Takeover: Week 6 - Anna Liesching
Introducing Anna Liesching - curator at The Ulster Museum
Hi Anna, tell us a little bit about you and your journey to becoming a curator at the Ulster museum.
I have a background in fine art and textiles, and was always passionate about museums and their place as free and accessible sources of knowledge, not just in art but history and science. Though I wasn’t even aware of the role of curator until my early twenties.
I then studied a Masters in Museums Studies, and gained a lot of experience volunteering and working freelance for various galleries, heritage sites and the National Trust. About 10 years ago I was lucky to get a place on one of the first National Lottery Funded internships in the Ulster Museum and have been there ever since. Working my way from curatorial assistant, to assistant curator/arts officer and becoming a ‘fully grown’ Curator of Art about 3 years ago. I have worked across all aspects of the art collection over the years. I took over the Works of Art on Paper collection a few years ago. I look after this area as well as the Arts Council of Northern Ireland Gifted Collection of 2012 and some other aspect of the fine art collection. I feel very fortunate to have so much variety in my job. No two days are ever the same!
Your recent exhibition Making Her Mark - Women print artists from the Ulster Museum Collection was well received tell us a bit about how it came about.
My main focus and passion in my role as curator has been redressing the imbalance of the representation of women in art history. It’s a common misconception that women have only worked as professional artists since the middle of the last century, as over a third of professional artists for the past 300 years have been women. This number grew to near half in the 20th century. Much of my work and research is about making people aware of this and I have been involved in a number of initiatives and research groups around the subject.
A few years ago I kept noticing a pattern of women artists supporting their families, and often their artist husband, through print making. I then discovered that our amazing collection of wood engravings included many of these pioneer print makers. The collection itself was gifted by Lady Mabel Annesley in 1939, including some of her own beautiful wood engravings. This all sent me down a wonderful rabbit hole which resulted the stories about the 20 women artists featured in the Making Her Mark exhibition and publication.
What do you particularly enjoy about print?
I have always been interested in print, initially as a maker and then as curator. A huge element of joy I find in my job is creating access to art for our public. I always find that people are fascinated by print making. Drawing is something that everyone can relate to and then when you can open up the world of print to people, and make them realise the incredible amount of skill that goes into making a print, they’re always fascinated.
I interviewed famed print maker Elaine Shemilt recently and she told me how she would make a painting before embarking on the task of making a print. I think this is perfect description of how much more time, risk and care is need to make prints. I’m just in awe.
Which Irish female artists past and present do you most admire?
As a curator my focus changes constantly depending on new areas of research or an exhibition I’m preparing or have seen. Though there are certain pivotal change makers and agitators that I will always admire from the past. Mainie Jellet, for how she boldly brought Modernism to Ireland at a time when Irish art was inward looking. Also Elizabeth Rivers who often gets forgotten as part of this group. Alice Berger Hammerschlag and Deborah Brown are also personal heroes because of what they did for Belfast art.
Currently I have particular interest in performance, such as the work of Elaine Shemilt, who’s embossed print was just purchased for the collection. Though born in Scotland she was raised in Belfast and her work is particularly exciting to me as she is a filmmaker, performer, printmaker and environmental activist.
Do you feel the balance is improving in the representation of female to male artists in our national galleries and collections?
It is, slowly. I’m lucky to work with a collection that has good representation of women artists, compared to most nationals. 2018 was an exciting year when the work so many had been doing in the background gained more public interest. It’s been wonderful to see this continue and not die away, a fear for me when the centenary year ended. I’m trying now to shift how I represent women artists. Makin Her Mark was wonderful to do, though my goal is to not have to make a point about women artists and for them to be equally represented all the time. I’ve started to do this, for example my latest exhibition Changing Views has a strong representation of women artists, not because they were women but because they were artists and their work was important to the narrative of the exhibition.
I think national galleries and collections need to use what they have learnt in the past few years about better representation of women and put that energy toward better representation of all people. We’re all at the beginning on of a long journey.
Within print specifically did you have any issues finding material on female artists?
Yes! Making Her Mark took many years of research and there are still so many unanswered questions about many of the women included in that exhibition. This isn’t just for print, or even art, it’s across all of history. It takes longer to research women because of the way our history has been recorded, you have to go through many different routes to find them. Though this also makes it so much more enjoyable when you find new information and can share it with people. One of the Elizabeth Rivers print in Making Her Mark is an example. I was struggling to find the correct name for an untitled print. I then discovered that Rivers had titled her Out of Bedlam series of works with lines from text by a male author. This meant that many collections did not have Rivers noted as the true creator of the publication, so it was impossible to find. On cei discovered this I was able to track a copy down and give the correct title to ‘For their attention is on a sinking object’ and give Rivers correct authorship.
