Stiofan O’Ceallaigh : meet the artist and the creator of Balaclava.Q.

‘UNSELFY’ (2015) by Stiofan O’Ceallaigh

Interview by Victorien Biet.

Stiofan, who are you ?

I am a multimedia artist and curator born in Ireland, currently exhibiting between the USA and Europe. I am also founder and director of Balaclava.Q – An international Queer Visual Arts Project & Collective, established in 2016.

How would you define your artwork ?

My focus is an exploration of the understanding of a queer aesthetic, if indeed, there is one. A personal journey and an acknowledgement of flux, my work seeks to emancipate those who know it, simply by promoting discourse around areas such as HIV, queer art censorship, body politic and internalised shame/stigma>pride and fundamentally and effort to reduce hate … in all its forms. I am investigating all of these ideas and notions, all of the time. The main artforms I employ are poetry, photography, video, painting and installation.

How did you become the artist you are today ? Did it start during your childhood ?

I first started painting age 7. From very early on, painting allowed me to deal with personal emotions, set against the world’s paradoxes and hypocrisies.  I continued to paint and dabble with photography throughout my teens. At age 18 I was awarded the second highest mark at A-Level in Northern Ireland. It was at this point I came to realise that making art offered me fulfillment, and that I actually had talent. I then progressed to the University of Ulster where I was awarded a distinction certificate in Fine art & Design. I then relocated to Liverpool (England), which was a huge, sublime culture shock for me (having been raised in a small catholic town in Ireland). In 2002 I graduated with First Class honours from the University of Liverpool. That same year I received the Outstanding Achievement Award for the highest graduation score in Fine Art, Design & Humanities. I guess at this point the Universe was trying to tell me something.

Untitled Coming Out & The Onlookers (35 x 35 x 1.5 inches, acrylic on canvas, 2018)

Over the coming 14 years I progressed within the arts sector in NW England, to managerial and executive level working for galleries, museums, festivals and theatres. And in 2014, due to health reasons, I took a sabbatical from the arts sector and decided to focus on my art practice. 

Tell us more about Balaclava.Q.

Balaclava.Q was established in 2016 as a knee-jerk reaction to the Pulse Nightclub massacre (Orlando, Florida), where 49 people were murdered and 53 people seriously injured, simply because they -: exist. I drew on 14 years experience of working at managerial level for galleries, museums and theatres in the UK. And out of a need to do something to help turn this negative into a positive, I created Balaclava.Q ( www.balaclavadotq.net ). So rather than hide in the shadows this project very quickly became an exercise in visibility and community cohesion.  Balaclava.Q is an international queer visual arts project and collective who seek to connect, promote and create platforms for queer artists. Now in its third year and with over 1,000 contributors and volunteers from all over the globe the project is going from strength to strength. 

And what about its creation ? 

Balaclava.Q is a safe space for artists free from censorship and artist fees.  The project currently consists of three strands or more aptly, tactics:

Tactic 1, titled Obscuring the Face, which allows artists the freedoms of anonymity to express themselves without fear of repercussions. In fact a lot of the artists who explore this tactic use pseudonyms as a protective method. 

A selection of works from the Barely Visible series (various sizes, acrylic on canvas), 2018

Tactic 2 is called HIVideo – an global screening of art films about HIV/AIDS across 4 continents. Tactic 2 has provided the further audience reach for Balaclava.Q. Having partnered with venues such as the Tom of Finland Foundation (Los Angeles, USA), Puerto Rico Museum of Contemporary Art, La La Mutinerie (Paris, France), Penthouse NQ (UK), various universities, hospitals and galleries throughout Canada, USA and Europe all of whom are too many to mention, all of whom must be thanked. Not to mention the 1,000+ collaborators, artists and volunteers who have contributed to Balaclava.Q so far, more specifically the team of Creative Directors who act as advocates and facilitators for Balaclava.Q in their home countries. 

Tactic 3, the most recent is titled Abstract Activism which unlike Tactic 1 calls for queer visibility, this is because the very act of visibility is activism and ‘Silence = Death.’

