Messengers of Yesterday is a collection of photographic collages exploring the legacy of Ireland’s 1845–1852 famine, also known as An Gorta Mór (The Great Hunger), and the perpetual migration narrative that has shaped Ireland’s identity since that great trauma. The project seeks to validate the cultural memory of a community, explores the lineage of colonization, and examines a legacy of dislocation.
This project began as a journey into O’Dell’s family archive as well as a journey to Ireland. It is an attempt to understand her Irish American identity in the midst of the famine. As a child, her own family’s narrative was one of dislocation due to lost homes, expulsion from rental properties, and disrupted family dynamics. This prompted a nostalgic longing for a vague Irish heritage. This early life experience dovetailed with stories of her ancestors being forced to leave Ireland, so her empathy for that kind of dislocation and loss of place continually draws her there.
Photographs of her ancestors, evictions, engravings from the Illustrated London News, and quotes taken from the “1937 Schools’ Folklore Scheme,” commissioned by the Irish Folklore commission, have been transferred to transparencies and re-photographed in the contemporary Irish landscape. Some images are also made into a combination portrait or layered with imagery from historical famine sites and quotes from the Schools’ Folklore Scheme. The quotes give privilege to folk memory and those who attempt to remember this great trauma in Irish history, while the illustrations from the Illustrated London News (published between 1845–52) demonstrate the significant changes to the land since then. Simultaneously, the photographic transparency layered over the contemporary landscape becomes a metaphorical device, exploring dislocation and absence.
This traveling exhibition debuted in Ireland in May 2013 at Quay Mills in Kilrush in conjunction with the 2013 Famine Commemoration.
Cynthia O’Dell was born in Oregon and grew up in Iowa. She is a photographer and video artist who employs an experimental documentary style to counter traditional modes of representation, particularly in relation to class and gender. She has shown her films and photographic works extensively throughout the United States and Europe—including, over twenty solo exhibitions and sixty juried group exhibitions. She has received numerous awards, including the best experimental documentary at the 2003 New York International Film and Video Festival and was awarded second prize in exhibition at the Contemporary Photography Programme at the Archisle Institute in Jersey (Channel Islands).
O’Dell is a Professor of Art in Photography, Video, and Digital Imaging. She has been teaching at DePauw since 1998, is a former chair of the Art Department and is the recipient of a DePauw Fisher Fellowship and University Professorship. She received her BFA from the University of Iowa with honors in 1993 and her MFA from the University of Colorado, Boulder in 1998 (with additional study at Arizona State University).
For more information on O’Dell’s work, please visit www.cindyodell.com.
This exhibit and corresponding programs were made possible by The College Arts and Humanities Institute and The Grunwald Gallery of Art, both at Indiana University.