Art that bears witness, but is it time to leave themes of the Troubles behind?

Detail from sculpture from 'Women of Belfast' series by FE McWilliam (1909-1992), courtesy of the Ulster Museum
Detail from sculpture from 'Women of Belfast' series by FE McWilliam (1909-1992), courtesy of the Ulster Museum

A new exhibition of art at the Ulster Museum in Belfast by multiple artists explores some of the darkest days of the Troubles. JOANNE SAVAGE reviews this often provocative collection and wonders if we have begun to worry over the past - in art and as a society - at the expense of future-building

Over the years there have been innumerable novels, plays and of course paintings, sculptures, lectures, poetry and exhibitions of archive material related to or exploring the themes of Northern Ireland’s violent past, so that today many may feel fed-up by the glut of conflict-focused art. Further, many may feel that we have become so obsessed with looking backwards and worrying over past atrocities in art and literature that we have made it more difficult to build a future-forward and progressive Northern Ireland. But we cannot gloss over the evils of the past either - remembrance and bearing witnesss are supposed to be important ways of ensuring history does not repeat itself in a terrible, infinite loop.

This exhibition delves deep into the horrors that befell the Province since the outbreak of the Troubles proper in 1969.

One of the first pieces to draw one’s attention among this collection is a grey, black and white impression of the face of hunger striker Bobby Sands. Depicted in plastic pegs on board with a black and white accordion attached and suspended, the accordion plays an awful sound of threat, fear and danger incessantly. ‘Ballad No. 1’ (1992), as it is titled, by Philip Napier, fills the exhibition room, creating an atmosphere of tension and foreboding as the ugly facts of the Troubles are explored through a gaze that is unblinking and with a palpable moral conscience that implicitly condemns the ugliness of bigotry, hate and intransigence that fed the so-called ‘dirty war’.

Rita Duffy’s ‘Veil’, 2002, an installation piece in mixed media, constructs a prison cell in wood. Grey, prism-shaped, and decayed outside with window slatches, you peer inside to see walls painted blood red, symbolic of sacrifice and suffering, and suspended glass droplets like frozen tears.

Paul Seawright’s photographic work is the brutal past captured so as to make you stop, gaping. His ‘Sectarian Murder Series’ shows images of desolate spaces where the bodies of murder victims were recovered, sparse lines from newspaper reportage of what had occurred there repeated beneath the photograph. Names are omitted deliberately so that the religion or political affiliation of the victim is unknown.

The titles of these images are simply the dates of each atrocity. The ‘22nd September, 1972’ piece leaves one breathless; a sense of sickened communal guilt that such horror should ever have been visited on another human being. An image of land strewn with debris, an abandoned shoe and battered suitcase, a darkening, obscure backdrop is suspended above irrevocable fact. It reads: ‘The man left to go to the bar for a drink, and never returned. He was found the following morning dumped on waste ground behind the Glencairn estate. He had been stabbed in the back and chest, and his body showed signs of torture.’ The horror is almost beyond language.

Elsewhere in the exhibition is a powerful image of a grey, drab building by Willie Doherty with ‘GOD HAS NOT FAILED US’ across the foreground; and at times, in the mire of murder, hatred and semtex, it must have felt this way. But the Troubles were a man-made creation, decades of atrocity based on a human failure to love; hope eluded us, and we were guilty of the ‘inability to re-imagine the future’ - as double Turner Prize winnerDoherty diagnoses the Northern Irish problem in his video installation ‘Remains’ (2013).

Elsewhere, there were a selection of powerful paintings including TP Flanagan’s ‘Remains’ - a corpse sheathed in cloth, so still and beyond the bustle and vulgarity of life, gone to a divine repose that has nothing to do with our petty sectarian battles. Jack Pakenham’s ‘Peace Talks’ (1992) seems to show politicians as trippy, surrealist mannequins controlled by shadowy forces, his painting heavy with symbolism. Meanwhile Joseph McWilliams’ ‘May the Lord in his Mercy be Kind to Belfast, II’ (1988) is a triptych of Sammy Wilson, Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson which suggests the artist’s scepticism about their aptitude to lead.

John Keane’s ‘The Other Cheek?’’ is a profound oil painting that interrogates a statement allegedly made by paramilitaries when they were asked to explain their constant need to retaliate with bullets and bombs: “What do you expect us to do? Turn the other cheek?” they had mockingly asked, implicitly mocking words that Jesus had spoken when asked how one should deal with one’s enenemies. Keane’s painting depicts the horror that ensues when we decide to ignore this divine directive: destruction, corrugated iron separating people, the injured prone, all of us mired in a hell of perpetual blame, injury, rage and guilt.

One of my favourite pieces is from the ‘Women of Belfast’ series by the hugely under-celebrated Banbridge sculptor FE McWilliam (1909-1992). This elegant yet disturbing bronze shows one woman flung dramatically, in static motion, suspended mid-flight, her skirts about her head, arms flailing and frantic, during the Abercorn Bombing of 1972. Here the subject’s limbs are graceful and yet the whole is distorted by terror and the force contorting her form into a shocked and terrified pose that sums up much about the horror of bomb blast. Here is the cruelty of it, a woman flung like a ballerina in some terrible and awry dance, the world about her jolting, juddering violently, whispering death. One of Northern Ireland’s finest sculptors, McWilliam again captures the essence of something vital about the conflict here, and he does so in a medium that is perhaps most difficult to fully capture emotion in, casting bronze that captures movement in stasis.

This is by no means an easy exhibition to peruse, and one that challenges viewers to become intimate with the pain and loss suffered by so many throughout the conflict. We are confronted with the brutality, the hatred, the violations of human rights, and perhaps many of us come away thinking: how and why did this happen to us here in Northern Ireland? Maybe we leave asking ourselves difficult questions: did we really do enough to love our neighbour regardless of whether they celebrated the Twelfth or wanted a united Ireland?

Anyone who lived through the Troubles will come away from this exhibition with hard questions to ask themselves, our political representatives and the paramilitaries from both sides of the community who meted out a rough justice they had no moral or legal authority to execute, destroying the fabric of Northern Ireland with each trigger pulled, each curse of hatred in the act of violence a sin before God and against a civic body that deserved only peace and unity.

The Art of the Troubles exhibition continues at the Ulster Museum until September 7, 2014. Visit