Northern Ireland mural art reflects its hardships and terror
Challenging Place: ICAN Conference 2013
by Antoinette MARSHALL
2 March 2013
The International Culture of Arts Network Conference — Changing Place — kicked off to a good start, opening with a variety of speakers who address current political issues surrounding Northern Ireland at present. The conference was an opportunity for speakers and artists of many forms to come together and examine how the arts challenge the people and place of Derry/Londonderry and other conflict/post-conflict cities around the world, drawing inspiration from national and international practices.
The conference was opened up and introduced by Hjalmar Joffre Eichhorn from the Afghanistan Human Rights and Democracy Organisation. Liam O’Dowd, Gillian Robinson and Aisling Shannon then took the lead on issues involving physical boundaries in conflict cities with a series of presentations. One of the topics covered here by two PhD architecture students of Queen’s University Belfast was about planning for spatial reconciliation on interface lines and the geographical limitations of areas such as North Belfast, where children and adults alike were disadvantaged due to certain public services located on or near peace lines. Gillian Robinson then expressed some ideas about how the people of Belfast feel about the peace walls, drawing upon a survey on the public’s ideas and attitudes towards them. A brief outline of this suggested that many residents of Belfast felt that peace walls offered them a sense of security, whilst a handful of others suggested that peace walls ruin the tourist attraction of Belfast and Northern Ireland.
Declan Mc Gonagle, a founder of the National College of Art and Design, Dublin, expressed his ideas on what he thought the role of the arts in cities of conflict should be. Mural art and otherwise intimidating graffiti, he felt, was recognition of the many hardships and terror the people of Northern Ireland did face once upon a time, and therefore these pieces were historically important. Graeme Farrow from the City of Culture 2013 board elaborated on this, by discussing the role of Derry-Londonderry as a City of Culture and how art offers a form of expression and release for people in politically challenged areas.
Natasha Davis, an international performance artist, graced the stage in the afternoon with, Internal Terrains, exploring the transformation of private and public spaces through performance and visual art. Discussions on this piece were related to identity, which crossed over with the identity issues that Northern Ireland has been facing particularly recently. ICAN artist in-residence, Khaled Barakeh, from Syria, talked about how political issues influence his work, which he presented during the conference. He discussed how art, amongst war and terrorism, could also be used as a weapon in itself, as well as the role of art and journalism in political activism.
The late afternoon presentations examined young people’s relationship with time and place. Sgt. Sam Young from the PSNI delivered a speech on the project, Street Talk, a short video addressing young people’s ideas and opinions on the policing services of Northern Ireland, how they are affected by this, and how they have become involved in the community by making use of the arts to express their ideas and opinions. Robyn Busman from the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program showed us a band of mural work, which was produced in Philadelphia in conjunction with their youth, expressing powerful messages and opinions on juvenile and young criminal convictions. Ms Busman also discussed her program work in regard to the police service and young offenders, namely offering prison convicts an alternative form of retribution via the mural arts program. Paul Smyth, founder of WIMPS (Where is my Public Servant) was emphatic on the subject of young people getting involved in politics; he was particularly interested in exploring their ideas and opinions via the use of media and technology. Mr Smyth showcased a variety of short videos that the youth produced using a camera, editing, presenting and acting skills via the various WIMPS programmes, to express their ideas on issues they feel are important and current in Northern Ireland at the moment.
The morning and afternoon discussions and presentations were followed by a series of workshops with artists and speakers. Murals to Explore Segregation: Ernel Martinez — a mural artist hailing from Philadelphia — took the participants through an engaging artistic workshop, where the users had the opportunity to make a piece of mural art and ask the artist questions about art forms, his work and the mural art program. The Music and Storytelling to Explore Peace Walls: Roy Arbuckle — encircled his group of participants with music for storytelling skills and ideas, whilst many of the people there told stories relating to childhood memories of the troubles and other political notes about the history of Derry-Londonderry and religious segregation. Both drama workshops, Theatre to Explore Perceptions and Attitudes by Idan Meir and Contemporary Performance to Explore Inclusion with Greg Whelan, were also part of the two-day workshops and involved the participants working together to devise a short performance piece, which they showcased on day two of the conference. The first day of the conference closed with a wine reception and finger buffet at the Contemporary Centre of Art.
The ICAN conference began the next day with speakers Paul Devlin, Laurence Roman, Sandie Fisher and Dave Duggan. Their video showcase, Data Roaming, was a piece of film devised as an experimental video using sound to address political issues within time and space. Mr Devlin stated that this was an exploration into the ideas of state borders as historical and disputed locations. Following the video presentation there was a short Q&A for the audience, about using space and place as an inhibitor for artists of many disciplines. Todd Lester, an executive producer from Global Arts Corp, covered the second half of the morning with his presentation and discussion on creating theatre to use as a method of reconciliation in societies where violence and crime take many forms due to political and religious segregation. Gregg Whelan, the creator of Lone Twin, described his inventive performance company. Gregg’s most recent works are Street Dance, a piece made for the Sydney International Festival, and The Boat Project, made for the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad.
There were also presentations of the art and theatre/storytelling pieces that the participants at the conference took part in during the first day. The conference finished with Lisa Fitzpatrick, head of Drama at the University of Ulster.
All in all, the weekend’s events at the ICAN conference presented a worthwhile, informative and enjoyable two days for both speakers and participants alike.