Barbara Mihályi is an emerging Hungarian artist, filmmaker and photographer who has explored life around Birmingham’s canals during her four-week residency at Centrala.

Bettina Fischer sat down with her on the opening evening of her new exhibition Terra Firma to find out more.

Photograph by Barbara Mihályi

Amongst other works, your exhibition exploring the canals features a series of portraits of people living on narrowboats. How did this idea come about?

During the first weekend of my residency I had a bit of a mini depression. It is quite an emotional experience working away from home and being submerged in a new environment. A lot of things happen in a short period of time and you miss your usual surroundings.  Everything becomes really unbalanced. At this point I was a little bit lost. So, I thought I have to find a way of getting out of this emotional state and go out, do something. I went for a walk and found this beautiful oak tree in Cannon Hill Park which calmed me down. As I was cycling back along the canal in Balsall Heath I spotted a mosque and a church in the background. This image struck me visually with the graffiti and the river in the foreground so I started taking pictures. That’s when Jill appeared and asked me what I was doing. This was the start of a long conversation about her experience of living around the area over the past two decades and a source of inspiration for me. Jill became the first subject of the photo portraits in the exhibition.

How did you find the subjects comprising the series?

These encounters happened differently every time. Usually I would try to stay by the canals, sometimes I would meet someone and start a conversation and eventually make a photograph. But mostly these encounters generate each other – one person leads you to another, but there were some random ones as well.

Photograph by Barbara Mihályi

What else can we expect to see in your exhibition?

As well as the photograph series of people living and working on the canals there is a series of video blogs which document the artist residency itself. It tells the story of how the photograph series came together. The third part of the exhibition is a projection of other photographs I took during the residency. They are also connected to the canals, but they are more personal, amongst other things picturing my time on the narrowboat I lived on.

The title of your exhibition is Terra Firma. What does the phrase mean to you and how does it relate your project?

‘Terra Firma’ means ‘solid earth’ in Latin and we chose it as a title because it hints at the relationship we have to our home wherever it may be. For me it encapsulates a sense of longing and a search for the stories and personalities that make a place. So it made sense to use the phrase to describe this new body of work I created for the exhibition. Even if you live on water, your sense of belonging will be connected to a kind of stability that is rooted in the people who live around you.

Photograph by Barbara Mihályi

Is there anything particular you will take with you from your residency in Birmingham? How did the experience influence your work?

This was my first residency experience after graduating from my MA earlier this year and as such it was a huge challenge. I was here for a month which sometimes felt like a long time but actually was a very short amount of time to get to know a place and create new works at the same time. I have definitely learnt a lot from the experience and I documented ups and downs in the video blogs featured in the exhibition. For me as a documentary photographer the residency format was an interesting way of working and I hope to do more of it in the future.

Are you working on anything else at the moment? Do you have any other projects coming up in the near future?

At the moment my MA degree show work is featured in the Best of Diploma exhibition at the Hungarian University of Fine Arts. It’s been well received in the local press and I have a few interviews coming up when I return home. I was also approached by a couple of galleries to do shows with them. One of these exhibitions are going to be photograph based but I still haven’t decided how to approach the other one. I just know it’s going to be about body-consciousness, focusing on the female body which is also the theme of my degree show exhibition. I also have some projects in Italy and other ongoing projects in Hungary. One of them involves drawing animations for a documentary about veteran pilots from World War II which will be quite different from my usual work but I enjoy taking my work in new directions.


Barbara Mihályi’s exhibition Terra Firma is open until 16 September 2017 at Centrala Gallery.


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