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The Magdalene Laundries: Remembering through artistic practices


Wednesday, October 12, 2016 - 16:00 to 18:00
Isobel Plowright and Audrey Rousseau

Operated by feminine religious orders during the 18-20th centuries, the Irish Magdalene Laundries confined, abused, and forced into labour thousands of women and girls who were so-called “penitents”. Since 2016 marks the centenary of Irish Independence and the 20th anniversary of the closing of the last Magdalene Laundry in Ireland, a series of events are organized all over the world by artists and academics under the 1916: Home: 2016 Memory Event, October 7-31.

As part of this series, Audrey Rousseau and Isobel Plowright present their research-creation work on the Magdalene Laundries. Piecing together fragments of history, be it activists’ portraits or pieces of fabric, they remember the lives and honour the memories of thousands of girls and women who have experienced these institutions. Following the screening of Audrey’s documentary film and exploring Isobel’s installation, both presenters will briefly reflect on their work, before engaging in a discussion with the public.

"In Loving Memories" (2016) by Audrey Rousseau / 30 minutes / English (no subtitles)

This documentary film and experimental sound environment project explores the struggles for recognition and redress of past injustices in the Irish Magdalene Laundries. Through a recollection of activists' portraits, the project aims to remember and honour the lives of thousands of girls and women who have experienced these institutions, while giving rise to reflections on transmission of testimonial knowledge.

"Memorial Quilt" (2016) An installation by Isobel Plowright / Organic unbleached muslin, organic blue muslin, thread / 84x48 in.

This memorial quilt is a commemorative project dedicated to the women who toiled in the Magdalene laundries at the international scale. Drawing from photographs I took of the former laundries in Ireland as well as from archival material I researched in Quebec City, this blanket attempts to convey both the built environment and life within the institutions. Each image is embroidered using a digital sewing machine on hand-loomed ethically sourced cotton. The blue colour of the cloth is meant to evoke the uniforms that women wore in Quebec City, as well as the national colours of Ireland and Quebec. The working hands, embroidered in white thread on white cotton, symbolize invisible labour: women in Irish Magdalene laundries received no wage for their work. This project remains as of yet unfinished, and will honour any contribution by survivors of the Magdalene laundries or their relatives.

Specializing on the politics of memory, Audrey Rousseau’s doctoral thesis analyses the contemporary struggles led by survivors of the Magdalen Laundries in Ireland. Interested in the production, circulation and interpretation of social discourses on redress, reconciliation and social justice, she reflects on the role of “memory entrepreneurs” and different aspects of "witnessing" the past. She authored the chapter « Representations of Forced Labor in the Irish Magdalen Laundries: Exploring Contemporary Visual Art as Potential Sites of Memory », In Excavating Memory: Sites of Remembering and Forgetting, Maria Theresia Starzmann and John R. Roby (Eds.), University Press of Florida (2016), where she views art practices as sites of collective remembering.

Isobel Plowright is an interdisciplinary artist who specializes in painting and drawing. She is particularly interested by women’s history, and has conducted field research in Ireland. She is inspired by the works of contemporary artists Ghada Amer, painter Marlene Dumas and stained glass artist and printmaker Harry Clarke. She has worked as an assistant to the art department on a networked TV show, and is a candidate for an MA in Interdisciplinary Studies on the subject of Magdalen asylums in Québec and Ireland. She has also been involved in activism for gender equality and participated in initiatives against sexual violence.

LB-1019, 1400 de Maisonneuve West, Montreal, QC

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