Together in Pieces: Murals not for pretty colours but conflict transformation
By Eilish BOSCHERT for Northern Ireland Foundation
25 March 2017

Filmmakers Eileen Walsh and David Dryden showcased their short, documentary film Together in Pieces at the historic Sunflower Pub on 25th March as part of the third annual Imagine Belfast Festival of Ideas and Politics.

Commissioned by the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council, the film examines the perceptions and implications of urban art in Northern Ireland, focusing specifically on Derry-Londonderry.

Opening with a shot of a man white-washing graffiti, disembodied voices accompanied shots of the Maiden City, providing locals’ commentary on the graffiti throughout the area. The opinions were uniform: the markings are largely perceived as intimidating, sectarian, foreboding, and ideological.

The graffiti is ubiquitous, even as it goes largely unnoticed by locals who have grown accustomed to the graffiti and traverse the city through designated areas. One film commentator stated that segregation has never been taken seriously in Northern Ireland, and that it is time to recognise the severity of that neglect.

Discussing the history of the murals in Northern Ireland, Ulster University Professor Emeritus Bill Rolston explained that while the Unionist mural tradition was the oldest one in the world, it focused on a history of war and conflict. Republican murals received more attention because of their variety post-1980, while Loyalist murals became increasingly more violent, highlighting recent conflicts instead of the historic, and displaying little to no cultural history.

Because of the politically motivated, and oftentimes violent, nature of graffiti in Northern Ireland, there is a fear that children growing in that environment will also grow accustomed to the graffiti, perceiving it as good without fully understanding its implications.

However, graffiti is not the problem; it is the antagonistic content of the graffiti that generates the most discontent. Organisations have been established in Derry-Londonderry to encourage young people to share their views and impact the city positively through art. Through organisations like the Cathedral Youth Club, young citizens have been given an expressive outlet.

The objective is not to lose the murals, but to focus on the intent behind them: what issues are relevant to these communities and how can they be communicated in non-violent, non-sectarian ways? Murals provide a means of expression — political, social, and historical.

After the screening, members of the audience were encouraged to engage with the filmmakers, Bill Roston, and PhD student at Transitional Justice Institute and UU, Omar El Masri.

Chair for the International Centre for Local and Regional Development, Caitriona Mullan, facilitated the discussion, first asking the filmmakers about their inspiration for the film.

Dryden reflected that the subject was accessible to everyone. It’s a topic that’s on the surface, literally. “It’s like wallpaper,” he said, “You get used to it.”

Walsh followed Dryden’s comment by stating that our current ‘post-conflict’ society does not feel post-conflict. The dissident graffiti that covers the walls of Derry-Londonderry is a testament to the continuity of dissent and conflict. Using the term “subliminal graffiti”, Walsh alluded to the ways in which graffiti remains unnoticed by seasoned locals, but functions as subliminal advertising for paramilitary organisations to children and young people who are raised in these areas.

A member of the audience brought up the common concern of replacing the murals with “pretty colours” that do not reflect on the history or culture of the area.

Walsh pointed out the delicate balance facing communities as there is an onus on authorities to clean up offensive graffiti, yet the pain of these communities remains very present and real. It is dangerous to ‘whitewash’ these sentiments, literally or figuratively.

The past is present in Northern Ireland. The consequences of the conflict are fresh and have never been sorted out. Mullan used the analogy of emergency care versus long-term therapy — while the threat of immediate danger has been removed, there is untreated trauma associated with the violence of the past.

The progress here is subtle, but real. Twenty-five years ago, a film and discussion of this nature could not have been possible in a Belfast bar. To promote this progress, it is essential to foreground these events. The intersection of politics, arts, and culture creates dialogue that humanises the ‘other.’ These conversations of identity and social transformation need to be at the forefront of every community.

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