Memory and identity: the art of Sarah Byrne

Artist and teacher Sarah Byrne is interested in memories, nostalgia, narratives and reliability. Her current work forms a reflection of experiences growing up in England as a British girl with an Asian mother.

 

‘Using and re-using the imagery from my mother’s old photo albums of childhood trips to the Philippines, my practice forms a process of recalling, realising, and questioning the events, exchanges and associations which have contributed to a separation in my two national identities.’

 

Sarah explores the internal dissonance created by these identities, and her work is an examination of the function of memory…

Sarah Byrne _ Offcut
Offcut (bridge over pool), 2018, A4 prints

Around two years ago, I admitted to myself for the first time that when I was growing up, I had a reluctance to be Asian. My practice is about me reflecting on the reasons why I felt that way.

I was raised in a town where most of my friends were white. I wanted to be like them, because being different meant getting attention, and that wasn’t always a good or welcome thing. When people met me, the first thing they asked was where I was from. When people introduced me, they would often explain “She’s Filipino” as if it were the most important feature I had, or as if it were a disclaimer. When boys in the year below me would bump into me on the playground, they’d break into poor impersonations of Jackie Chan.

Sarah Byrne _ Offcut (1)
Offcut (concrete over grass), 2018, A4 Prints

The work I’m currently making always uses some version of old photographs from my mum’s photo albums, to reflect on and ‘rework’ my memories. Looking at the photographs now, they are different from the reality of my memories – trips to the Philippines which we often had to take during the summer holidays, over Christmas, or sometimes even during parts of school time.

I remember being upset that I was taken away from my friends at these times, that I couldn’t have summers spent at the park like the rest of them. I remember the fear I had that Father Christmas wouldn’t know where I was the first time we spent Christmas away, and my heartbreak at realising we wouldn’t be having turkey and Yorkshire puddings for Christmas dinner, but BBQ’d chicken and rice instead.

I remember the thick, uncomfortable heat and the fact that none of my clothes felt comfortable to wear, and how my feet swelled out of my shoes. I remember being bitten by so many mosquitos that my legs were red and swollen. I remember having to sweep the dead bugs off of my bed each night before I got into it – and the residual smell of the insect spray. I remember feeling isolated because I couldn’t speak the language that my family did. I remember feeling as though they all had an inside joke that I wasn’t a part of. It’s easy to start to feel self-conscious when you don’t know what the people around you are laughing at.

Sarah Byrne _ Offcut (2)
Offcut (Nanang), 2018, A4 Prints

But the photographs are beautiful, and they represent the memories I never really managed to take away with me as a child, because I was too distracted by… being a child. A child growing up in England where I was too Asian, and in the Philippines, where I was too white.

I have become very interested, through this reflective process, in how memories work in the human brain. How fragile and easily manipulated or corrupted they are. The word ‘corrupted’ is interesting to me, because it hints at something more mechanical than human failure. As if the brain suffers from system overload, glitches and malfunctions.

And I think that maybe this is what happens sometimes, particularly as a child. Perhaps we don’t have the capacity to fit in or recognise all of our thoughts at any one point in our lives. Sometimes some thoughts have to be saved, to be recovered at a later time.

 

That time is now.

 

 

Biography

Sarah Byrne is a studio holder at Eagle Works, Wolverhampton. You can read more about her work at http://www.sarah-byrne.com
She has a show coming up at Eagle Works (eagle-works.com) 24th September – 5th October.

Education:

  • MA by Research in Art and Design (Fine Art), University of Wolverhampton – Ongoing
  • PGCE (M) Post Compulsory Education, University of Wolverhampton, 2017
  • BA (Hons) Fine Art (1st), University of Wolverhampton, 2015

Banner image: Sarah Byrne, ‘Recording (2018)’ A3 Risograph Print. All images © Sarah Byrne