I will be introducing new tactics to the project in the coming years. I want to highlight that it is the artists who develop and shape Balaclava.Q, not the other way around. Balaclava.Q responds to contemporary queer art concerns. It is extremely important to me that the project remains relevant.

Untitled Two Men Kissing (Two Man Army) – 2019 – A variation on the Barely Visible series

At the core of Balaclava.Q values is a quote by American biologist, Albert Kinsey (1894 – 1956):

“Only the human mind invents categories and tries to force facts into separated pigeon-holes. The living world is a continuum in each and every one of its aspects. The sooner we learn this concerning sexual behavior the sooner we shall reach a sound understanding of the realities of sex……..” .

Balaclava.Q is always searching for ways to raise funds to keep the project alive. If anyone has any suggestions, ideas for collaborations and/or fundraising assistance, please do get in touch with us balaclava.q@gmail.com.  

Why did you want to gather the « queer and non-queer » artists all over Europe ?

Well it’s not just Europe.  Balaclava.Q now has over 600 emerging and established artists who reside across 4 continents. Balaclava.Q was born out of a need to convey the rich visual art scene in the queer community. While a lot of artists have are having their works removed from social media due to “community standards”, Balaclava.Q stands up as a reaction against queer art censorship, and art censorship in general.

The Fence Documenting Murder – 2017 – mixed media

Over the past three years, organically, Balaclava.Q has become essentially, an archive of queer contemporary art in its own right. A go-to for a who’s who is queer contemporary art world. I am proud to say that Balaclava.Q is now recognised as part of a global conversation on censorship, queer art, HIV/AIDS and stigma/shame>pride.  Balaclava.Q is inclusive: artists, regardless of gender, race or sexuality are welcome so long as they identify as ‘queer’ or ‘other.’

I must stress, at this stage, that ‘queer’ does not mean gay. Contemporary queerness comes under the umbrella of “other” and “otherness”, but what connects these artists from all over the world is the explorative theme of identity politics and the politics of visibility.

To expand on this further I would like to quote David J. Getsy who states “While ‘queer’ draws its political and affective force from the history of non-normative, gay, lesbian and bisexual communities, it is not equivalent to these categories nor is it an identity… Indeed, it was developed as a primary public stance and a political attitude from which cultural authority could be disputed”- from Queer // Documents on Contemporary Art published by Whitechapel Gallery and The MIT Press (2016).

Studio view – 2018

Balaclava.Q seeks to compliment and take part in this wider contemporary global dialogue while acknowledging the effect heteronormativity has on sub and countercultures.

You have just exhibited some of your works in Paris at Les Mots à la Bouche. Tell us more about it.

That’s correct, yes. The show at Les Mots à la Bouche was my first solo show.  I am extremely honoured and proud of this opportunity.  I should also use this opportunity to thank Emmanuel Barrouyer and Sébastien Grisez for all their support in making this happen. The works exhibited at the venue come under the name of the Barely Visible series. Consisting of approximately 55 paintings, the Barely Visible series is an exercise and investigation into exploring loss and gratitude, and where the two collide.

In order to explain the Barely Visible series I need to talk about why I made the first painting in the series, titled Untitled: Boys With Problems (Robert & I), 2018 .  In July 2018 I lost a close, personal friend, Dr Robert Summers PhD – a close ally in championing queer visual art. Initially, the Barely Visible paintings were a reaction to the overwhelmingly sad news of his death. I started this series as an effort to understand what had happened, and what I had lost. My gut instinct was to begin to reminiscing, which I think is one of the first emotional states (along with anger), for anyone exploring their own grief.  I began digging out photographs from personal archives. One particular photograph stood out, in fact while holding a pile of photographs, one fell out of my hands and onto the floor. It depicts Robert and I at a meeting in a diner on Hollywood Boulevard (Los Angeles, 2017). This was the starting point for the first painting. The title references Robert and I, obviously, but also refers to one of Robert’s queer art initiatives; a queer zine called Boys With Problems.  When I finished the painting – and without thought – I wrote two words on the canvas. Those words were “Barely Visible”. I now understand that those two words translate —  subconsciously —  to me as, “I miss you.”  

