A response to place

Updated: 2014-06-13 08:00

By Tracie Barrett (China Daily Europe)

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 A response to place

Artist Niamh Cunningham and one of her works, a delicate knitted skull spun from her own hair. Wei Xiaohao / China Daily

From knitting to painting, Irish artist weaves her heritage and surroundings into her art

The first thing one notices on entering the Beijing apartment of artist Niamh Cunningham is the number of canvases covering almost every inch of wall space. A closer look shows an equally impressive variety of styles and subject matter the dark reds and black silhouettes of her subway series, thickly applied impasto oils that form rugged crags on a huge mountainscape, and the soft, seemingly melting lines of her Transparent Milk portraits, inspired by the work of the contemporary Chinese artist Zheng Delong.

Nor does the Dublin-born artist limit herself to working on canvas. Stepping into her studio or browsing her website, one can see a delicate knitted skull spun from her own hair and a more solid knitted spiral that serves as a calendar, both public and very personal. Cunningham's speech is an artwork of its own, her soft Irish brogue weaving ethereal and elemental images, as she speaks of the countries in which she has lived and traveled and her evolution as an artist.

Surprisingly, or perhaps not when one sees the detail in her work, Cunningham studied biomedical sciences at university and has both a bachelor's and a master's degree in the field. Art has always been part of her life, however, learned first from her mother and grandmother and honed through practice and experimentation.

"My gran was a painter," she says. "So she gave me my first oils when I was 11. My mother used to make marmalade from real oranges and when the crates of oranges came, there was a canvas board on the crates."

Her grandmother, a "hobbyist" painter, taught her how to prime the boards and they were her first canvases.

Art fell by the wayside as she pursued a career in the medical field, first in England where she met her husband and then in Johannesburg, South Africa, where she taught Medical Lab Sciences at a local college. There, through friendships she made with staff in the art department, she started experimenting with her own art again and she says she will always associate South Africa with acrylics.

The connection between place and artwork is a constant in her diverse body of work, as she says her art is "definitely a response" to where she is.

Her time in South Africa was followed by seven years in Hong Kong, where her son Fionn was born in 1999, and three in Tokyo. The family then moved to Dubai for five years, and Cunningham said that is where her "first main body of work came".

The family lived close to the Dubai Creek and she took Fionn walking there almost every day, its rippling waters becoming the lifeblood of her Dubai cityscapes.

"That's when I knew I would be a very serious painter, or at least I knew I would have to drop my teaching," she says.

She had two solo shows while in Dubai, then the family returned to Ireland for a year, so Fionn could experience living there and "know he was Irish". Her work from that period portrays the rich emerald beauty of her homeland.

The next year was spent in Prague, resulting in another series of landscapes, featuring the rooftops and bridges of the historic city. Then, almost four years ago, the family relocated to Beijing, where Cunningham has again painted stunning landscapes, but also returned to a childhood passion for working with textiles.

"When I was in primary school, the only thing I felt super confident in doing, the only thing I was better at than anyone else in school was knitting and sewing," she says. "It was one of the legacies my mother handed to me."

That legacy has been an integral part of her connection to China and particularly to its women, as she knitted parts of her Pillar of Time installation piece while traveling the city by bus.

"The women on the bus would be very interested. Some of them would insist on taking it and showing me how they hold their knitting needles and how they wrap the thread. And there is this unspoken etiquette with knitting that you finish the row before handing it back. So there are a few rows knitted by complete strangers on the bus in that pillar."

Cunningham works on her art from around 9 am each day until 6 pm most days, and she may squeeze in another hour or so in the evenings. She is currently working on China landscapes for a solo show planned for December at 3C Creative Mall in Beijing's 798 Art District and hopes to complete another 20 paintings by that time.

She says she has "loads of ideas" inspired by Beijing, including a series about the city's public transport and the "slow ballet" of bicycles "almost like a swarm of bees or insects".

"I think if you have an opportunity to make new work for an exhibition, it's natural to push yourself into unknown directions," she says.

Cunningham currently has two China landscapes in Nature a charity fundraising group show organized by artist Patty Hudak at 66 Art Workshop in Chaoyang district, showing until June 15. You can see her work at niamhcunningham.com.


(China Daily European Weekly 06/13/2014 page29)