“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 becoming increasingly recognised in Northern Ireland as a channel for community development and regeneration. They allow us to better understand our society and ourselves. As Northern Ireland’s awareness and participation in the arts develops, contentious subjects are being confronted and boundaries overcome.
The Arts Council Northern Ireland’s most recent five-year plan has come to an end and has seen hundreds of successful arts projects bridging communities and approaching sensitive issues in a still turbulent society. ‘Creative Connections’ (2007–2012) gave funding across Northern Ireland and championed festivals and projects that provoked discourse and debate across the island. The five-year plan set out with a simple prerogative:
“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 endeavor 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. They helped encourage a 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.
Numerous other projects that aspire to promote tolerance and community building have taken place across Northern Ireland. Several of these projects work 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 brings together young people from cross communities along with the PSNI to inspire and motivate them through the arts. ICAN Playhouse in Derry-Londonderry carried out the project in 2012. 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 and others’ communities and showed them a way to express themselves creatively.
See the video for further information about the project:
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
The Northern Ireland Foundation’s volunteer, Andrea Valeiras, attended the event; see her article here.
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 by people themselves, so that audiences can 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 production sought to heal and reconcile intertwined and shared histories. The production toured in November 2012 and will be touring internationally throughout 2013.
The Exile: forum-theatre by Jonathan Burgess (staged across Derry-Londonderry)
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,
“The Exile is about allowing a story to be told, and heard. The purpose is not about point scoring — it’s about building peace” — Jonathan Burgess (writer)
The new five-year plan, ‘Ambition for the Arts: 5 Year Strategic Plan 2013–2018’ has set out to assess and develop previous arts projects. It is clear that community arts are have encouraged cohesion, provoked discussion and celebrated diversity. It is also prevalent, however, that projects need to achieve long-term goals and build and maintain the momentum that they begin 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.
Websites of interest
- Arts and Culture in Northern Ireland
- Community Arts Partnership
- New Belfast Community Arts Initiative
- Arts Council (Intercultural Arts Strategy) Report
- Art Council NI ‘Creative Connections’ — 5 year plan 2007–2012
- Community Relations Council
- Peace III Programme
- Arts Council NI programme ‘Re-Imagining Communities’
- Can Peace III
Centres for the arts
- The Playhouse, Derry-Londonderry
- ICAN Playhouse, Derry-Londonderry
- Beyond Skin: ‘Addressing racism and sectarianism through multi-cultural arts and media’, Belfast
- Replay Productions, Belfast
- Belfast Exposed, Belfast
Research by Chloe O’Malley.
Last updated: 14 April 2013