DUBLIN — Irish artists have taken to the streets to demand that the government repeal the eighth amendment of their country’s constitution. The eighth is a constitutional ban that “acknowledges the right to life of the unborn” and prohibits women from accessing abortion services — the punishment can be as severe as 14 years of jail time if a woman is found to have had one. Nonetheless, around 3,451 women and girls traveled from Ireland to the UK last year for the procedure, while thousands more tried to purchase abortion pills online between 2010–12. The discussion of women’s reproductive health has been taboo and hidden in the shadows in Ireland for decades, since the eighth was put into place by referendum in 1983; however, people are starting to raise their voices, and Irish artists are among them. They’re using diverse tactics to broadcast the message of the pro-choice movement, despite efforts to silence them.
For Anna Cosgrave, founder of the Repeal Project (RP), attending a vigil for Savita Halappanavar “unleashed this wrath” and helped move her to artistic action. In 2012 at University Hospital Galway, Halappanavar asked for an abortion as she was experiencing the complications of a septic miscarriage; her request was denied, and she died. In the wake of the tragedy, Cosgrave decided she wanted to contribute to the effort to change Ireland’s abortion policy. She founded RP and designed a black sweatshirt — or “jumper,” as they say in Ireland — with white-block lettering that reads “REPEAL,” referring to the eighth amendment.
Cosgrave has described the jumpers as “a statement of solidarity” comparable to the “Yes” badges that people wore in Ireland last year during the campaign to legalize same-sex marriage. Indeed, the bold black-and-white messaging uses minimal text and design to make the pro-choice view, which has historically been suppressed in the Irish Catholic country, very public. It’s increasingly common to see the political fashion at #Repealthe8th rallies — the sweatshirts, which RP quickly sold out of (a bomber jacket is coming soon) have become a statement that people are holding each other accountable to, including representatives of the Dáil, Ireland’s parliament. Other artists have picked up the “REPEAL” message and aesthetic, including spoken-word poet Vickey Curtis, numerous women-led indie rock and punk bands, and filmmakers Sarah Maria Griffin and Dave Tynan, who wrote and directed, respectively, “We Face This Land,” a short film that compares Ireland’s abortion ban to witch trials and features women wearing the jumpers and walking into the sea. Without a doubt, RP has been successful in its mission to use “outerwear to give voice to a hidden problem.”
But inevitably, in a country where abortion has been illegal since the founding of the state, there has also been pushback on #Repealthe8th art. Perhaps the most high-profile example is the controversy surrounding a mural painted by Irish-born, US-based artist Maser in July. Commissioned by the feminist platform the HunReal Issues on behalf of the multidisciplinary Project Arts Centre, Maser’s work featured a red heart with white lettering inside that read, simply, “Repeal the 8th”; it popped against the azure wall of the center’s building in Dublin’s busy Temple Bar district. The mural was up for only 17 days before it was ordered to be painted over by the Dublin City Council (DCC), which said the center had not received the planning permission necessary for painting a mural on the exterior of a building. The alternative was a costly enforcement process.
Project Arts Centre Artistic Director Cian O’Brien told Hyperallergic that his organization “didn’t know” the mural required planning permission. Maser’s work was not the first to be painted on the building’s exterior, but it was the first to be threatened with removal — after the DCC received 11 written complaints about it. “Normally, if they got one or two, that would be high,” said O’Brien. “The fact that they got 11 is significant.” While the mural was up, the center itself received some 50 complaints about it — but also over 200 letters of support, sent by senators, TDs (Teachta Dála, members of the Irish parliament), the artists, the Irish Union of Students, academics, celebrities, NGOs, and even 24 Dublin City Council members themselves.
In an article for the Irish Times, O’Brien addressed the argument of those who “felt it was inappropriate for an arts organization, independent but in receipt of state funding, to be presenting such an overtly politicized artwork.” He went on to defend Maser’s mural, saying, “For artists to make work that tests the limits of this principle is essential in a democratic society. The notion that any cultural organisation must always present a balanced viewpoint to any argument or issue goes against the very fibre of its existence.”
O’Brien told Hyperallergic that removing the mural “was a very difficult decision, but the right decision. There was a power to it that I didn’t necessarily think would happen — with social media and the media.” Not interested in operating outside of the law, he has now committed to submitting a planning permission application to the DCC by early December and will wait the typical 8–12 weeks to hear whether the center will be granted permission to repaint Maser’s work. “If we are not granted planning permission, it sets a standard,” O’Brien said.
Maser described in an interview with the Irish Times how, despite the removal, he felt he had succeeded as an artist because his mural “took a life of its own, which is what public art is meant to do.” That second life includes painted replicas of the work, which have popped up all around Dublin, an augmented reality project, edible donut versions, and video projections as far away as Cork.
In another act of resistance, HunReal created a digital, freely printable sticker version of Maser’s mural for anyone to post. These, as well as a set of “Repeal the 8th” stickers made by the artist El. Viz, featuring a twisted rope binding someone’s wrists, can be seen all over Dublin. On a recent walking tour of the city, Will St. Leger, a street artist and activist who describes himself as “the mindful vandal,” pointed out the stickers, saying, “Maser’s work has become its own meme; people are taking ownership of it. It’s powerful.”
Holly Pereira, who typically works as a commercial sign painter, illustrator, and graphic designer, told Hyperallergic that the removal of Maser’s work by the city council “seems so strange. The public wall spaces are public and should remain as such, and it wasn’t offensive. It made me want to do something.” Pereira decided to make her first street art piece, wanting to “play with the city landscape” and make a mural that was “really decorative, really floral, and something so beautiful and pretty that you couldn’t take it down”; at the same time, she wanted it to be “really visible, loud and shouty.” A meeting with Anna Cosgrave helped lead her to a wall at the Bernard Shaw bar, where, with the assistance of John Mac Naeidhe and Emma Cafferky, she transformed a chunk of the urban landscape into a flowering jungle pattern, intertwined with the words “Our Bodies, Our Lives, Our Choice.” Shortly after Pereira’s piece went up at the Bernard Shaw, Shirani Bolle painted another “Repeal the 8th” mural there: a grotesque and provocative image of a woman who is the byproduct of “old men” making decisions about her body. Aifric Ni Chríodáin also organized Someone You Love, a pro-choice art exhibition that included prints, photos, and illustrations by 20 artists, including St. Leger.
Currently, the Citizens’ Assembly, a committee comprised of 99 Irish citizens randomly selected by the state, is meeting monthly to discuss issues surrounding the eighth amendment; it will eventually submit its reports and recommendations to the Houses of Oireachtas for further debate by elected representatives. However, many pro-choice activists have expressed concerns about the process of the Citizens’ Assembly, as it delays a possible referendum on the issue by Irish voters, a majority of whom, polls suggest, are pro-choice. The Citizens’ Assembly decides when it will conclude its meetings, but activists are demanding that its recommendations and a referendum be made by February 2017.
Meanwhile, almost 3,000 artists have signed onto the Artists’ Campaign to Repeal the Eighth Amendment, and they will continue to take a stand.
“I think art can be provocative and stop you in your tracks, make you think and engage with the actual repercussions of denying women the right to make decisions about their own bodies,” said Andrea Horan, founder of the HunReal Issues. “Art is always on your own terms — you engage with it how you choose, which is what is most powerful about it.”
Correction: This article previously stated that Cian O’Brien was the executive director of Project Arts Centre, not the artistic director. We regret the error. It has been fixed.