Silence in Paris

Colin Davidson's powerful portraits of those left mourning by the Troubles take on a profound new significance in the tragedy-stricken French capital

Virtue Dixon, Anna Cathcart, Walter Simons, Thomas O’Brien, John Gallagher … Carrickfergus, Ballykelly, Ardoyne, Armagh …the names ring out like the opening litany of Brian Friel’s great play Faith Healer, laden with an earthy musicality and tonal inflection inextricably linked to their home place.

They are the cornerstones of some of the heartbreaking but understated narratives that compose Silent Testimony, Northern Ireland artist Colin Davidson’s contemplative collection of eighteen large-scale portraits of individuals who suffered devastating personal loss during the Troubles.

The exhibition recently transferred from the Ulster Museum to the Centre Culturel Irlandais, the thriving hub of Irish culture in Paris, where, to a foreign ear, their homespun familiarity takes on a strangely exotic otherness.

Some 60,000 visitors to the Belfast show were profoundly affected by the unspoken pain and suffering on the faces of Davidson’s subjects. Many came more than once, drawn back again and again by the depth of feeling conveyed by these exceptional portraits.

Now they are having a similarly powerful effect on the residents of a city which, in the words of Kim Mawhinney, head of art, National Museums Northern Ireland, '… has been plunged into grief.

'With the tragic effects in Paris in recent months,' she says, 'it seemed entirely appropriate for the exhibition to go there. Silent Testimony is ultimately about common humanity and loss and focuses on the effect of loss on individuals.'

CCI director Nora Hickey M’Sichili visited the Ulster Museum when she was in Belfast during the summer, but not with the intention of programming the show in the French capital.

'I had heard about it of course and was aware of all the hype surrounding it,' she says. I wouldn’t say that I was sceptical about it, that would be the wrong word, but I was totally unprepared for what awaited me. I was overwhelmed by it. It hit me like un coup de foudre [a thunderbolt].

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'It’s not just a series of paintings, it’s an installation, a body in paint. As Colin himself describes it, it’s one work composed of eighteen paintings'.

Hickey has filled this important post for two and a half years and describes her job as 'unique'. The CCI was established in 2002 as Ireland’s only dedicated cultural centre in the world. Its setting is a former seminary, the magnificent Irish College, which occupies a plum location in a narrow street at the heart of the city’s august Latin Quarter, a stone’s throw from the Panthéon and the Sorbonne.

Raised in Enniskillen and Belfast, with a background in music and the visual arts and as the daughter of the distinguished art curators Helen Lanigan Wood and the late Ted Hickey, she is well qualified to head up an organisation which proudly flies the flag for the cultural sectors of the entire island of Ireland.

'Our remit here is to show different types of art,' she says. 'It is a broad remit but we have become particularly strong in the areas of photography and the visual arts.

'When I first saw Colin’s show the events of November 13 in Paris had not happened, but the possibility of bringing it here to commemorate the Charlie Hebdo attacks immediately came to mind. It was a very emotional experience. There was no direct parallel reference, but the theme of loss and grief seemed completely appropriate.

'During my time here we have never done anything that is related to the Troubles. But being in that space in the company of those faces, I felt that they must come here and be seen in a French context. And then came the November attacks'.

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There has been much media and public interest in the show here in the City of Light, where life these days is significantly more subdued and vigilant under the ongoing Government-imposed state of emergency.

In a feature in the prestigious contemporary art periodical Miroir de l’Art, it was noted that that each subject is presented in identically sized images, accompanied by a brief, spare description. It puts Silent Testimony into the echelons of art which '… continues to have an impact on thousands of people …' and refers to it as '… a mournful echo of the attacks which have hit the four corners of the world in the past few years'.

In contrast to the vast, cathedral-like space of the Ulster Museum, the CCI gallery is smaller, more intimate. On entering, one automatically lowers one’s voice out of respect for the prevailing atmosphere and in the spirit of the deliberately low-key descriptions in French of the individual tragedies and life sentences of these eighteen victims.

'Colin and I hung the paintings together,' says Hickey. 'It’s a lower hang than in the Ulster Museum as the space is not as large and the ceiling not as high. But collectively they make a tremendous impact and the closer proximity gives them a real intensity.

'We tried out a number of different placings, as Colin was very mindful of who should sit where. For political and personal reasons there were people whom he felt should not sit side by side, though this is not discernible to most viewers here as the descriptions do not carry details or labels. People from Northern Ireland can work them out, of course.

'The three people on the back wall, particularly the dark-haired woman in the centre, really pull you in. She is Anna Cathcart, whose father was killed in 1976 in Carrickfergus. She is one who makes the most direct eye contact. She holds you in her gaze. Her eyes speak of an inner strength, of survival, of a kind of defiance not to give in to the aggressors.'

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Hickey continues: 'We have had a huge footfall through the show. People have come here without any baggage but have been deeply touched by these depictions of grief and suffering. Florence Berthaud, the Mayor of the 5th arrondissement (the district of Paris in which the CCI is located), came to see it and spoke powerfully about it.

'Word of mouth has spread and visitors of many nationalities have come through the door. Only 15% to 20% of them are Irish; the majority are French. But wherever they come from, the reaction has been the same. In our Visitors’ Book, comments like "moving," "extremely moving", "beautiful", "heartbreaking" appear. Somebody observed that the expressions of the victims prompt longer conversations. Somebody else wrote, "A deep silence, yet these portraits speak".' 

'My angle in this year’s programme was to emphasise the futility of conflict and violence,' she adds. 'Having been raised in Enniskillen, I was deeply struck by Gordon Wilson’s words after the Remembrance Day bombing. His words of peace and reconciliation touched the world and brought hope to the town.

'A few days after the show opened, I organised a public discussion between myself and Colin, with a reading by the Irish actress Clara Simpson of the anti-war play Stabat Mater Furiosa by Jean-Pierre Siméon.'

On the same evening, Declan Mc Cavana, a senior lecturer in rhetoric at the École Polytechnique in Paris, gave an address. Brought up in Belfast in the 1970s and 1980s, he admits to being very wary of any work of art which pertains to the period.

'Such work can all too easily fall into cliché and, even worse, deal with the subject in an insensitive and sensationalistic way. I went [to the show] with no great expectations and even felt uneasy as I crossed the threshold. My feeling of unease was to very quickly change to a sentiment of deep empathy with both the artist and the subjects of his portraits.

'The mixture of words and images, of history and of emotion, the regards of the men and women who are painted and the clear complicity they have with the artist moved me extremely. Colin Davidson has displayed a true humanity and understanding of each of the individuals his works portrayed.

'Rarely have I been so touched by such a piece of work and I say bravo to the CCI and its director for not only having provided us, the Irish Parisians, with the opportunity to see it but also with creating the perfect environment to understand it.'

Silent Testimony continues at the Centre Culturel Irlandais, 5 Rue des Irlandais, 75005 Paris until March 6. Colin Davidson worked in partnership with cross-community victims’ support group WAVE throughout the Silent Testimony project. Images by Alix Marnat.