Brian Maguire is that rare thing among Irish painters, one who has distinguished himself through his engagement with social and political issues.
He has worked with prison inmates and patients in mental institutions, and in recent years, his subjects have included the disappearance of young women in Juarez, Mexico, and the displacement of refugees in Aleppo, Syria. His new exhibition, Remains, at the Crawford Art Gallery in Cork, highlights another contemporary tragedy, the deaths of immigrants attempting to cross on foot into Southern Arizona from Mexico.
The seven paintings in Remains are all based on photographs of deceased immigrants collected by Dr Greg Hess, chief medical examiner for Pima County, Tucson, Arizona. When Maguire approached Hess in 2019, “I told him I wanted to make big pictures and exhibit them around the world to show what was happening. And he said, ‘Great, I’m with you’.”
Hess’s assistance extended to providing an introduction to the exhibition catalogue, in which he writes of how there have been 3,100 fatalities among undocumented border crossers in southern Arizona in the past 21 years, with 96 in the first five months of 2021 alone.
“Those people who set out to walk into America are often fleeing violence in their own countries,” says Maguire. “Many have come up from Central America. They wish to come to a place where it’s safe to work, and where you get to keep your wages. They used to come through El Paso, where you can make a legal application for asylum in America. But that takes so long, and people are locked up during the process, so it doesn’t make much sense, particularly if they’ve borrowed money to make the journey.”
Most of those who set out to cross the border on foot are chronically underprepared. “Coming up from Mexico, it takes four days to get to Tucson, if they’re lucky. They need to carry a minimum of twelve gallons of water. But how could you physically carry that much weight?
"People are setting off with nothing but a couple of bottles of water to sustain them. They die of exhaustion. Some of their bodies have been found in the shade; they were seeking shelter when they died. They were all young people, and mostly young men.”
Maguire was horrified by some of the images he encountered in Hess’ files. “I didn’t know I had a limit until I saw them. There were skeletal remains, some with clothes, and some without. There were single skulls. There were people who were almost gone, but there were still shoes, or parts of their bodies. And there were others where the bodies were almost intact. There were images I couldn’t possibly use, they were just too frightening.”
Maguire made the paintings based on his final selection of images at his studio in Dublin during the Covid lockdown. “I finished the first painting in March 2020, and finished the rest in the order they’re numbered in for the show. I work in acrylics because they’re fast to work with and they dry quickly, particularly in summer.
"I put all kinds of things on the canvas as well as the paint, like rubber cement. A lot of the techniques I use come from printmaking. In the middle of my career, I did a lot of lithographic printmaking in Paris, and that has influenced my painting.”
For a previous project in Juarez, Mexico, Maguire worked with the families of young women who disappeared, and are presumed to have been murdered. They provided him with images of the disappeared, and he made two paintings of each, one of which he gifted to the families.
“All they have of these girls is their stories. They don’t know who their killers are, very often they don’t even have the body. There is no justice, there is only the story.”
Maguire hopes to work on a similar project with the families of those who have perished in southern Arizona. “I haven’t gone to Central America yet, to interview the families,” he says. “I’ve only recently got some of the names, and I’ll get in touch with the consul general, and he’ll get in touch with families, and they’ll let me know if they wish to engage.”
Maguire, a native of Bray, Co Wicklow, traces his interest in immigrants to his own youthful experiences working in England. “I was 16 when I went to East Anglia, to work in the factories, around 1966. I went under someone else’s name, because I was too young. So I have some experience of factory work and working under a false name. My generation had experience of all that. But we didn’t risk our lives, going to England on the boat. Not like people do crossing into America.”
Man behind Maguire: From Bray to Belfast and Portlaoise
Brian Maguire was born in Bray, Co Wicklow, in 1951. As a young man, he was briefly involved with Sinn Féin, having been recruited by Séamus Costello, who went on to found the IRSP and the INLA.
Maguire describes an experience he had in Belfast, aged 18, that highlighted just how insular Northern Ireland had become in the 1960s. Out walking at night, he took a wrong turn and found himself in Sandy Row, a notoriously loyalist estate. He asked directions of a young man coming out of his house. “He said, ‘c’mon, I’ll show you’. Then he stopped and looked at me and said, ‘You’re very lucky you asked me. I just came back from England yesterday’. What he was telling me was that if he hadn’t been in England, he wouldn’t have known not to hand me over.
"When he went to England, he understood he was just another f**king Mick, another Paddy like the rest of us, because they didn’t differentiate between Catholic and Protestant over there. It’s when you go into the bigger world that you start to see these similarities.”
Maguire’s father worked in a hardware store, and - on the advice of an acquaintance, the established artist Camille Souter - supported his decision to go to art college. He studied drawing and painting at the Dun Laoghaire School of Art, and Fine Art at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin.
In 1985, he accepted an invitation from the Arts Council to establish an art education programme in Portlaoise prison. “When I went in first, no one there had any real education. At one stage there was a possibility there wouldn’t be enough for the class. But the Provos were up for it. They issued orders. So I had a load of men in my class, and they weren’t necessarily there of their own free will. But I enjoyed the challenge of teaching them, and we became good friends.”
Maguire continued his association with the prison art programme until 2000, when he was appointed Head of Faculty and Professor of Fine Art at NCAD. Now retired from his role as an educator, he is based in Dublin, but travels the world working on art projects with marginalised communities, and spends four months of each year working at his studio in Paris. A member of Aosdána, he is one of Ireland’s most acclaimed visual artists.