A Riot of Colour in Greater Shantallow

Part of the Communities United festival, Joe Campbell's latest exhibition embodies a new hub of creativity hidden in Derry's industrial outskirts

It’s not where you’d expect to find an arts centre, next door to Murdock Builders Merchants, covering a couple of units of Skeoge Industrial Estate. The buildings are drab, grey, functional, uniform. There’ll be no prizes for architecture won here on the northern fringes of Derry~Londonderry.

But this is the location of Studio 2 of Greater Shantallow Community Arts and the exterior gives little clue to the atmosphere inside. The arts centre, opened late last year, is bright and vibrant with sweetshop colours – limes and pinks – and the vivid tones of the décor are matched by the life and energy of the activities. There are dance studios, a theatre, and facilities for music, film, and the visual arts. After so many years in a small house in Galliagh Park, the new centre offers expansive spaces and is set to become a hub for performance arts, exhibitions, shows, and festivals for Galliagh and Shantallow.

Studio 2’s first art exhibition is opening on March 16, as part of a new Spring arts festival, Communities United. The exhibition – Recreational Rioting – is Derry artist Joe Campbell’s first solo show since 2013, and is both a retrospective and a showcase for his latest work.

Campbell’s work fuses the personal, the general, the particular and the universal, and references popular culture, religion, Celtic traditions, social history, and the Troubles. All the work here is digitally printed, and the bold black outlines, brash juxtapositions, glossy colours, and black humour recall the comics he read as a child and the graphic novels he has produced as an adult.

One of the newer pieces is a series of nine images produced to illustrate 'The Third Bridge', one of Sam Burnside’s latest poems, exploring the effects of Derry’s Peace Bridge. A number of the images reference ancient Celtic designs, conveying a sense of myth, while others are representational depictions of the city at night, suggesting a dark narrative featuring lonely individuals and skies full of black ravens.

The most striking image is the one at the centre of the presentation. It has an abstract, dreamlike quality, and shows a man falling, like a Saul Bass figure, alongside a bucket used to collect water from a well. On the surface of the water are loose reflections of the Guildhall and, again, a raven. The falling man is literally and figuratively beyond the pale. It is a serious image, but there’s a joke in there, too, and that mixture of tone is present on much of Campbell’s work, giving it a sense of detached bemusement in its examination of his own and his city’s past.

Joe Campbell is 59, born and raised in Derry. His output reflects the events he witnessed on a daily basis, walking to and from school through and in riots and rubble, avoiding eye contact with the soldiers guarding checkpoints, and watching the armoured vehicles patrolling the streets. Free Derry Corner features regularly in his work. So does John Hume, and King James II. But so does Marilyn Monroe, and Laurel and Hardy, and Neil Armstrong, and Rory Gallagher’s guitar. Stan and Ollie are given equal status to the British soldiers whose eyes Campbell avoided, one fine mess alongside another fine mess. Neil Armstrong takes one giant leap and one small step through the Bogside, his helmet and spacesuit securely locked, unable to survive in the atmosphere outside. Marilyn Monroe pouts at Free Derry Corner, standing on black and white chequered kitchen lino.

Joe Campbell - Marilyn Monroe at the Free Derry Corner

The world Campbell presents is one where the abnormal has been normalised, where the absurd is taken for granted, where Marilyn Monroe and social and political defiance stand in a context of domestic banality, and John Hume can serenade King James with his Les Paul. There is a spot outside the Derry Walls where James stood as those within took shots at him. But this is also the site of Wee Johnny’s shop, where Campbell and his pals bought fizzy drinks and Marvel comics. Soldiers could deploy on the streets of a UK city while inside the house Laurel and Hardy were on the TV every summer holiday morning. In a city so close to the Free State, another free state was also available for those ready to seek it out, in electric guitars and Hollywood films and comic book superheroes.

Justice League of North Korea

It is this confluence of reality and escapism, individual and society, particular and general, innocence and experience that Campbell explores, with a wry smile and a shake of the head and a sense of muted anger, too. That the exhibition is at Studio 2 is worth noting. There are few if any other spaces in the city which hold exhibitions of this nature, and which allow for all members of the community to express their ideas, develop their creative potential, and analyse their experiences.

Recreational Rioting opens March 16, 7.00 to 9pm, and will include a panel discussion around Artist’s Impressions of the Troubles with Felicity McCall, Joe Campbell, Lynne Edgar, Pat McArt and Matt Jennings. The exhibition is held at Studio 2, Greater Shantallow Community Arts, Units 2-3, Skeoge Industrial Estate.

Read up on more news and stories featured as part of Creativity Month 2017 here.

Joe Campbell - Phil Lynott Rory Gallagher