American Artist Asks: Why Belfast?

Watch an online exhibition featuring photographs and testimonies from emigrants in the city, from Why Belfast?

So, why Belfast? American Emily DeDakis was regularly asked the question when she first moved to Northern Ireland to study at Queen’s University, and usually the question was posed with a particular ‘tone’ that was more confused than interested. It was a question about Belfast as much as about the visitor.

‘One time,’ Dedakis recalls, ‘a taxi driver asked me, “Why Belfast?” and I said “because I was sick of LA”. It was the truth, but he got quite upset at the idea that I was here when I could have been there.’

It had never occurred to DeDakis - who was born in Wisconsin - that there was something noteworthy about relocating because, as she contends, ‘people move around more in the States. There, it doesn’t seem as interesting.'

As an emigrant, however, the concept of relocation got Dedakis to thinking that there might be the potential to turn the question - why Belfast? - into art. ‘Photograph someone, pin them down and get what their story is - why they came to Belfast,' she explains.

The idea stayed with DeDakis, but for one reason or another – including the small matter of completing an MA and becoming the first PhD in Creative Writing in Ireland (‘Don’t put that in,' she begs. ‘It was just because of the alphabet!’) – DeDakis never quite got around to furthering it.

Then she met Maia Brown, a fellow American on an independent fellowship, and when both were asked the question it seemed like fate. They decided to explore the concept in more detail, and recruited Twy Miller, who had moved from Florida to Belfast in 1972, to take the photographs. Over the course of two days they set up their stall, so to speak, in the Common Grounds Café in Belfast's Holylands area.

The idea was originally to ask people who had moved to Belfast from elsewhere to write down their reasons for doing so and pose for a photograph, but DeDakis thought it would be more interesting if they asked everyone.

‘Even if you were born here,' she says earnestly, 'there’s a reason that you stayed, a reason you went away and came back or maybe even a reason why you want to leave. So, for two days we basically pitched the question to anyone we found, without regard to where they were from or why they were here. Why Belfast?’

Responses varied. Some were heartfelt, others socio-economic or career oriented and some went for the humorous option. One wag, who didn’t make it into the final collection, said, ‘Because the alternative, Cookstown, is so bad'.

For DeDakis (pictured above), however, the most interesting thing was how much people had to say about the city once they got started. There were only a few people who declined to take part and most, even those who were initially unsure about the idea, couldn’t stop writing once they started.

‘At first people didn’t know what to say,’ DeDakis remembers with a grin. ‘Next thing we were going, “No, no no – give us the pen back!” People really got flowing.’

Once the two days were over DeDakis and Co collected the stories and the pictures and turned them into postcards. ‘We went with a sort of "mail" theme. They are proper individual postcards too, with room for a stamp and everything. Some people have already posted theirs around the world. And we have collected them as a single piece, bound in a black envelope.’

DeDakis hopes to return to the project in another part of the city, away from the liberal, cosmopolitan centre of Botanic Gardens and Queen's University. She points out that while this iteration of 'why Belfast?' was non-representative, ‘it’s very much of the time and place we decided to do it. The project itself could be repeated almost infinitely'.

As for DeDakis, she has her own answer to the question. ‘My answer? I totally fell for a bar tender in new Orleans when I was 17,' she laughs. 'He said he was from Belfast and I thought, “Great word, I’ll go there”. That’s the short answer. There are a lot of reasons why I’ve stayed here: they took up a whole postcard.’

Copies of Why Belfast? and individual postcards are on sale at No Alibis and Ormeau Baths Galley to raise money for the NI Community of Refugees and Asylum Seekers.