Sara Greavu Toasts the Titanic

From disinterested to dazzled, the artist explores the Titanic story through alternate universes and infographics

 ‘It’s no secret,’ Derry~Londonderry artist Sara Greavu says cheerfully. ‘I had no interest in the Titanic.’

It isn’t an unusual sentiment these days, as post-Titanic Festival fatigue sets in. However, coming from the curator and creator of the Titanic Toast exhibition at the Golden Thread Gallery it is a bit unexpected.

Greavu waves her hands enthusiastically as she explains how she put that disinterest to use. Since the Titanic story had never inspired her before, she had to find a new way to think about it. A way that would mesh with her existing preoccupations and interests as an artist.

‘I wanted to conceptualise the story,’ Greavu explains. ‘To see it in context of the art and science and politics of the times.’

Questions of power and influence have always circled Greavu's work. A Peace and Conflict Studies graduate, she started her career in the Community and Voluntary Sector. Greavu describes it as ‘come to art the long way around’, with her work in Community Arts projects leading her to an interest in fine art.

It seems like there would be plenty of themes along those lines with in relation to the Titanic, where class became literally a matter of life or death. Greavu, however, found her inspiration not in the actuality of the Titanic, but in the ideas that other people projected onto it.

The ideas that particularly interested her were those explored in the African-American tradition of The Toast, a precursor to modern-day hip-hop. ‘There is a whole sub-genre of Toasts dedicated to the Titanic,’ Greavu explains. ‘Because there were no black passengers allowed on the Titanic, it became this symbol of white privilege.’

Greavu commissioned Abby Oliveira, one of the Poetry Chicks from Derry~Londonderry, to write and perform her version of a Titanic Toast for the Golden Thread exhibition. A video of her performing the piece can be seen in the Golden Thread Gallery.

Like most oral traditions the narrative of the Toasts is mutable, with each new story-teller improvising and altering the story to fit their needs. Essentially creating a series of ‘What if’ alternate narrative universes as they go. That was also an idea that stoked Greavu's imagination.

The ‘what if’ explored in the work she created for the exhibition is: ‘What if the Titanic hadn’t sunk?’ Greavu's answer to that is that the Titanic, like its White Star sister ships, would have ended up in military service during the Great War.

‘All those big passenger liners were pressed into service as troop transports,’ she explains. ‘There are pictures of the Olympic in dazzle camouflage, which seemed almost to be inspired by the futurist art of the period.’

Unlike traditional camouflage, dazzle camouflage wasn’t designed to hide the ship but to confuse the observer. The jumble of intersecting, geometric, multi-coloured shapes made it difficult to ascertain the size, type, direction and even speed of the camouflaged ship.

‘It reflected my perplexity,’ Greavu says. ‘I wasn’t sure about the Titanic memorials, I didn’t understand what way they were heading.’

Her work projects that uncertainty onto the Titanic, covering it in her conception of dazzle camouflage. One picture, however, recreates the effect of dazzle camouflage using an infographic from the period.

‘It is a map of Manhattan, with a key to tell you what ethnicity the various neighbourhoods were,’ Greavu, who was born in the US before moving to Northern Ireland 20 years ago, explains. ‘The Titanic was also called the ‘ship of immigration’ and that resonates with me. My family originally came from Romania and would have been making their journey at around the same time.’

So from not being interested in the Titanic at all, Greavu found quite a lot to interest her in the topic. She laughs and admits that’s true, although she thinks it’s true of every topic out there. ‘You can always find an angle.’

Now that the Titanic Toast exhibition is complete, however, Greavu doesn’t see herself creating any other Titanic themed work. She is, however, looking forward to applying the process to another historical project, to do with the capture of Wolfe Tone in Buncrana, she is working on.

That isn’t to say she thinks that the Titanic as a theme is completely tapped out. She admits that audiences are starting to get tired of the Titanic, but ‘that might be because people keep saying the same things’.

‘You find a historical event,’ she says. ‘And you make it speak to you.’

Titanic Toast is at the Golden Thread Gallery in Belfast until May 12 and there will be a talk by Sara Greavu, discussing her practice and the approach to her work, on April 26.