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The fabric of life

Warren O’Reilly told David Hennessy about his current exhibition By the Cut of Their Cloth, which looks at mixed-race history and his own family story through a fashion lens.

A current exhibition by a Brent- Irish artist explores the multiracial history of Brent, mixed-race history as well as his own family history, all by using fashion as a lens to look at marginalised social histories.

By the Cut of Their Cloth by award-winning social designer and applied artist Warren O’Reilly, is currently being exhibited by The Mixed Museum.

Warren, who is 24 and is mixed- race himself, comes from Church Road, Brent and the exhibition continues the themes of Brent 2020.

Scanography of Warren’s mother’s diary with a photograph of his parents at a birthday party on 7th December 1991. His mother writes about her Christmas plans with his father, writing that they will be “…going to the Harvester on Christmas Eve just the two of us. It will be so romantic and special”. Courtesy of Warren Reilly Family Archive

Warren O’Reilly told The Irish World: “I create artwork and I translate it into fashion.

“By the Cut of Their Cloth celebrates 300 years of mixed race and multicultural history and it goes through lots of different avenues of that.

“The biggest theme is looking at history through a fashion and art lens but we wanted to explain the migration stories, colonial history and show how different groups of people have come to be here and how that then led on to the mixing of different cultures and then people like me being born.”

Warren looks into his mixed-race identity in the exhibition. Warren has heritage from Jamaica as well as Ireland but says he always felt like something of an outsider because he grew up with little to no knowledge of his black family.

“There’s this section about me called The Boy from Brent which is about my family.

“It’s kind of like a case study to inspire others to look into their own identity as well.

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“My (paternal) grandmother and my grandfather were both from Ireland and they came over around the time of the 1950s or 60s.

“They’re both from Youghal in Cork.

“But then on my other side, my mother’s side, my grandmother’s father, his family are from Waterford, so there’s Irish on both sides.

“When I did my DNA test, I think it came out that I was 73% British and Irish but the vast majority if not all of that DNA is actually Irish.

“I definitely feel that I always wanted to keep a tie with my Irish roots and never wanted to cast them aside or forget them.

“I visited Youghal quite a lot during my childhood. I used to spend a lot of summer holidays there which was really nice.

“So it’s very much a place of nostalgia but I didn’t go back for a long time.

“I went back for the first time in about 16, 17 years in May.

“A lot of the really historic buildings, especially when my father was a child, weren’t open to the public.

“For example, The Clock Gate Tower, you weren’t allowed to go in there.

Kilkenny Association at the Galtymore, Cricklewood c1950-1969. Photo Paddy Fahey.
Object number 6390 Courtesy of Brent Museum and Archives.

“Now it’s turned into a museum, me and my father got to go in there for the first time when I went to go visit recently.”

Mixed- race marriages and families are sometimes spoken about as if they are something relatively new but this is far from the case.

“It’s been going on for a long time.

“A lot of Irish people coming to the UK came at the same time as the people from the Windrush and there’s been a lot of mixing amongst Irish people and West Indian groups as well.

“I’ve read that there’s been a lot of mixing from quite a further back point in time than maybe a lot of people consider, and I think that’s probably what I wanted to achieve within this.

“I also have relatives as well that are mixed race, that were born out of wedlock earlier in the last century.

“So I guess me and my family are proof it has been going on longer than what’s thought.

“Also, I’m not an expert on this topic, but something I really want to look into as well is this myth that there were also Irish slaves as well.

Irish dance dress. Object number T985.1 Courtesy of Brent Museum and Archives.

“For me coming from a West Indian background and an Irish background, it is just about acknowledging the fact that I come from two oppressed societies or groups of people.

“I think that there was definitely a common ground of the oppression that they faced.

“In Youghal, there was a wall built around the town to keep the Irish out in their own country.

“That kind of shows you how we were being treated just in that small region.

“Essentially, I think that’s exactly what the exhibition is here to do, to highlight that.

Warren, his auntie Patricia, nanny Reilly and cousin Bianca having ice-cream on a
bench in Youghal, near Harvey Docks around 2002.

“I’ve kind of looked into the fashion and textile background of my family, a lot of my family were working on weaving factories.

“And obviously, Youghal’s also the home to the invention of Youghal lace as well which has really been beneficial for the community and pretty well renowned.

“It was worn by Queen Victoria’s daughter on her wedding day and different members of the British royal family so there’s a juxtaposition there between being oppressed by the royal family, but then the royal family wanting to benefit from our techniques and our talents in terms of fashion and textiles.

