Shamus McPhee, Artist & Activist

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The Romani Cultural and Arts Company’ 3rd profile will be of Shamus McPhee

Shamus McPhee, the youngest of nine children to Scottish Gypsy Travellers Agnes Johnstone and Charles McPhee, was born in 1971 in a deliberately sub-standard disused RAF Nissan hut devoid of electricity or hot water, converted in 1946 to accommodate “tinker” families as part of a furtive racial experiment carefully couched in the language of “care in the community” and enacted by the authorities at Bobbin Mill, Pitlochry, Perthshire, Scotland, in a bid to “remove a stain on the Welfare State”. Endorsed by the Secretary of State, the purpose of the experiment was to ”normalise” Gypsy Traveller families in order that they could be assimilated into the local community – provided they proved to be of suitable calibre – and eventually, into standard council housing (once that had been established). Meanwhile, inalienable human rights were flagrantly infringed without any remedy or apology ever being issued.

From these humble origins and at a considerable disadvantage in life, Shamus was sent to the local school, Pitlochry High School, where, like his other siblings, he excelled academically in spite of horrendous bullying and a racist culture within the school life. One of the numerous prizes he won was the subject prize for Art. Aged sixteen, he continued his tertiary education, taking seven subjects at Higher Grade, at Breadalbane Academy, Aberfeldy, before progressing to university study.

In 1989, he enrolled as a student at Aberdeen University, gaining a Master of Arts (Honours) Degree in Celtic-Hispanic Studies. Subsequently, he undertook postgraduate study at the University of Warwick, whereupon he obtained a Postgraduate Diploma in Translation Studies through the Centre for British and Comparative Cultural Studies.

A widely travelled individual, Shamus has traversed much of Europe on his many peregrinations; studies, research opportunities and the need to procure employment owing to longstanding socio-economic barriers faced in his native Scotland have prompted him to travel.

He possesses an Erasmus/Lingua certificate from the University of Alicante; he has amassed a considerable knowledge of Roma and Gypsy Traveller issues gleaned from research executed under the auspices of NGOs; he is also trained and well-versed in the field of Human Rights, where he has been particularly vocal in seeking to promote and improve both community and individual rights of Scottish Gypsy Travellers.

Art has always been integral to his approach to ensuring that the voices of a seldom heard community such as that of Scottish Gypsy Travellers can be heard across communities. Key to this, he considers exploration of issues such as: denial, suppression of evidence, disempowerment and poverty stemming from exclusionist policy-making, banishment and invisibility.

Shamus approaches artwork as a vehicle for social commentary: deploying characters, situations, themes, cultural figures and symbols to challenge widespread attempts to negate the visibility of Scottish Gypsy Travellers; attempts to reduce and discredit the culture. He is proud to be a “Nacken” or Scottish Gypsy Traveller and has never attempted to disguise his origins – while he is equally conscious that this is at variance with the statistic that 77% of Gypsies and Travellers in England and Wales have felt obliged to conceal their ethnic origins for fear of adverse reprisals. He is unconcerned as to how people conceive of him.

Shamus has chosen to select six celebrity figures who are rumoured to be of Gypsy or Traveller extraction as the centrepiece of the Gypsy Maker 3 touring exhibition, very much in the hope that this will provide a platform by which to fuel discussion regarding those celebrities who have openly disclosed their origins — those who are thought to be from a Gypsy or Traveller background and those who continue to issue denials – leading to analysis of the underlying reasons why many people choose to conceal their Gypsy and Traveller lineage. For this reason, Shamus has bestowed the title ‘The In-Betweeners’ on his offerings for Gypsy Maker 3.

Shamus will endeavour to continue to produce artwork, despite his ongoing struggles with poverty, human rights and racial abuse, and ultimately with the functional and cognitive impairment brought on by years of suffering from the debilitating condition that is M.E.