Art of the Troubles

Jane Hardy considers the role of art in our understanding of man's inhumanity to man

Great exhibitions can make you reconsider the art movements and individual artists on display that you thought you knew. The Ulster Museum's brilliant new show, titled simply Art of the Troubles, does just that.

Before heading to the fourth floor and the long gallery – which, as if the curators have chosen to hand out a neat metaphor about processing pain, has a single entrance and exit – you might think that this graphic depiction of the Troubles will be familiar.

You know, that it will feature the newsreel material we've all seen on the first floor in the museum and on the telly before, maybe the murals from the Falls and Shankill, considered folk art by some, or Willie Doherty's bleak photos of Derry~Londonderry's trouble spots, and work by Rita Duffy, Joe McWilliams and the rest.

In fact, the murals don't feature here in the main, except obliquely as part of the urban landscape in paintings like 'Turn the Other Cheek?', by John Keane. What does feature are some well-judged photography, amongst other things, in which there is an emphasis on empty space, recalling the gaps in Belfast's built landscape where buildings were bombed or set on fire and have not been rebuilt, like North Street Arcade.

On entering the long gallery, a rather pretty bronze sculpture by FE McWilliam catches the eye. A recent gift from the local Arts Council of Northern Ireland to the Ulster Museum, it is of a petite woman falling. I notice the clothes pulled upwards by the force of her descent covering her head, cancelling out individuality.

It is McWilliams' tribute to two of his countrywomen, killed in the Abercorn Restaurant bombing in Belfast in 1972. After learning of the context, the splayed feet and the way she, like her face, has been blotted out forever, take on quite a different meaning.

As I explore the rooms, divided into five sections – captured, circumstance, community, conflict and continuance, which don't necessarily add tremendously to this show's impact – I cannot escape the soundtrack coming from Phillip Napier's 'Ballad 1' (1992).

That is as it should be. The piece is made up of an automated accordion attached to an image of the hunger striker Bobby Sands, fashioned from what could be nails, with all of the Christian iconography that suggests. While the rather monotonous single-note drone recalls the helicopters that used to hover over Belfast, it is appropriate there is no getaway.

Walking past images that underline the abnormality of the period – like Paul Seawright's beautiful landscape photographs that sit next to captions detailing murders in a work entitled 'The Sectarian Murders' series – I wonder how it all happened. Not the political context or build-up, of course, which was festering since the Battle of the Boyne, but how some people crossed the line that normally prevents us from blowing one another up.

John Kindness' well known sequence of animal portraits provides some sort of indirect answer. The smug Protestant pugs have been undermined by presumably Fenian wolves, yet they're all animals. So maybe, in the right or rather the wrong circumstances, we can all cross that line.


Described as one of the most harrowing yet ambiguous films ever made, Willie Doherty's video piece 'Remains' (2009) plays on permanent loop in a blacked out viewing room. Doherty juxtaposes footage of a burning car in a playground with oddly attractive shots of orange flames that might be warming as well as destructive.

There are shots of some haunted parts of Derry~Londonderry accompanied by an equally haunting monologue, delivered with mournful vowels by the actor Stephen Rea. As the anonymous narrator expresses his bewilderment at what went on – and, shockingly, continues to go on – we can only agree. 'At times I'm unsure if it really happened at all.'

Observing Andre Stitt's delicate paintings of the Shankill Butchers' knives makes me realize that it did; they inevitably force the viewer to confront the violence of the Troubles. Is this a suitable subject for art? Yes, I believe it is. This piece, for example, underlines the horror of the Shankill Butcher's actions by hinting at the craft and style inherent in these implements, turned from butcher's knives to weapons of murderous violence.

Rita Duffy's 'Veil' hints, however, at the transforming power of art. Duffy has used doors from Armagh Women's Prison to create a terrifyingly small space, but inside there are beautiful glass shapes, like teardrops or raindrops. The suggestion being, of course, that within terrifying places – like prisons, or whole countries at war, for that matter – there is still room for the aesthetic, and the appreciation of art.

Joe McWilliams' 'Community Door 2' makes a similar point. This burnt wooden door, which was repeatedly firebombed when McWilliams was teaching at a community centre, was retrieved by the artist. He then added a psychedelic rainbow of colour that streaks up some steps below and disappears behind the door.  Acts of barbarism cannot stop the creation of works of art.

Looking at Gladys Maccabe's sumptuous oil painting, titled 'After a Car Bomb Explosion, Ulster Village', I sense the gap between subject and technique, but that is surely the point. And maybe that is what Art of the Troubles finally does – it shows, via a sequence of exceptional paintings, drawings, sculptures, films and installations, that not only can visual art record inhumanity, it can, in the end, question and help to conquer it.

Art of the Troubles continues at the Ulster Museum, Belfast until September 8.