Graphic art exhibition marks 50th anniversary of Civil Rights movement in Northern Ireland

Political figures and pop culture icons sit side by side in a mini display of works by Joe Campbell, centred around a newly created 30 foot mural

The Reflection of Our Own Voice mural

I visit this exhibition on the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement.  

Before I leave the house, I hear Pat Hume, wife of John, talking about it on Radio Foyle. She says her husband now has dementia, and cannot remember anything of the role he played in the politics of Northern Ireland.

She says, 'It is very sad, his memory has just gone. John does not remember very much about the agreement of 1998, or about the Anglo Irish Agreement or Sunningdale or anything else.'

In among the anything else is Hume’s role in the Civil Rights movement in Northern Ireland, the 50th anniversary of which is marked in this too-brief and too-small exhibition of paintings by Joe Campbell.

Hume features in the 30 foot mural Campbell painted in the first week of the exhibition. He stands partially hidden by another man, alongside others who, in 1968, decided that enough was enough and a stand had to be taken. Some I recognise – Gerry Fitt, Bernadette Devlin – others will be known instantly by those more familiar with the politics of Derry than me. One of those figures is Eamonn McCann, looking like something out of a Tarantino movie in black suit, black tie, and white shirt, with a mass of curly black hair. Martin Luther King is there, too, a reference to figures that inspired the men and women of Northern Ireland at the time.

Joe Campbell NV 2

(L-R) Eamonn McCann, Buzz Aldrin at Free Derry Corner, Martin Luther King

As striking and moving and sincere a tribute as the mural is, for me, the key elements are the touches that are typical elements of Campbell’s work. Looming behind the protesters of the Women’s Liberation Movement is Buzz Aldrin, a slight anachronism for a mural commemorating 1968, but a telling one as far as Campbell is concerned.

Campbell’s work is beautifully clear and precise, but it’s also a swirl of influences and impressions. A boy growing up in 1960s Derry, and a young man in the city in the '70s and '80s, he saw the riots and protests, the bombings and the deaths, the troops arriving and the killing continuing, and he heard the pleas for peaceful solutions and the speeches of those demanding justice and equality. But he also saw the moon landings and John Wayne westerns, and he heard the Beatles and Rory Gallagher, and he thrilled to the fights of Cassius Clay and learned how he became Muhammad Ali, and he read comics, and he left mud on the chequered kitchen floor of his house.

Joe Campbell NV 3

And that’s all here in his paintings, all the elements given equal billing, all worked in the same high impact, colourful, comic and graphic novel style – brash, upfront, flat and fearless like cardboard cutout in a cinema foyer.

The mural is the big event of the exhibition, alongside a recent portrait of Eamonn McCann, with less hair than his 68 self, a touch wearier maybe, but abrasive and defiant and awkward.

It’s the other paintings I like better, though, because they show more of Campbell’s personality and personal history. There’s another of Aldrin – interesting how he goes for the second man on the moon, not the first – a visitor from outer space to Free Derry Corner. There’s a loving and awestruck tribute to Rory Gallagher Stratocaster. There’s 'Dream at Bishop’s Gate', with John Wayne, Ali, the Beatles, and – showing trouble wasn’t confined to the 60s – Donald Trump in a tuxedo holding a stiff and forced-smiling Melania. Behind those figures is a line of troops, or rather one soldier, cleverly replicated again and again. And behind them is Bishop’s Gate, although in a seriously playful reference to imperial theft, the arch is decorated with the Elgin Marbles and relics from Tutankhamun’s tomb.

Joe Campbell - Dream at Bishop's Gate

Dream at Bishop's Gate

My favourite painting, however, has the Bogside blurred in the background, in front of which are burning cars and bonfires, and then, in perfect clarity, soldiers of Rome’s Seventh Imperial Legion come to stamp the empire’s authority on the rioting barbarians. And with them stands the god, Thor.

Serious politics, playful pop culture, history, escapism, fantasy, banal – all incongruously but rightly juxtaposed. Only by jamming things all together unquestioningly does Campbell make sense of his memory.

The Seventh Imperial Legion Quelling Barbarians with the God, Thor

The Seventh Imperial Legion Quelling Barbarians with the God, Thor

The Reflection of Our Own Voices – Artworks by Joe Campbell is on display at the Nerve Visual Gallery in Ebrington, Derry~Londonderry until Sunday, April 15. The gallery is free to visit is open from 11am-5pm from Tuesday-Saturday and 1-6pm on Sundays.