If you had to pick a favourite piece of work in any art form what would it be?
I spend a lot of time looking at art, so my favourite can change daily. Much of that looking is at exhibitions and some work really sticks with me. The last exhibitions I saw before lockdown have been on my mind. I keep going back to my photos of Dora Marr’s collage work in the Tate Modern’s retrospective. Also Steve McQueen’s Ashes, which I saw that day too. I think it’s one of the most moving pieces of art I’ve ever experienced. I’ve seen it a few times in different venues and it floors me every time.
What do you miss most about your job during quarantine?
So much! I very lucky that I can do so much of my job remotely and this time has allowed us all to develop the collection more accessibly online. But I really miss the objects and getting to see the artworks in person and close-up. I also really miss talking to people in the galleries, both colleagues and strangers. A whole day can change after a brief interaction with someone, or a new project can start, or a new perspective on work of art on display gained. For the same reason I miss other museums and galleries.
During quarantine what are you….
We have the radio constantly, which is nice as it’s a connection to the outside world. Usually Radio 6 or RTE Lyric. I tend to listen to podcasts when I go for a walk just finished Dolly Parton’s’ America and am re-listening to Serial Season 3.
TOO MUCH NETFLIX!!!
I’m currently researching for the exhibitions for when the museum reopens so lots of reading around that. Outside of work I Just finished Margaret Atwood’s Testaments and am about to start the last book in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. I have ordered the first of the Rachel Cusk trilogy from No Alibies, and I’ll fully admit it is because of the beautiful cover!
There is a lot of hope out there to go ‘back to normal’ but I really hope when things to do move on from this time we will have a new normal and will have learnt a lot of lessons. I hope the appreciation for many types of worker will continue, along with all the charity, awareness and caring that has come out of this time. I also hope to cancel my Netflix subscription!
From ‘Making Her Mark’, and with the kind permission of the descendants of Lady Mabel Annesley, we can share Image 1, I’m O’er Young (illustration for Robert Burns’ Poems) (c. 1925) Lady Mabel Annesley (1881-1959) Wood-engraving BELUM.Pt86 ©
Annesley grew up in County Down on her family’s Castlewellan estate, which she inherited at thirty-three and saved from financial disaster. A keen artist from an early age, she trained at the Frank Calderon School of Animal Painting. Following her husband’s death in 1913, she studied wood-engraving under Noel Rooke at the Central School of Arts and Crafts.
Despite being a member of English aristocracy she identified as Irish and her love of the Mournes was central to her work. As well as making many engravings of the area she illustrated books on local traditions including Richard Rowley’s Apollo in Mourne and County Down Songs.
Image 2: also from Making Her Mark, Interior (c. 1940) Doris Violet Blair (active 1940 -1980) Etching BELUM.Pt232 © Estate of Doris Violet Blair
Doris Violet Blair (active 1940 -1980) is known for her work as an official war artist during the Second World War, recording women’s impact on the war effort in Belfast. This domestic scene, created during wartime, reminds us that while women took on more responsibility during the war they were often still expected to continue to be homemakers.
I’m fully taking advantage of this opportunity to share work on BPWs social media as chance to show some my own personal favourites from the Ulster Museum print collection.
This dynamic work by Preston jumped out to me on one of the first days recording the Arts Council Gift. The imposing angle of the buildings and the contrast with fluttering prayer flags. I found a description online of this work that I think captures it perfectly “Slightly tipsy, slightly suffering, somewhat falling”.
Prayer Flags Janet Preston (Born 1967) photoetching BELUM.U2012.3.251 Arts Council of Northern Ireland Collection, gifted in 2012
Image 2: Ardreagh Cultra (1982) Camilla Brown Screenprint BELUM.U2012.3.149 Arts Council of Northern Ireland Collection, gifted in 2012
There are 3 prints by Camilla Brown in the collection. I selected this one because it is also in BPW’s archive collection. I always enjoy finding out where other impressions of a print are. Whether that be museum collections around the world or private homes. It wonderful to see the life of an edition.
Origional Post, here.