“Well, art is art, isn’t it? Still, on the other hand, water is water. And east is east and west is west and if you take cranberries and stew them like applesauce they taste much more like prunes than rhubarb does. Now you tell me what you know.”— Groucho Marx
The arts are recognised as a channel for community development and regeneration in Northern Ireland. They allow us to better understand our society and ourselves. Evermore participants address contentious subjects and transform traditional divisions.
Examples are found in a five-year programme funded by the Arts Council Northern Ireland, “Creative Connections”, which ran from 2007 to 2012. This included festivals and projects that provoked discourse and debate across the island. As the Arts Council explained:
“By expressing their artistic freedom, artists can bring about much-needed discussion on the issues facing society. An open society recognises this principle and that everyone, no matter what background they come from, is entitled to enjoy culture and the arts.”
“The public representation of the community separation has taken the form of a widespread and often remarkable incidence of public symbolic displays, including marches, banners, flags, wall paintings, bunting, and painted kerbstones. These displays are normally sectarian, antagonistic and offensive, and are intended as visible and unambiguous statements of opposition and aggression”— The Re-Imagining Communities Programme
Rather than focus on such negative expressions, arts programmes endeavour to celebrate diversity, enlighten and explore Northern Ireland’s rich heritage, all with a look to a shared future. The Re-Imagining communities programme set out to address such problems of sectarian symbolism by combining a community-based approach with creativity and expression.
The programme saw that sectarian and racist displays were removed and communities visually transformed. Over 160 community regeneration projects were carried out. These involved planting trees, tidying, cleaning, and painting shared spaces. This helped to encourage greater social integration and address sectarian attitudes presented in murals, emblems and slogans throughout the counties. Some of these were replaced with more positive imagery that reflects the aspirations of the communities.
As a result, these shared spaces have become less intimidating and more welcoming to all sections of the community.
There have been other projects that aspire to promote tolerance and community building in Northern Ireland. Several worked on the basis that through art, one is able to gain individual perspective by appreciating others. The theory is that this appreciation will then extend beyond the arts and help encourage equality and a mutual respect among segregated communities.
ICAN The Playhouse: Street Talk project
The Street Talk project brought together young people from across communities, along with the PSNI, to inspire and motivate them through the arts. ICAN Playhouse in Derry/Londonderry carried out the project. Using graffiti, animation, DJing, and light box art, young people explored issues of sectarianism and anti-social behaviour. The project encouraged the participants to take an interest in their own communities as well as in others’. This helped individuals to find ways of expressing themselves creatively.
Erik Ehn at the ICAN Conference
In 2010, The ICAN hosted a conference at The Playhouse in Derry/Londonderry, ‘Conflict/Post-Conflict Societies and Creative Intervention’. Erik Ehn of Brown University gave his well-informed international perspective with regards to the role of the arts as a tool to overcome conflict.
“Theatre and peace are siblings”— Erik Ehn
Theatre of Witness: A new version of performance where art and social justice meet
Theatre of Witness is a model of performance that gives voice to those whose stories have not been heard in society. The true-life stories of people from diverse backgrounds are performed as first-hand accounts. Audiences collectively bear witness to issues of suffering, redemption, and social justice.
Release is a production by the Theatre of Witness, which sees men from Northern Ireland come to terms with the legacy of their past. Some of the performers included ex-prisoners, a former RUC detective, a British soldier, and a man who had been blown up by a car bomb as a child. Each one shared a true story of their experiences during the Troubles and beyond.
The Exile: Forum theatre by Jonathan Burgess
The Exile brought together six short community dramas to reflect the experience of exile by members of the Protestant community who were part of the population movement between 1969 and 1979, otherwise known as the ‘exodus’. Each performance was followed by a short discussion in which the audience was encouraged to participate and share their thoughts and understandings of the ‘exodus’. All sides of the community were invited to participate. The forum-theatre sought to confront the past in order to share a bright future, as explained by writer, Jonathan Burgess: “The Exile is about allowing a story to be told, and heard. The purpose is not about point scoring — it’s about building peace.”
Community arts have encouraged cohesion, provoked discussion, and celebrated diversity. It is also prevalent, however, that projects need to achieve long-term goals and build, in order to maintain the momentum which they start off with.
The arts allow us to question our own preconceptions and open up to a multitude of possibilities — to reach beyond polarised cultures and politics. With this in mind, the future development of the arts in Northern Ireland must continue to bridge communities and encourage social cohesion with anticipation for a shared future.
Research by Chloe O’Malley.
Last updated: 14 April 2013