Mixed Flux & Temporary Displacement – 2017 – by Stiofan O’Ceallaigh & Ron Kibble (part of the Communique(e)r series – polaroid photograph)

It should also be noted at this point that, the use of the word ‘Untitled’ is in homage to the works of USA based artist and AIDS activist Félix González-Torres (1957 – 1996).  As with González-Torres, the use of the word “untitled” indicates a queer art genealogy and potentialities of a Queer Condition: existing in a world that is not built for you, and therefore, you become superfluous to requirements, or invalid, – or more aptly ‘untitled’.

It quickly became evident to me that by using photographs, I was attempting to hold on to, contain and – actually – feel memories. The smells, the conversation and the location.  At the time I was also looking at a lot of Catholic Orthodox iconography, a common thread for queer artists. I continued to replicate photographs in paint. The colours were unimportant, everything was unimportant except for the replication of this memory in paint – for me – this actually, iconifies the memory.  The rest – as they say – is history.  So I guess you could say that the primary function of these works is an attempt by me to reposition the grief I felt and still feel. To try and change a negative into a positive. Hence the overriding theme within the works is one of gratitude and loss.   

I then began painting pictures of friends, family, people who are important and influential to me. And so this process – of painting memories – is an effort to understand loss, and then the sense of gratitude that ensues.  I then began painting found images of openly queer people. Gay, trans, femme, etcetera. I gave each painting a title which replicated or eluded to a subconscious thought or a memory. The titles essentially created a new narrative within the portraits.  A sense of brotherhood that is eternal and intrinsic to, specifically, gay men and MSM. Throughout this process I was also painting portraits of myself, placing myself on the same pedestal and in the same area of investigation as all the other subjects in the paintings. At my peak I was painting approximately 3-4 paintings a day. The whole process was organic, with planning only necessary for some of the larger scale paintings.

‘UNSELFY with Tom & HOMORIOT (the Tom of Finland Foundation) (20917) a collaboration between Stiofan O’Ceallaigh & Robert Summers

The dripping effect that has become synonymous with the Barely Visible series was one of those “happy accidents” where the paint does it’s own thing. I believe this is the paint communicating directly with me, the paint is getting involved with the work too.  The paint itself, or the forces that control it; for example gravity, heat, etcetera, were also involved in the making of these works. The dripping paint — symbolising actual and potential loss; (tears) — but also the idea that the subject is both there and not there, barely visible, surviving in a world where you are told you do not have a direct passage to exist.  This is where the overarching themes of gender, sexuality and identity politics all intermingle to create a wider argument for this series.

Speaking practically, the Barely Visible paintings are also an attempt to generate funds for http://www.balaclavadotq.net – An international queer visual arts project and collective who seek to connect, promote and create platforms for queer artists (established 2016). Robert was the person that gave me the push to start Balaclava.Q, and in true spirit with Robert’s legacy I decided to donate all income from the Barely Visible paintings to Balaclava.Q. To support and provide a vehicle for queer artists.  Something I know Robert would have loved.  After a successful run at Les Mots a la Bouche (Paris, France), the Barely Visible series generated enough funds to secure the website domain and premium accounts, plus subsidiaries for the next two years. The remaining paintings will be up for sale shortly and a e-catalogue will be published and made available in the coming months.  There are approximately 55 Barely Visible paintings, some housed in private collections in Europe and USA, and the rest split between the UK and France (for upcoming shows 2019). I have dedicated the entire Barely Visible series to the memory of Robert, as an indication of his legacy, love and influence on me.

Boxes and Circles by Stiofan O’Ceallaigh 1999

To conclude and as an important side-note, I would like to state that my worldview is that we are currently in the middle of World War III. Let me explain why. In this era of Trumpism and the rising far right, the death toll of members of the LGBTQ+ communities is increasing. Also, alongside this there are acts of violence been committed which include ostracisation, stoning, maming, shaming, conversion therapies and the “corrective” rape of predominantly lesbians. Add to that the situation in Chechnya, where last week 40 members of the LGBTQ+ have been rounded up and tortured and two people killed. What we are left with is a matter of syntax. While I do not condone violence in any form, I believe that an all out attack on LGBTQ+ people continues at ferocious speeds. This is the thread that connects all paintings in the Barely Visible series.  With the Barely Visible series I guess I am painting a metaphoric army of pain and love; gratitude and loss, but ultimately strength and hope.  Fight for what you love and be thankful for it. 

