Injustice and war inspire a unique exhibition in Crumlin Road Gaol

As artist Eoin Mac Lochlainn enters C-wing in Crumlin Road Gaol, the venue for his Caoineadh/Elegies exhibition, a tiny mouse scuttles past his feet and disappears down a stairwell, underground. Unlike the other wings in the jail, which have not yet been restored, C-wing is all polished floors and newly painted walls: once a place of contemplation, now a tourist attraction. It's an intriguing setting for an exhibition. But where are the paintings?

As we pass each cell, lit from within by overhead light bulbs, eyes stare back at us from faces 'I was gutted, I could hardly believe it...'etched with pain and suffering, and everything becomes clear. Each of the large canvases that make up the Elegies exhibition hang from walls to the rear of each cell, framed by open doorways. Mac Lochlainn has just finished installing them, and is giddy with excitement at seeing his first viewer's reaction.

A young Asian refugee with torchlight shining into her eyes; a shellshocked man home from war; an anonymous hooded figure; and Mary Magdalene, painted in green tones, staring up at Christ unseen, hanging from a cross. These are the faces that make up Elegies, one man's ode to the fallen and their loved ones.

Elegies was first shown in Dublin's Kilmainham prison, before being invited to Belfast. From here it will move on to Mayo, Tipperary, Wicklow and Louth. 'It’s an unorthodox setting for an exhibition,' says Mac Lochlainn of the Crumlin Road Gaol. 'But it’s quite striking, really. I think it suits the paintings; I’m very happy with them.'

Mac Lochlainn began his career as a graphic designer before becoming a full-time painter. His paintings, although beautiful, are surely not for everyone. Emotive portraits of individuals who have suffered the consequences of war - be they Iraqi, Afghan, Irish or otherwise - are not exactly in vogue at present. Mac Lochlainn admits that, since the arrival of the credit crunch, he hasn't sold so many of his paintings. But that's not why he paints them.

'Some years ago I began work on a series of paintings in response to stories in the media about 'most wanted' men,' Mac Lochlainn reveals. 'I remember [former US Secretary of Defence] Donald Rumsfield releasing a pack of cards of the 52 most wanted men in Iraq, in his opinion. So I decided then that I was going to paint 52 battered heads as a sort of protest.

'That’s how this body of work started. Of course, a few weeks later you hear that they've sent a rocket into one of the wanted men's home, killed him and his family and his neighbours while they were at it. Somehow this is supposed to make us feel that the world is a safer place.'

As a member of the Irish Palestine Solidarity Movement, and an active anti-war campaigner, for Mac Lochlainn painting is a means to an end, a way of objecting to injustice, wherever it raises its ugly head. Most of the paintings in Elegies were taken directly from photographs that Mac Lochlainn came across in newspapers and television news reports.

'What I've Seen''The work explores how photography and painting differ and compete as modes of representation,' he continues. 'We are constantly bombared with a multiplicity of images and it is easy to become inured to the personal stories that lie behind them.

'A personal tragedy, like the loss of a loved one for instance, is sensationally splashed across the newspapers one day and then quickly forgotten when the next story is presented. Wars and atrocities give way to further wars and atrocities.'

Interpreting those images with paint is Mac Lochlainn's way of memoralising the people behind the headlines. Each work is an elegy to its unknown subject.

'The endless supply of stories and images tend to lose their effect, but by taking an image and using it as the subject of a painting, it emphasises the importance of that personal story,' he concludes.

'You see these pictures all the time. And the thing about it, you get used to images of suffering and trauma. But it’s not just another image, it's someone's life that has been turned upside down. For me, every life is important.'

Lee Henry

Elegies runs in Crumlin Road Gaol until September 4, and is part of the Late Night Art gallery tour.