“So there’s a very complex narrative there.”

The exhibition has already been warmly received by revered actress Joanna Lumley among others.

“We’ve had some really, really, really nice responses.

“We’ve had feedback from some really influential people like Joanna Lumley, which has been really nice.

“We explore a lot of Indian and Sri Lankan culture, which is a particular interest of hers, obviously she and her family when she was a child spent a lot of time in India.

Warren’s great-grandparents, Emma and Stephen Lee, shortly after their marriage in the early 1940s. Stephen Lee heritage can be traced back to Irish Travellers in Waterford. Courtesy of Warren Reilly.

“We have had more personal feedback from the people that took part in our workshops and gave us their story, a lot of people found it really emotional because they’ve never seen their family story be celebrated and respected and admired in that way before.

“A lot of the stories, especially with the things I’ve discovered about my family, they’ve either been in dusty boxes for years and years.

“There were stories where people were commemorating a lost loved one, or they hadn’t really explored their history before and they took this opportunity to do that.

“I think it was a very emotional experience for people to highlight that normal family stories of the ordinary people are just as important as those from really influential backgrounds.

“We know enough about aristocrats now, we know enough about big celebrities, all we’re trying to do is to highlight these unknown stories that contribute to social history in a really positive way.”

Warren’s grandmother, Mary Phelan, c.1960s.

What has the reaction been from Warren’s own family to see their own story told in this way? “They’re really, really pleased.

“I don’t think they ever expected their story to be told in the way that I’m telling it.

“I don’t think they really saw it with any value so I think that they really appreciate that.

“My dad said it was very emotional for him to kind of retell his story because his mother’s not here now.

“My grandmother died sadly. To kind of weave that into that story is quite special, but then there’s also quite dark periods of the family history as well that I haven’t really touched on because they’re quite personal to the individual.

“So there’s certain things I had to be very careful of how I told the story, but I still wanted to tell it and do it justice.

Linton Smith and Margaret (Maggie) Lee on their wedding day c.1965. Courtesy of Warren Reilly

“So there are complex conversations that had to be had when you’re going through things with your family, especially when you’re publishing it so publicly like I just have. You do have to make sure that everyone’s happy, and you’ve done it in a sensitive way but is also telling the honest story.

“In regards to the black side of my family, it’s been really interesting because my mum lost contact with her father when she was a child so we didn’t really have contact with the black side of our family for quite some time.

“Then we started to connect with our family.

“We learned a lot about what it was like in Jamaica and our family.

“There’s a lot of fashion and textile industry there as well so that was really, really interesting.

“I think it’s just been a very emotional experience but it’s really, really beautiful to retell the story.”

Warren’s great grandfather Paddy Phelan and colleague Kathleen Heaphy at the M Laundry. Courtesy of Gentlemen of Youghal.

Warren is still only 24. Does he think he could have done it before now? “No, I don’t think so.

“Obviously, I’ve done a DNA test, which really set everything off.

“I guess now I’m old enough to ask these kind of difficult questions. I wanted to know about my family history. It’s very integral to my practice as an artist as well.”

The Irish World asks Warren, who is gay, if he feels the exhibition shows how much progress has been made in terms of acceptance of people of different backgrounds and sexual orientation? “I definitely think a lot of progress has been made, and that has come through mixing with different cultures and going to different places.

Warren’s grandfather Linton on his wedding day with his great-great grandmother Roselyn to the right, and his great-grandmother Darling on the far right. Mum’s first cousin once removed Jennifer is the bridesmaid. In between Linton and Roselyn is Margaret’s mother, Emma (Warren’s great grandmother), and to the left is her sister, my great-great aunt, who was known as Auntie Nelly.

“I think there’s definitely a lot more to be done, but I certainly think that even the way that I’m talking to my family about my identity being gay and mixed race, previously they were very difficult things to speak about.

“Being mixed race has caused a lot of problems in my family, especially on the Irish side. As I said, there were mixed race children born out of wedlock so there were difficult conversations.

“I was asked, ‘What was it like having these kind of conversations with family?’

“They were great, a lot of progress has been made in terms of people’s mindsets.

“In terms of future plans, I really want to use a lot of this work to feed into my arts practice.

Warren’s father.

“And there are definitely other exhibitions that I think could be born out of this, I’m already working on another exhibition with the Mixed Museum so definitely that will be something of continuation.

“But I think that, as a designer, I really want my Irish heritage to be very integral to my brand.”

By the Cut of Their Cloth is at the Mixed Museum.

For more information or to view, click here.

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