Art of the Troubles

The current exhibition at the Ulster Museum inspires a day of discourse from a variety of speakers

Post-conflict societies are among the most studied in the world, and Northern Ireland is no exception to this. An industry has grown up around how the legacy of the Troubles continues to influence life here, and part of that discourse takes place in the form of artistic expression.

This conference, entitled Art of the Troubles: Culture, Conflict and Commemoration, organised by the Institute of British-Irish Studies, University College Dublin and the Ulster Museum, brings together commentators and practitioners from across the artistic sector. The starting point of this venture is the current exhibition in the Museum, Art of the Troubles.

BBC Education and Arts Correspondent Maggie Taggart chairs the first of three sessions held across the one-day event. She confesses to finding the initial brief of the conference 'highfalutin', and she is essentially correct in her assessment.

The questions the conference supposedly would address include references to ‘ethnonational imagery’, ‘interventions necessary to promote change and transition, post-Haass’, and (my personal favourite), ‘How do visual arts work to dismember reified memories and reconfigure alternative futures?’

In reality, the stated brief was only ever going to be notionally relevant. The speakers bring a wide variety of perspectives and agendas, and it is their cumulative work and experience that make for a compelling and thought-provoking day.

The Ulster Museum is an inspiring space, though its conference room is not. Panellists in the first session sit across the front of the room with a PowerPoint projection shining into their eyes and cutting across the tops of their heads until invited to speak from a podium.

Writer Anne Devlin reminisces about her own path into writing about conflict, and responds to the current Art of Troubles exhibition. Colin Graham’s interest is in Northern Irish photography, which can 'turn a glance into a look, and then a gaze'. He speaks about the 'archaeology of past harmony' in a community and dissects a Paul Seawright photograph, which for him symbolises the essence of division here.

Writer Tim Loane condemns current policy that, in his view, promotes amateurism to the detriment of the professional arts scene as 'censorship by stealth'. Writer and broadcaster Malachi O’Doherty, meanwhile, draws the conference’s attention to differing accounts of the same events in the memoirs of Gerry Adams, and the way in which memory can serve a political agenda.

The second session of the day considers specific examples of Troubles-related art, beginning with Garrett Carr, who has curated an exhibition of various types of maps in the Ulster Museum, entitled Mapping Alternative Ulster. Carr's casual enthusiasm for his topic is infectious, and introduces elements of a brighter side of Northern Irish history and topography.

Neil Jarman of Queen's University then provides a survey of traditional arts and crafts such as banners, flags and drums, and John Killen, of the Linen Hall Library, does the same for political cartoons.

Playwright James McAleavy reads from a recent work, and talks about the 'fragile artistic ecology' in Northern Ireland, which would not survive turning from Troubles-related work. His (presumably) tongue-in-cheek assessment is that true reconciliation here would 'take the bread out of his mouth' – a view that many (hopefully) find chilling.

Writer and comic Nuala McKeever takes the chill out of the room with her reminiscences of bringing Northern Irish comedy to the Edinburgh Festival. She also speaks passionately about her work with prisoners, which is not so much about creating great works of art as creating 'moments of recognition' between inmates. Her overall message is one of artists attempting to do something that speaks to the artist in others.

Chair Suzanne Lyle, from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, finally acknowledges the value of exploring many ways of seeing, as shown in this session. And for the third and final session, 'Remembering and Forgetting', both the glaring PowerPoint backdrop and the podium have been abandoned altogether. Panellists speak from their places at the front table, unfortunately at the expense of clarity of amplification.

Daniel Jewesbury of the University of Ulster bemoans the apparent shrinking role of practitioners and curators in post-conflict Northern Ireland, with artists having less to say in our current situation. Paula McFetridge of Kabosh Theatre Company speaks earnestly of theatre projects she directs, which elicit vastly different responses, depending on what audience is in attendance.

Roisin McGlone has worked extensively in community situations, and while she confesses to having had the arts 'beaten out' of her from an early age, she does admit to the power of artistic expression to foster dialogue.

Writer Glenn Patterson ends the day’s discussions. He admits to not knowing what to say, to being 'genuinely quite stuck'. He suggests that 'we (artists) are probably not the people best placed to comment on what is happening in Northern Ireland', and shares his fear that the story will ultimately be told by politicians.

Perhaps Patterson has not actually seen the exhibition on the museum's fourth floor, which is the catalyst for this conference, because, work by work, the artists represented there actually tell you much of what you need to know about the Troubles, from their many perspectives.

In the end, it is the exhibition that speaks more loudly than any individual about the power of the past as evoked in art. Speakers who choose to further their own agendas, promote their own projects or otherwise blow their own trumpets are quickly seen through.

Sincere practitioners, on the other hand, who share their struggles with post-conflict realities, contribute more meaningfully to the conversation, but it is the artistic legacy of this place itself which must, and will, have the final word.

Art of the Troubles runs in the Ulster Museum, Belfast until September 8.