COPPOLA NicolamariaContemplating the Troubles through arts
by Nicolamaria COPPOLA for Northern Ireland Foundation
15 April 2014

The Troubles — the three decades of violence between Northern Ireland’s nationalist and unionist communities — are one of the most intensively documented conflicts of the contemporary age, and the events that shaped the course of that period have inevitably become subjects for artists.

“Art of the Troubles” is the name of a new temporary exhibition about this turbulent period in Northern Ireland, displayed at the Ulster Museum until the 7th September 2014. It has been developed in partnership with Wolverhampton Art Gallery, and includes many works from the collections of National Museums Northern Ireland and the recently gifted Arts Council of Northern Ireland Collection. It also incorporates loans from the Imperial War Museum, the Irish Museum of Modern Art and the Dublin City Gallery, The Hugh Lane, as well as works from private collections and artists themselves.

“Art of the Troubles” is a collection of 60 works consisting of paintings, drawings, photographs, videos and sculpture, and every single piece of art explores themes such as violence and destruction, suffering and loss, traditions and life in the midst of turmoil. The exhibition brings together the work of 50 artists from Northern Ireland and beyond, including Joseph McWilliams, Willie Doherty, F. E. McWilliam, Rita Duffy, Paul Seawright, Jack Pakenham, Michael Farrell and Richard Hamilton.

In an interview realised for the launch of the exhibition, the Northern Irish artist Rita Duffy talks about her life during the dark years of the Troubles, claiming that her art draws a lot of inspiration from the conflict. She describes the installation that is displayed at “Art of the Troubles”: ‘Veil’ is a chamber out of prison doors taken from the former Armagh women’s gaol. It is a metaphor for the way that women’s lives have been shaped by conflict: they weep for husbands, brothers and sons caught up in a seemingly endless cycle of violence. The salt represents shed tears. The red interior recalls the participation of incarcerated women in the dirty protest, and the smearing of their menstrual blood on cell walls.

“Art of the Troubles” is divided into five sections:

  1. Captured
  2. Circumstance
  3. Community
  4. Conflict
  5. Continuance

Captured is a collection of photos from the late 1960s until the Good Friday Agreement; this part of the exhibition reveals the Troubles through photojournalism.

20140415 Art Troubles 01 Philip NAPIER
“Ballad No. 1” by Philip Napier

“Ballad No. 1”, by Philip Napier, is the most relevant piece of art of Circumstance section — and perhaps the whole exhibition — related to the issues of power and cultural identity. It is based on one of the most recognisable images from the Troubles, that of Provisional IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands, who died in 1981. Napier recreates the image using the buttons of the accordion, an instrument shared by the two communities in Northern Ireland.

The Troubles had a profound impact on the daily lives of many people and communities, and they changed the physical landscape of cities, town and countryside. The section Community is a collection of drawing and paintings that deal with the theme of segregation and the loss of identity due to the division of public (and, indirectly, private) space.

"The Other Cheek?" by John Keane
“The Other Cheek?” by John Keane

Many artists have depicted barriers, peace-lines and murals, and John Keane is definitely one of them. His painting “The Other Cheek?” relates to a phrase Keane said he had heard used by members of Sinn Fein, the Ulster Defence Association and the British Army: “What do you expect us to do, turn the other cheek?” In this painting you can find all the main representative elements of the Troubles: suffering and loss, murals, flags, weapons and peace-walls.

"Community Door 2" by Joseph McWilliams
“Community Door 2” by Joseph McWilliams

Conflict is the section that best describes the dark years of the Troubles, but it also includes pieces of art that can be seen as a cry of hope, a will of change, the desire for a better future. “Community Door 2” by Joseph McWilliams is the perfect ideological summation and physical portrayal of this section: the door in this piece is the actual firebomb-damaged door from the Alliance Avenue Resource Centre in North Belfast, where the artist himself used to go to work. The rainbow-coloured steps are a connotation of light and optimism in the midst of the darkness of the Troubles.

Continuance is the last section of the exhibition and it includes pieces in which the artists seem more occupied with the ensuring social, economic, cultural and political changes and challenges in Northern Ireland rather than with violence.

Here, “The Maze” by Donovan Wylie shows the most potent, and painfully remembered, symbol of the Troubles, the Maze prisons. This series of photographs is a form of archive, a catalogue of Troubles architecture about to disappear. It is a view to a more hopeful future.

“Art of the Troubles” is a fantastic initiative that can help people contemplate the painful years of the Troubles. It is a perfect exercise to think about the conflict and its effects in Northern Ireland. The exhibition is a kind of historical memory of the Troubles, and it should make us reflect on one of the darkest periods in the history of Northern Ireland and the whole Europe.

Other images related to the Troubles at the Ulster Museum:

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