T e x t
R E V I E W S

Pines Eye Text

Cork-based artist Kevin Mooney makes paintings that speculate
about connections between the folk cultures of Irish émigrés
and the cultures of the Caribbean, and their absence from
Ireland’s art historical record.
On taking control of Jamaica in 1655, England – at that time
ruling Ireland – displaced large numbers of Irish people to
Jamaica to raise the colony’s population and increase its labour
force. Some, considered undesirable, were forcibly displaced,
some were kidnapped, and many migrated as indentured
servants to work on the English sugar and tobacco plantations
(signing an agreement to serve a master for a number of years,
in return for passage). Many died on the crossing or later from
the poor working conditions: they were nicknamed the ‘red legs’
on account of the effect of the climate on their fair skin, and in
later years English political leader Oliver Cromwell preferred
to send children, who he believed would have a better chance
to adapt. Such was the impact of this process that today 25
percent of Jamaicans claim Irish ancestry. It is a story that
extends across other Caribbean islands including Barbados and
Montserrat, and one that speaks of the coercive uprooting of
people from their traditions and lands.
During this period the Irish population dropped significantly (by
around one third owing also to famine and conflict) and from an
Irish perspective this history of emigration is one of great loss,
as many people went away never to return. For Mooney, as a
painter trying to connect with the visual history of Ireland, the
seventeenth century is something of a void within the records.
For him, English rule led not only to mass migration but also to
a kind of exodus of cultural memories, identities and traditions.
He states that, ‘when a visual culture does re-emerge in the
eighteenth century in Ireland it is only within the context of a
complicated, contested and compromised history emerging
under colonial rule. So, engaging with this earlier period of Irish
history through art involves a leap of the imagination.’
Apparition, Orbs, Trickster and Peasant – appearing at intervals
throughout the exhibition – invite us to take this leap of
the imagination. Occasionally including motifs that appear
like straw, they reflect traditions like the ‘Straw Boys’ from
Ireland and comparable folk traditions and crafts carried
by West African slaves to the Caribbean; threads tracing
back to more pagan traditions rooted in nature. But these
mischievous spectres also appear broken and torn. Mooney,
in fact, considers them less as portraits – as representations
of someone’s status and individual personhood – than
as gruesome trophies. Here he references, ‘early Celtic
traditions where the head is considered the site of knowledge,
consciousness and spiritual power, to the point that the
decapitated head of one’s enemy was considered a prized
possession. [Where] to possess it meant possessing everything
they saw or knew as well as their spirit and energy.’ This
gives them another kind of charge. Out of the obscurity of
darkness, the eyes appear hypnotic and compelling, seemingly
beseeching us to find a way to look beyond the surface. As
Mooney includes loose reference points to images by painters
like Paul Henry (see Apparition) or photographer John Hinde
(see Trickster), who in the early twentieth century produced
romanticised images of Ireland’s soft landscapes, gentle people
and bucolic country settlements, we might consider this surface
to be what remains when the violence of history is expunged by
those in control. In this way, Mooney sets up his works to haunt
us; hybrid, partial, zombie figures that – unhinging the usual
stability of the portrait – challenge us to see what they have
seen, or at least be prepared to imagine.

James Clegg, Curator of Exhibitions, Talbot Rice Gallery 2020

https://www.trg.ed.ac.uk/exhibition/pines-eye