BY Anne Tallentire in Reviews | 14 JAN 19
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Issue 201

Helen Cammock’s Fight for Women’s Visibility

An exhibition at Void, Derry, celebrates the role of women in the history of the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland

BY Anne Tallentire in Reviews | 14 JAN 19

As Brexit negotiations continue, the potential negative impact on Northern Ireland is ever more likely. Its implementation could compromise the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, which committed the UK government to enshrine the European Convention on Human Rights in law. This and recent announcements such as the deployment of 1,000 police officers from England and Scotland to Northern Ireland ‘in case of disorder from a no-deal Brexit’ raise the spectre of past conflict.

Last year was the 50th anniversary of a key civil rights movement in Derry. Considered to mark the beginning of the Troubles – a period of conflict in Northern Ireland that spanned three decades – the Duke Street march on 5 October 1968 was broken up by police, leaving many injured. The march protested discrimination against Catholics in relation to employment, housing and a lack of political representation perpetuated through restricted voting rights and gerrymandering.

Helen Cammock, ‘The Long Note’, 2018, installation view. Courtesy: Tansy Cowley and Void Gallery, Derry

It is in the context of these 50th anniversary commemorations, highlighted by civil rights issues still faced today, that Helen Cammock’s exhibition, ‘The Long Note’, came to Void. Invited by curator Mary Cremin to celebrate the role of women in the civil rights movement in Derry, Cammock presents Shouting in Whispers (2017), comprising a series of monochrome prints and a film composed of archival footage relating to conflict, political resistance and protest from the 1960s to the present day. It is screened in a generously proportioned space next to the eponymous, 142-minute film, The Long Note (2018). In these works, invisible histories are mined through a process of intensive research and evoked through sounds and images, cut up and spliced to draw new meaning.

In her initial research for The Long Note, Cammock spoke directly, where possible, with women involved in the movement. Mothers whose sons had been killed, activists, trade unionists, workers and marchers from both sides of the religious divide recount their experiences on and off camera with diligent detail. Personal accounts – such as that of a mother and daughter who name family members, friends and the streets of their neighbourhood while retelling their experience of Bloody Sunday, when British soldiers killed 14 demonstrators during a peaceful protest against internment in 1972 – are interspersed with archival news footage of these and other events in Derry along with a video sequence of the 1965 Bloody Sunday marches in Selma, USA, framing the local and global parameters of Cammock’s view.

Helen Cammock, ‘The Long Note’, 2018, exhibition view. Courtesy: Tansy Cowley and Void Gallery

I find myself looking for women in these images. In the central interview in The Long Note, Irish civil rights leader Bernadette Devlin McAliskey says: ‘Women have become invisible in all kinds of areas, but they were there and there is work to be done in going back for them.’ In setting to this task, she analyses the problematics of visibility and women’s role in the civil rights movement in the 1960s and ’70s and speaks of how her understanding of feminism was informed by the black civil rights movement in the US. In accord with Cammock, she goes on to assert the urgent need for continuing this work against racial and class discrimination today.

Exploring lament as a means of articulating loss and protest, Cammock’s pen is shown hovering above a sheet of manuscript paper, underscoring the place of song in her work. In the following scenes, Nina Simone’s ‘Backlash Blues’ (1967) accompanies washed-out footage of the aftermath of a bomb explosion, boys harmonise the anti-internment song ‘Men Behind the Wire’ (1972) and a choir of young women sing ‘The Parting Glass’ (1963).  In a performance workshop on the last weekend of the exhibition, Cammock collaborated with a local group of women and girls to develop the tune she is seen working on in the film. Extending montage beyond the frame, their collective performance is another politically astute move in a deeply compelling practice, totally relevant for these fractured times.

Helen Cammock, 'The Long Line' was on view at Void, Derry, from 6 October until 14 December 2018.

Main image: Helen Cammock, The Long Note, 2018, film still. Courtesy: Tansy Cowley and Void Gallery, Derry

Anne Tallentire is an artist who was born in Northern Ireland and lives in London, UK. Her most recent solo exhibitions include ‘Plan (...)’ at Grazer Kunstverein, Austria, and ‘Trailer: Itinerary, 1998–2018’, Hollybush Gardens, London: a collaboration with John Seth under their collective name seth/tallentire. She is the author of Object of a Life (2013, Copy Press) and co-organiser of Hmn with Chris Fite-Wassilak. In 2018, she was a recipient of a Paul Hamlyn Foundation Award for Artists.