent, it’s where you fit in.

“It’s an identity thing, I guess.”

Emma is a graduate of Wimbledon College of Art and has an MA from the University of Manchester in Museum Studies.

The artist uses colour to hint at a 1980s landscape, placing particular importance on transparency and the layering of brushstrokes. The works on show merge internal worlds to create surreal yet familiar images reminiscent of growing up working class Irish Catholic.

The exhibition sheds lights on the difficulties and experiences of those that left and how these experiences trickle down to younger generations.

Emma would like to continue the conversation and see where the themes might lead. I am interested in hearing from those with untold stories and building a supportive and inclusive environment for anyone who has experienced displacement.

“I’d be really interested to hear from people that would like to connect so we can continue the work and not let certain things be forgotten and take them with us for the next generation.

“I see the exhibition as the start of the conversation.

“I’d like to continue with the themes and continue with the research.”

The exhibition ends this Saturday. The opening hours are 10.30am -8pm on weekdays and 10.30am- 5pm on Saturday.

People can get in touch with Emma on [email protected]

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