Emma Dwyer talks to Fiona Reilly, artist and mother, about her new work inspired by the unpaid labour of parenting
When artist Fiona Reilly was on maternity leave and her benefit ended, she was looking at her options. “I went into the dole with Leela strapped to me in a Boba Wrap and said I want to sign on for Job Seekers benefit. The guy behind the counter was like, ‘you know you have to be available for work to get that?’” He continued to ask her if she knew she had to be available for and capable of working full time. “He was basically saying to me you can’t get this if you’re at home with your child.”
“I was in the conundrum that every low-income woman – artist or not, people who work in the service industry, anyone who earns under 30k a year – is in” she adds. Before having her daughter, now two, Fiona worked part-time in retail to help her make ends meet while pursuing a career as an artist. He asked why she wouldn’t go back to her part-time job and she explained they would only employ her part-time and the costs of childcare would negate her income.
It was this encounter that inspired Fiona to make her new work Genuinely Seeking, which is currently showing at Ormston House in Limerick as part of the exhibition The Feminist Supermarket. “I was interested in this idea that as somebody who is raising a child the government will give me a subsidy to have someone else mind her [National Childcare Scheme] but they won’t give me some money to be at home. I just can’t believe that we’re still in that situation, that wages for housework is still such an abstract thing or a joke. We can outsource care and we can outsource cleaning but you can’t fucking outsource love.” She was quick to add that she admires anyone who goes out to work, but anyone who is at home by choice or circumstance should be supported financially to do that.
Fiona began making this work in the snatches of time between working as a mother and sleeping. She describes it as a “celebration of early motherhood and an act of desperation because motherhood can be both of those things.” The work looks at the invisible labour of cooking, cleaning, wiping bums, clearing up, making appointments, and then doing it all over again. She tells me about an argument she had with her partner about the shopping, about the constant thinking of things to cook and the constant list making.
Fiona says she was, “Interested in the idea of seeking, it’s very poetic to be in legislation. And the term ‘constantly available’, as a mother at home taking care of a child you are constantly available to them, you can’t even take a shit. […] The dictionary definition of work is an activity involving physical and mental effort done in order to achieve a result. I used to walk around the house thinking of that phrase. I remember thinking to myself, I could work in an office, or McDonalds, or sweep the streets, but I do that in my own house and that’s not considered work.”
When Ormston House was a supermarket in the 60s, the tagline was, ‘If you haven’t visited us yet, you’re robbing your husband.’ Ormston House is now a cultural centre, the name comes from Jack Ormston, the former proprietor who opened Ireland’s first self-service supermarket. Niamh Brown, co-Director at Ormston House added that, “the primary customer base was of course the housewife. Even around the time that he closed it was the start of the big chains coming in and a local business like that couldn’t compete, and he said in an article in the Limerick Leader that the housewives of Limerick will be devastated.”
We live in different times now – we read that tag line and find it galling. But the state don’t support women to mother, or parents to parent, there is an expectancy to get out there and work. For those who stay at home, after maternity benefit, or parental leave ends, you become dependent, very often, on a partner “A: what if you don’t have a partner. B: Fuck off I’m my own entity. I don’t want any of [my partner] Aidan’s money, there’s just so much insanely wrong with it. I really struggled with the conditions of becoming a mother rather than becoming a mother itself,” says Fiona.
When they found that slogan, Niamh and her Ormston House co-director Mary Conlon started wondering what a feminist supermarket would look like, what would it sell, would it be a barter system, and so on. The Feminist Supermarket features new works by various female artists including Ciara Barker, Denise Chaila, Mary Conroy, Avril Corroon, Fiona Gordon, Zuhar Iruretagoiena, Ali Kirby, Niamh Porter, Fiona Reilly, and Lise Tovesdatter Skou.
Lise wrote a text piece with bleach on bed sheets about how her child became ill and she had to take on two cleaning jobs and give up being an artist.
Mary Conroy was interested in the ingredients in cleaning products we wash down the plug hole, she has made a series of soaps. Together with Fiona, “they all started to concentrate on women who are traditionally in that role of cleaning in the house…” says Mary Conlon. “Interestingly when you go to the other side of the space it’s more drawing on food stuff. Niamh Porter connects the two sides of the supermarket, she’s looking at established women architects from the modernists era but specifically their own domestic spaces that they designed for themselves.”
Genuinely Seeking (2019-2021) has 130 drawings in total. Some of the J-cloths have text written on them like the social welfare slogan, ‘Available for, capable of, and genuinely seeking work.’ Other Texts are drawn from poems that helped Fiona during early motherhood time, poems by Eavan Boland and Liz Berry. Others are things that went through Fiona’s head during those two years of making the work. “I was making them for so long, there’s some that remind me of a particular time In Leela’s [her daughter’s] development, there’s one that says ‘you’re ok, you’re ok, you’re ok’, and I remember the moment of making that, in my head I thought, ‘I should talk to myself like I talk to my daughter…’ The work is very desperate, there’s a mania to it. Or at least I see it that way because I know how it was made.”
That early experience of parenting, the complete collapse of what life was to a chaotic survival mode is something most parents can relate to. We will recognise the frustrations with the way things are set up in Ireland for parents. And the things we have arguments over, like the shopping list. Or the moments where we ask ourselves, ‘Is this ok, am I ok?’
The Feminist Supermarket with Ciara Barker, Denise Chaila and B+, Mary Conroy, Avril Corroon, Fiona Gordon, Zuhar Iruretagoiena, Ali Kirby, Niamh Porter, Fiona Reilly, and Lise Skou is running until 4 December at Ormston House in Limerick.
The exhibition, or supermarket, has works – such as ceramic sanitary products, cheese, and soaps – that draw on personal experiences and a range of research interests around diasporan histories and racial discrimination, ecofeminism and material waste, financial insecurity and housing conditions, mental illness and moral judgement, parenting and the spaces that women design for themselves.
Images: Jed Niezgoda[/restrict]