Artwork produced in response to the Troubles. Click Play Video for an online exhibition narrated by co-curator Feargal O'Malley
Since 2006 the Arts Council of Northern Ireland (ACNI), led by Troubles archivist Andrea Rea, has been sourcing, collating and archiving artwork by Northern Irish artists produced during the 30 years of the Troubles.
Soon to go live online, the ACNI’s web-based Northern Ireland Troubles Archive covers the breadth of the arts, from music and cinema to visual arts, prison arts, community art and writing, produced in response to the Troubles.
Many of the artworks collected have never before been viewed by the Northern Irish public - until now.
Before the new digital archive launches, and to coincide with its recent Art & Conflict conference, the ACNI opened its vaults to Ormeau Baths Gallery (OBG) exhibition officer Feargal O’Malley and professor of Irish visual culture at the University of Ulster, Liam Kelly, so they could curate an exhibition of Troubles related work.
The resulting Troubles Exhibition at the OBG also features art produced after 1998 from artist Una Walker and a multimedia timeline of the BBC’s coverage of the Troubles from 1968 to 1998.
Inside the OBG there are photo works by renowned artist Victor Sloan and others, paintings, installations, sculptures and drawings that relate to how the Troubles affected society, the individual and the arts in particular.
Some are hard-hitting, others abstract and difficult to define. Combined, they come together to give a picture of how Northern Irish artists confronted and reflected the Troubles from many different perspectives.
Inevitably the exhibition is limited in scope, as co-curator O’Malley freely admits.
Nevertheless, the overwhelming feeling that one takes away from the exhibition is one of lightness and relief - that artists managed to withstand the onslaught of the Troubles, despite their circumstances, and that now the people of Northern Ireland might have enough distance to begin to interrogate that period of history.
‘The exhibition was never going to be the defining collection,’ comments O’Malley. ‘It’s impossible to collect all of the artwork produced during that time and to feature all of the artists who worked in Northern Ireland. Obviously everyone has a different memory of the Troubles. But what we’ve tried to do with this exhibition is show how contemporary Northern Irish art has developed over the years.’
In comparison, the Northern Ireland Troubles Archive itself will be a much larger exhibit, and will go some way toward cataloging the entirety of Troubles related artwork. 'It is not a finite project,' adds Rea. 'It will evolve and grow over time, and we will always seek to add to it and improve the resource for those individuals or groups who may seek to benefit from it.'
As such, perhaps works like Una Walker's Surveiller might eventually find their way into the archive. Listing all of the art exhibitions that took place in Befast between the years 1968 to 1998, it is a work that certainly deserves to be seen again and again.
'As someone who played a central role in the compilation of the Troubles Archive, Una's work speaks to me on a personal level,' Rea continues. 'Surveiller is a very powerful piece. As well as a great piece of visual art, it is also an example of very skilled research and scholarship, and coincidentally it focuses on the precise years that the archive does.'
No date has yet been set for the launch of the full Troubles Archive, but it is expected that web users will be able to access the site in the near future.
'In dealing with the legacy of the Troubles, it was vitally important that the artwork produced during that time was collected and made accessible to the public,' concludes Rea. 'We hope that the archive will be a tool to help people come to terms with the past.'