Painting A New History

Lee Henry talks to Armagh artist Tracy Gallogly on the changing face of NI

Northern Ireland has had a long and somewhat dubious history when it comes to mural painting, with artists from both sides of the political divide producing some of the world’s most recognisable pieces of public art in cities such as Belfast and Derry since the beginning of the 20th century.

Historically, many of these murals - often adorning gable walls in working-class areas - have been influenced by the political events of the time, commemorating watershed moments in the country’s troubled lineage from both Republican and Loyalist perspectives.

While such sectarian murals have acted as boundary markers within divided communities, using opposing colours and paramilitary slogans to distinguish between Catholic and Protestant areas, more recently a new generation of NI artists have begun to reclaim the walls that separate, inviting all communities and ethnicities to celebrate the universal aspects of NI culture, presenting a contemporary vision of a society reborn.

Tracy Gallogly is one such artist. Hailing from Armagh, she has worked extensively with community groups and schools on a wide range of public art projects designed to replace old images with new.

Tracy will visit the historic Anacostia district of Washington, DC - a working-class, African-American area affected by high levels of violent crime and anti-social behaviour.

She will be helping to devise and paint a mural which reflects the positive characteristics of the area, working in tandem with Washington artist Cheryl Foster.

It will be the first time that Gallogly has visited the US capital.

‘I don’t really know anything about Anacostia itself; although I am very interested,’ she reveals.

‘It works a lot better for me if I go in with no preconceptions, because then it starts a process where the youth have to tell me what their lives are like in the area and what it is that makes them proud about their environment.

‘In those situations I see myself more as a facilitator, someone who encourages the youth to express themselves and teaches them the different practical skills involved in painting. They decide upon the themes, they’re involved in the design and the process of painting the mural, and I’m always learning about different places from the stories that are told.'

After graduating from the University of Ulster in 1998, Gallogly began expanding on her broad knowledge of visual art by working with other artists in Belfast’s Blackstaff Mill studios.

Adept in a variety of artistic mediums, she has helped create murals, mosaics, sculptures and traditional arts and crafts pieces with children and adults from all areas of the country and beyond.

’I’m very much into traditional crafts,’ explains the thirty-three year old. ‘I use skills and techniques that people have been using in Ireland for hundreds of years. But I also love to paint, so I have no real preference when it comes to producing something new. It’s nice to have a range that you can work with.

’As a founder member of Carnival Chaos, which facilitates a variety of visual arts programmes throughout Ireland, I’ve particularly enjoyed creating carnival masks, puppets and willow statues for the Saint Patrick’s Weekend Festival in Dublin. But you never really know what you might be doing next.

‘I think it’s best to be master of a lot of things. It gives you a broader scope to accommodate different groups.’

By training with and supporting organisations like the Community Arts Forum and the New Belfast Community Arts Initiative, Gallogly has gained an insider’s view of the difficult lives of hundreds of children and young adults affected by sectarianism in NI today.

She believes that her experiences working in NI have helped her to understand the needs and challenges involved when working with other community groups from deprived areas around the world.

‘It’s not just about reclaiming past murals,’ Gallogly argues. ‘It’s also about getting the youth involved in a creative way, confronting the issues important to them, so that when the mural is finished they can feel a sense of ownership towards it.

‘We try to include images that everyone can relate to, like sporting personalities or famous landmarks. There was one group that I worked with on the Shankill Road in Belfast, made up of eleven to seventeen year olds. A boy had recently committed suicide because of bullying, and so the kids wanted to focus the mural on that.

‘In the end we were all very proud of the work that they had done and also of the help that we‘d given them. No matter where they come from, youth are youth: they’re more positive than you would imagine.’

NI artists might have a mountain to climb in their endeavours to paint over the scars of history. But with groups like the New Belfast Community Arts Initiative and artists like Gallogly scratching the surface, we can look forward to a bright future for public art in Belfast and beyond.