The Artist and the Irish Orphans

By Trevor McClaughlin

It was with a heavy heart that I read of the death of Hossein Valamanesh on January 17 this year. At the time, I tweeted ‘Vale Hossein Valamanesh, a wonderful artist and a wonderful human being‘. His art was grounded, deep, spiritual, often with an exquisitely light poetic touch. Rumi the Persian poet was one of his muses. Hossein was most at home using earth, sand, leaves and sticks which gave his art an ephemeral quality. Yet his work is found in galleries across Australia, and abroad. One of the last pieces I saw was part of a calligraphy exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. In saffron, on a long and large piece of white cloth Hossein had written repeatedly the Farsi word for ‘love’. The word was clearer in the middle and less clear at the two extremes to the left and the right. To art lovers Hossein needs no introduction, especially those in South Australia where he and his partner Angela were based.

Hossein and Angela Valamanesh c. 2000

Readers of Tinteán may need no introduction either. For Hossein and Angela were the creators/designers of the beautifully evocative ‘Monument to the Great Irish Famine’ at the World Heritage site at Hyde Park Barracks in Sydney.

In the mid to late 1990s, the Sydney Great Irish Famine Commemoration Committee (GIFCC) worked tirelessly with the Historic Houses Trust of NSW to turn Hossein and Angela Valamanesh’s prize-winning sculpture into reality.

It is a major piece of public art that entailed drastic changes to a much-loved site. The grand plan involved pivoting the southern wall of the iconic Francis Greenway Hyde Park Barracks, sand blasting the names of 400 ‘Orphan Girls’ on glass panels as centrepiece, recording Paul Carter’s soundscape that plays on a loop under the lilli pilli tree in the courtyard, and carefully placing an array of other ‘symbols’– table, bowls, spoons, potatoes, loy (spade), stools to sit on, prayer books, sewing kit, and plaques — at the most fitting part of their ‘monumental’ sculpture.

I am a big fan of the Monument. It is neither maudlin nor melodramatic. It is gentle, and aethereal. It seeps into your being. What stories those sandblasted names might tell. It is sad, yet full of hope. And its symbolism is very, very powerful.

The plate inside the Barracks has a bottom. The one outside does not.

In a beautiful obituary for Hossein, Rhana Devenport, Director of the Art Gallery of South Australia, recalled something the artist had written in 2005,

Most works of art have within them the seed of an idea, and the opportunity of exhibiting them may make it possible for these seeds to grow in the viewer’s mind with different interpretations…It is by our looking at the works that they realise their potential.

As soon as it was unveiled, Hossein and Angela’s ‘sculpture’ began realising its potential.

For the late Professor Joan Kerr,

the monument’s grand, spare forms are perfectly appropriate to our era… the high stone wall cutting the institutional buildings off from the unrestricted life of the city has been cleverly incorporated into the memorial as a symbol of the almost insuperable barrier that divided early colonists from their origins, families and memories…The mixture of loss and hope is echoed in the fragmentary Irish women’s voices issuing from the nearby lilli pilli tree in Paul Carter’s evocative soundscape…It aptly commemorates the past, represents the present, and will continue to be of relevance in a multicultural Australia.

For the unveiling of the monument in August 1999, both the then President of Ireland, Mary McAleese, and the Irish Ambassador to Australia, Richard O’Brien, said that for them the Monument ‘marked the suffering, pain and displacement of those lost generations of Ireland’s sons and daughters fleeing the Irish Famine’. And ‘commemorated most visibly in the Memorial–“The Orphan Girls”’, who in turn, symbolise the contribution Irish people have made to the development of Australia.

But perhaps the final Valmanesh ‘interpretive seed’ should go to the late Tom Power, the indefatigable chairman of the GIFCC,

This monument should not only serve to connect us to our past but also stand as a continual reminder of the many terrible realities, similar to the great famine of Ireland, occurring in the world today and which cry out for our compassion and concern.

That is something Hossein would have agreed with whole-heartedly. You may like to visit Sydney Living Museums for yourself, and think about your own interpretation.

For me, the Monument to the Great Irish Famine in Hyde Park Barracks is also a public tribute to a wonderful artist, and a wonderful human being, Hossein Valamanesh. Ní bheidh a leithéid aris ann. We shall not see his like again.

Trevor McClaughlin

Trevor McClaughlin is an academic and a historian, now retired from Macquarie University. He is the author of Barefoot and Pregnant? Irish Famine Orphans in Australia: Documents and Register (1991 and 2001), From Shamrock to Wattle: Digging Up Your Irish Ancestors (1985 and 1990), and ed. Irish Women in Colonial Australia, (1998).