Embracing The Hag
When we look into the mirror do we see the reflection of a Hag? As the traces of a lived life become more visible, does the old crone looking back represent opportunities or challenges? In reality, it depends on how we see ourselves as older women, and the extent to which our views are influenced by societal pre-conceptions of old age and gender.
Within the rich tradition of Irish storytelling, several myths tell tales of the ‘Cailleach’, an old woman or witch-like figure also known as the Devine Hag. Mythologically linked with places like ‘Hag’s Head’ at the Cliffs of Moher, ‘The Hag’s Mountain’, in County Meath, and ‘The Hag of Beara’ on the Beara Peninsula, a Winter Spirit often described as a destroyer and a fearful goddess. However, the Cailleach’s complimentary role as a creator and guardian of the life-force is similarly embraced. Therefore, it is no surprise that a group of older creative women (fig. 1) have chosen to adopt ‘Na Cailleacha’ as the name for their art collective.
Based in Ireland, this small all-female ensemble, many in their 70’s, are intent on challenging stereotypical judgments often ascribed to older women in society, and in the artworld. Members of Na Cailleacha embrace the term ‘hag’ or ‘witch’ in their proud acceptance of being old, being women and being artists, essentially seeing the Cailleach in themselves. Drawing from combined experience they argue, support, mentor and consider ways to make art that embraces their worldview and challenges stereotypes of the hag in our society. Speaking about what it means to be an older woman in the world of art, Na Cailleacha’s founder, Catherine Marshall, is all about getting on with the business of living, and creating work that embraces their advancing age, culture, heritage, and place in the world. Being older is a distinct advantage for Na Cailleacha, who describe themselves as ‘empowered by age’. With the advantage of a long life, they are less concerned about what others think of them and are thus freer to explore topics affecting older women, as well as other issues they believe in. Their customised version of the Guerrilla Girls iconic 1988 poster (fig. 2) challenges the institutions of art and draws attention to significant societal issues that have emerged in their collective lifetime.
With an impressive array of media platforms, Na Cailleacha strives to improve the visibility of older women artists, and reach a wider population, within and beyond the artworld. Their work and media platforms remain current and relevant as they post images of featured magazine articles, IMMA interviews, and exhibitions. The group actively create space for their own collective discussion, exploration, and learning, through residencies and collaboration. They also challenge each other with collective projects like the ‘The Doll Project: Child’s Play’ where each participant made a life size doll based on their own body using sheets and duvets (fig. 3).
Group members join ‘coffee conversations’ and panel discussions at various galleries and arts festivals. They participate in group exhibitions as a collective, and exhibit dedicated collective shows that embrace their multi-disciplinary styles as individual creatives. This is a group intent on getting the best from each other, and from their creative skills, by continuing to be radical, experimental, and influential as they age.
The GRACE art collective in Hackney, London (fig. 4), is similarly made up of older female creatives. Through performance, experimentation, publications and creativity, the GRACE collective aim to examine and address the representation of older women artists. It is a group that peels away the layers of narrow stereotypical conditioning about old and ageing women in society. Welcoming the removal of the Turner Prize upper age limit of 50, in 2016, GRACE suggest that the art world is ready for older women artists. One only need look to Veronica Ryan, who became the oldest Turner prize winner in 2022, at the age of 66, and to Lubaina Himid, who was the first older woman to be awarded the prize in 2017, aged 62 (fig. 5). The key message here is that women artists like Ryan and Himid, along with groups like GRACE and Na Cailleacha are not content to grow more invisible as they age.
In Ireland, cooperatives, collectives, and art groups include examples like The Attic Artists in Limerick, comprised of retired people with a shared love of making their art; the Array Collective create work in response to socio-political issues, and others more simply linked by shared studio space. Similarly, there are many initiatives available to enhance the lives of older people through creativity. The national Bealtaine festival for, and by, older people, which runs throughout the month of May, encourages older persons to engage in many locally organised creative activities. The Azure programme facilitates enhanced access to several galleries around the country and provides virtual tours through Armchair Azure, and art therapy practice is increasingly commonplace. For the most part, these initiatives are linked to social, medical, and curative outcomes. This is one of the key pillars under the Creative Ireland strategy and there is no doubt about the beneficial impact of promoting wellness through creativity.
However, such strategies can be subject to political influence, as local representatives are often responsible for final decisions on grants channeled through local authorities, and there is generally pressure to distribute money among projects within identified funding pillars. Consequently, the current funding strategies appear to fall short when it comes to using the power of art to support older people to be radical, express voice and influence both personal and societal change. The urge to work with others, share knowledge, and establish social solidarity in negotiating the world is nothing new. Yet, there appear to be very few examples of focused collectives like Na Cailleacha (and GRACE in the UK) that support older women artists to be radical as they transition. With the average life expectancy for women now at 84 years, surely it is time to introduce coherent policies that extend beyond therapeutic models, which although extremely valuable, fail to recognise the contribution of older artists (established or emerging). By seeing and accepting the Hag (or Cailleach), older women artists can embrace the strengths, experience and qualities acquired through long lives, without the constricting pre-conceptions of what older people ‘should’ and ‘should not’ do.
In the absence of more diverse funding strategies, the task of disruption, influenced by long lived lives, falls to a tiny number of older creatives. As such, groups like Na Cailleacha will continue to be unique. The status quo is frankly not good enough, as it fails to recognise the strength of older women artists' desire and ability to effect social change, and challenge the stereotypical image of a divine hag in the artworld. Unfortunately, there appears to be little institutional support for embracing the Hag.