'Absorbing' Troubles Art exhibition reflects decades of tension and turmoil

Over 40 works from National Museums NI's collections create an account of the conflict that's heartbreaking and hard to forget

Selected from the National Museums NI’s collections of works, Troubles Art presents the wide-ranging responses of artists to the conflict that blighted the country for so many years.

It is bleak, heartbreaking at times, with dashes of black humour and splashes of colour. There’s some – albeit precious little - hope. There’s beauty too, but that comes at a heavy price. More than anything, a feeling of tension pervades the two galleries that house the exhibition at Nerve Visual in Derry~Londonderry.

© The Estate of F.E. McWilliam

'Woman in Bomb Blast' by F.E. McWilliam © The Estate of F.E. McWilliam

In each of the two rooms, one piece immediately draws the eye. F.E. McWilliam’s 'Woman in Bomb Blast' is a masterfully executed sculpture in bronze. Her identity is lost behind what might be an article of clothing thrown over her face. Her arms are outstretched, her legs askew, her skirt rides towards her waist. She is thin to the point of emaciation, a frail, fragile, powerless, faceless figure, youthful and destroyed.

'Town, Country and People' is a brilliant piece by Locky Morris, consisting of three imposing cones each bearing a different, curving, tapering image – one is of a group of people, in the same place and heading in the same direction, but with no suggesting of cohesion; one is of a rural landscape; the third shows an urban scene. The colours are of a bluey-grey that blurs the scenes. At the apex of each cone is a model helicopter, and so each cone becomes a searchlight, with every part of the country being observed in this murky glare, with no corner untouched or untainted.

Gina McIntyre, CEO of the SEUPB and artist Locky Morris at the launch of Making the Future, in Nerve Visual Gallery

Gina McIntyre, CEO of the SEUPB and artist Locky Morris at the launch of Making the Future, a new cross-border cultural programme which Troubles Art is a part of

Jack Pakenham’s 'Your Move' is a black comedy. Five figures sit in a room, the one window bricked up so no light invades. They are styled like cartoon men, shown with one in a balaclava, with a metal utensil instead of a hand, one in dark glasses with a handkerchief over the lower part of his face, one presented with the articulated jaw of a ventriloquist’s dummy. On the table at which they sit is the plan of the area they intend to bomb, looking like a board game they are playing.

While some of the works show perpetrators, others show ordinary civilians experiencing the tedious consequences of the hostilities. 'Security Barrier' by Rita Duffy is a crowded street scene, with a crush of figures hemmed in by buildings and a bus, being searched by the police before they can proceed any further. It is a picture of a grotesque, abnormal everyday occurrence, tired citizens finding themselves having to tolerate a new normal.

© by courtesy of the artist

'Security Barrier' by Rita Duffy © by courtesy of the artist

Colour stands out in this exhibition, not least in the bold rainbow of Joseph McWilliams’ 'Community Door 2'. This is a very real and physical piece, in which the actual door of a resource centre in North Belfast, blasted by a firebomb but just about intact, sits up against the wall. Leading up to the door are steps, painted in bright strips. It is an intriguing work, the steps breaking the barrier between the work and the viewer. The colour offers hope, and the steps, while leading towards destruction, also show a route away from it.

'Birdcage' also uses colour boldly, with a white wired cage holding a bird perched amid strips of red, yellow, and blue. The bird’s beak is open, suggesting it continues to sing, despite everything. The cage might be keeping the bird and the colours secure, or trapping hope and imagination. There are doors to the cage, though, so they could be released at any time.

Suffering, pain, and horror are always present in Troubles Art, even if there’s an attempt to ignore or suppress them. Beneath the figures sitting having a nice, family dinner in Tom Bevan’s sculpture, 'Strata', are three skulls and a skeleton. There is undiluted ugliness and a refusal to budge in Ken Howard’s 'Crucifixion', and an eerie emptiness in '6.10pm', by Patric Coogan, which shows a chair lying on the pavement outside a house with corrugated iron over one window and a panel missing from the front door. Almost lost in the personal violence and political recrimination is Dan Shipsides’ 'Love', where the word has been formed from the letters, UVF.


This is an exhibition featuring a variety of media in which artists have either attempted to come to terms with the Troubles or simply to present them the way they viewed the decades of violence. It is absorbing, fascinating, deeply unsettling, and troubling, uneasy and hard to forget.

Troubles Art continues at the Nerve Visual Gallery in Ebrington, Derry~Londonderry until Sunday April 28 and has a number of connected events still to come. On Friday April 19, Belfast born artist Gerry Gleason will deliver a lunchtime lecture in the gallery on the motivation behind his celebrated work 'Birdcage', and on April 25 John Keane will visit the Nerve Centre to lead a talk on the relationship between his artwork and the conflict. Like the exhibition, both talks are free to attend. To register for a talk email m.hamill@nervecentre.org.

Nerve Visual Gallery is open from 11am-5pm Tuesday to Saturday and 12-6pm on Sundays. Troubles Art is part of the Making the Future project, a cross-border cultural heritage programme funded through the PEACE IV Programme, managed by the Special EU Programmes Body (SEUPB). For more news, events and information on Making the Future visit http://makingthefuture.eu.