How do you find inspiration ? What is your method of work ?

I get a lot of inspiration from other artists. My biggest influences and idols are Félix González-Torres (1957 – 1996), David Wojnarowicz (1954 – 1992), Elmgreen & Dragset (active from 1995), Andy Warhol (1928 – 1987), Bob Mizer (1922 1992),  Robert Mapplethorpe (1946 – 1989), Paul McCarthy (born 1945), Bruce Nauman (born 1941), Bill Viola (born 1951), Bruce LaBruce (born 1964), Francesca Woodman (1958 – 1981), Eva Hesse (1936 – 1970), and finally collective movements such as Queercore (which began in the 1980s  as an offshoot of the punk subcultures), and General Idea (active 1967 until 1994), to name but a few. I also regularly research the work of my queer art contemporaries to ensure that dialogues remain relevant, and I am also currently sourcing a lot of content and material from LGBTQ+ news reports, more specifically the information coming out of Africa and Chechnya.  I also find a lot of source materials and inspiration from personal archives.  

However, more importantly I make work because I have to. Making art is cathartic for me. A way for me to purge strong feelings, emotions and memories. Whatever happens next is generally unplanned and expressive (in the moment). The need to make art holds the biggest influence on me.

Untitled HE (Robert & I) – 2018 – Barely Visible – acrylic on canvas

My process in creating work requires me to withdraw from the world, what I mean by that is locking myself in my studio, music, research in-hand and from then the process of experimenting begins. I never enter the studio with a particular vision, however I usually have several thoughts or feeling which i wish to explore further.  Usually reactionary and expressive, my work tends to flow with isolation and strong emotions.

Will you continue the painting ?

Painting is always a source of pleasure for me, so yes. It is also a therapeutic process for me. For me painting is the most expressive medium. I love the sensuality of paint. I have already started work on a new set of paintings, I am unsure yet, as to whether this is a continuation of the Barely Visible series or whether this is whole new body of work.  You can follow my progress on Instagram and on Facebook ( @stiofan.artist ).

‘UNSELFY’ (2015) by Stiofan O’Ceallaigh under preparation for THE QUEER ART SHOW (Oslo, Norway)

Where can we see your works right now ?

I will exhibit Untitled: Two Men Kissing from the Barely Visible series.  I will also be showing a collaborative piece with Arizona based artist Ron Kibble. Ron and I first began collaborating in 2017. Our collaboration has been a successful one. Since 2017 we have self-published a book of poetry, exhibited works and wearable art at Juego Sucio: Muestra de Posporno (Artspace Mexico, Mexico), Queer Art Show #5 (Penthouse NQ, Manchester (UK) and HOMOSURREALISM NEW ORLEANS. This will be our second  HOMOSURREALISM show together. 

I’ll tell you a little bit more about this work.  In 2017 Ron and I embarked on a small tour of US and Europe.  All the while taking intimate polaroid photographs of each other.  Originally intended to be compiled and published into a book, we have agreed to finalise the polaroids as a finished piece. A really exciting juncture in the works journey, I think.  The title is Communique(e)r. 

I’m also looking forward to showing some new work in Athens (Greece), this November at Civil Disobedience queer photography festival, curated by Menelas.  I’ve been exhibiting at the festival since 2016, this year’s theme is residente o visitante. I have yet to begin exploring this theme. And finally, I am talking to some galleries and artists at the moment about the Barely Visible series and evolutions thereof. 

‘Louvre UNSELFY’ (2017) a collaboration between Stiofan O’Ceallaigh & Emmanuel Barrouyer

In the meantime I will be pushing forward with www.balaclavadotq.net. We are always in the search for new artists and volunteers to get involved. If you think this is something you may be interested in please visit the website for further details.  As always I am open to collaboration. Get in touch.

More informations :

Instagram, Twitter, Facebook : @stiofan.artist
Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr, YouTube : @balaclava.q
Facebook : @balaclava-q

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