Festival of the Sea reflective blog – Bronagh Corr McNicholl

Bronagh Corr McNicholl – Visiting Artist

Festival of the Sea – Madagascar


I have been living in Derry City for the past 20 years working as an artist, artist facilitator, Arts Care artist in residence in Western Trust, patient/environment arts consultant and cultural programmer. I am currently working as a PHD researcher at Ulster University looking at harnessing photographic dialogue as a participative tool for critical reflection and change towards inclusive masculinity in Derry/Londonderry

Whilst as an artist, I work predominantly in photography but I also create and facilitate on a multidisciplinary level using traditional and new media including oils, acrylics, digital Imaging,  film, audio, literature, printmaking, textiles or creating with sculptural and found elements. My photography documents the small narratives and moments in both people and nature, observing small detail in a fast-paced changing world. Film, nature, travel and sense of place and time influence my photographic works.

I was invited by Jonathan Skinner, (whom I had worked in the past in my role as Arts Care artist at Let The Dance Begin, a community engaged Arts Care festival,  Strabane, NI) to work with SEED, festival organisers and other visiting artists engaging in a cultural exchange  at the ‘Festival of the Sea’ Sainte Luce, Madagascar in 2019.

The project resonated with me as I am originally from Tyrone, and the shores of Lough Neagh and whilst my family are not from a fishing community, I am aware of how mass industry has changed the traditional methods of fishing which had been so much part of the vibrant lived cultural life of rural fishing areas for generations.

As an artist who has primarily worked across healthcare areas, I was conscious of creating a project that would both relate significantly to, be sensitive of, and add to, the cultural value of the community: advance meetings, ethics training and safe practices with the team further developed this understanding. My brief involved designing and delivering a participatory arts project involving 20 women and also with over 300 school children from across three coastal fishing villages.

Initial research and an introduction to Sarah Brown, (a textile artist and founder of the women’s STITCH embroidery project) who was familiar with the community and the accessibility of materials, enabled me  to identify what was and what was not possible.  I was then able to develop the idea of making Lambahonys / lambas. Lambas, are a traditional garment associated with festivals, ceremonies and also as daily practical use, often as a means of carrying children on mothers’ backs. Teaching the women, ‘Shibori’ a traditional Japanese resist dying technique involved different ways of tying the cotton, resulting in a variety of textile pattern designs for the lambas, the indigo colour reflecting the sea theme.

With the children, I decided to create windsocks  that they could use in the procession, using materials such as paper, paint, tissue paper, string, again sensitive to the environment, identifying what we could buy in Madagascar and those I needed to bring with me.

Arriving in Fort Dauphin and meeting the team helped get an idea of what I was to expect, but to be honest no descriptions or photos could have fully illustrated the beauty, warmth, and rich culture of the people and the communities or the landscape I felt privileged to be invited to work in.

On the first morning I woke at dawn and watched the fishermen push their boats out to the dark choppy waters of the Indian Ocean, I later found out that  most fishermen couldn’t swim and only a few had life jackets among them.  As my own Lough Neagh community has a strong tradition of fishing, I relayed back to it the fact about the fishermen not being able to swim, I was surprised to learn that  most traditional Lough Neagh fishermen, also rarely are able to swim.

The Malagasy Fishermen were keen to be photographed beside their boats, which I felt linked them to their heritage, labour, lifestyle, tradition and sense of place.  They really enjoyed seeing their own images on the  camera LCD.  This experience has directly led to a project I am currently working on, I recently received some funding from Derry City Council towards creating photos celebrating the relationship between fishermen and sense of place, around Lough Neagh, Lough Swilly and the River Foyle.

Over the next couple of days at the Festival, I worked with the women and then the children with help from the team to create twenty beautiful Lambas and over two hundred windsocks, in addition I facilitated other women’s and children’s painting workshops against the background of music, dancing workshops and festival atmosphere. The children would proudly come up and show me their beautiful paintings. I was surprised at the skilful anatomical correctness of so many of the depictions of marine life within the paintings.

The day of the procession, I felt very humbled to see the self-titled ‘Lamba Ladies’ proudly wear their creations as they joined the procession dancing their way to the beach and festival grounds. As the time went on amid the lively atmosphere, I would catch glimpses of the distinctive ‘Lamba Ladies’ in their indigo hues, as they went around their normal business, sometimes with a baby wrapped snugly on their backs. I was delighted to see that the garments were practical as well as beautiful. Whether through misunderstanding or experimentation, the children had decided to wear their windsocks as head pieces which added to the spontaneity, creativity and joy of the procession.

The richness of the experience has stayed with me and has had a major part in my own return to academia and as I want to explore further how I can use photography as a participative tool for critical thinking and making the unseen visible towards cultural understanding.

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