Peacebuilding and the arts: playing to the gallery (and art museums)

Permanent Present by Mark Garry. The MAC, Belfast, Northern Ireland. © Allan LEONARD @MrUlster

Peacebuilding and the arts: playing to the gallery (and art museums)
by Jack FARRAR
14 September 2023

This is the second in a series of articles about peacebuilding and the arts, exploring how creative practices help us revisit our past and reimagine our futures.

Walter Benjamin used the term “critical constellations” to describe how different fragments of ideas, concepts, history, art, literature, and culture come together to create moments of critical significance and reveal hidden connections between the past and present. He realised that understanding history and culture necessitates moving beyond a linear, chronological approach. Here, we explore several contemporary artworks as critical constellations in considering Northern Ireland’s relationship with its past.

For Vikki Bell, who recognised Benjamin’s insights in the work of Rita Duffy, art can expose rigid and often imprecise temporal labels:

“The task of dealing with the past is flawed wherever the past is conceived as a history that can be rendered present to be judged by subjects who are thereby placed beyond it.”

Many artworks hanging from gallery walls in Northern Ireland invite us to grapple with this truism in unique ways, critically questioning the present and its relation to both the past and the future. But first, let us step back for a moment.

Despite its small geographical size, Northern Ireland is a fertile ground for producing internationally renowned artists. Northern Irish galleries are blessed with a wealth of local talent, many of whom explore the Troubles through their practice. The Metropolitan Art Centre (MAC) in Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter offers an electric line-up of visual arts, theatre, and interactive workshops. Mark Garry’s The Permanent Present, the MAC’s only permanent artwork, is an impressive sculptural installation flowing through the main foyer that “reflects The Thomas Devlin Fund’s commitment to highlighting the futility of violence as well as the hopes and aspirations of our young people.” 

Also, the Centre for Contemporary Art Derry~Londonderry combines artistic responses to the conflict with research-based practices and public projects facilitating critical discourse. 

The Long Note by Helen Cammock; source: Vimeo

A short walk across town brings us to the Void Art Centre, priding itself on a challenging programme that doesn’t shy away from Northern Ireland’s violent past. In 2019, Void commissioned Helen Cammock to make a film celebrating the involvement of women in the civil rights movement in Derry. This film, The Long Note, was one of the joint recipients of the Turner Prize that year. 

Belfast Exposed, Northern Ireland’s leading photography organisation, transpired in the tumultuous aftermath of the 1980–1 hunger strikes with an exhibition documenting working-class life on both sides of the “peace wall”. Forging solidarities across Belfast’s sectarian divide and archiving community experiences of conflict remain as core to their ethos today as it was in their first exhibition.

Art of the Troubles; source: YouTube

Perhaps the most impressive of Northern Ireland’s art institutions are the national museums, housing more than 15,000 historical and contemporary artworks. In 2014, the Ulster Museum hosted Art of the Troubles, a major retrospective bringing together the work of 50 artists who responded to the conflict through their work. Challenging, nostalgic, and often painful, the exhibition offered valuable perspectives on Northern Ireland’s past. Their collection has continued to grow since the 2014 exhibition. Despite now housing the largest collection of artistic responses to the Troubles, they are still acquiring new work and uncovering new perspectives on the past. One artist exhibited is a Belfast-born child of the Troubles, Rita Duffy.

Art of the Troubles: Artist Rita Duffy; source: YouTube

Duffy, who describes her work as “deeply rooted in the Ulster experience”, frequently questions Northern Ireland’s relationship with history. Several of her paintings depict objects from piercing moments throughout the Troubles, provoking a fresh curiosity as they float in the art gallery. A series of paintings of a white cloth, devastating in their simplicity, conjure the powerful image of Father Daly waving his blood-stained handkerchief above a dying teenager during Bloody Sunday 1972. Let us also consider Relic (2001), a painting of a parka jacket lingering eerily against a black backdrop. An accompanying catalogue essay names the jacket as Mairéad Farrell’s, immediately reminding of the Gibraltar killings and the harrowing sequence of interwoven deaths that followed. 

Unlike a history museum, the art gallery lifts simple artefacts from their surrounding context and suspends them for contemplation without an accompanied narrative. It refuses to comment on the past from a detached present, acknowledging the legacy of these objects, these moments. The handkerchief, Bloody Sunday, the Gibraltar killings, the Milltown Cemetery attack, the corporals’ killings, and all that followed cannot be easily dismissed as history. The weight of trauma endures with time; healing is a process, not an event. Duffy’s paintings remind us of the impossibility of a present time that is beyond history, and the futility of reconciliatory mechanisms that relegate the events of the past to simply, well, events of the past, without considering their reproduction in the present.

Image “Dreams by Rita Duffy” by William Murphy used by license CC BY-SA

A more optimistic project probing the same theme is Duffy’s ambitious public art installation stretching down the Oxford Street façade of Lanyon Quay. Dreams (2004) consists of 40 portraits of children etched onto aluminium slabs in a series of grid formations. In the centre of each grid, a glass backlit panel contains rolled manuscripts onto which local children have recorded their dreams. The piece immediately facilitates a conversation between past and present by juxtaposing Northern Ireland’s industrial metal crafting heritage alongside children’s future aspirations. Aspirations which are, of course, locked behind a glass panel and exhibited as historic artefacts themselves. They are at once depictions of the future, written in the past, destined to an unheard liminal existence in the present. 

By prompting a reinterpretation of the relationship between past and present, Dreams further dares us to abandon rigid temporal distinctions between war and peace, to consider violence along a temporal continuum. This is a popular notion in feminist peace and conflict scholarship with significant implications for resulting violence mitigation strategies (for example, see Cynthia Cockburn). The theory of violence as a continuum, however, remains underdeveloped in the context of Northern Ireland. The importance of Rita Duffy’s intervention is only bolstered by this absence of continuum theory in popular narratives. For Vikki Bell, Dreams is not merely a commentary on social transition, but a questioning of peacebuilding efforts that treat the Troubles as a series of discrete historical events or legal cases (p. 327):

“Like the scrolls, the future is inaccessible, but it is linked to the activities of the present. How the past tears into the present, and how it is communicated across generations – on the level of affect as much as formally – makes the present vulnerable if state-led, legalistic modes alone define transitional efforts.”

This art guides us in imagining a healthier future that doesn’t seek to escape the torment of our past.

Artworks to be viewed by solitary museum-goers (or wanderers along Oxford Street) allow us to critically examine delicate topics without the distraction of grand narratives or transitional mechanisms that seek to circumscribe history. Free from the influence of language, galleries invite the sort of emotional engagement that John Paul Lederach, as explained in our Introduction article, holds to be invaluable to peacebuilding.


Vikki Bell: “Contemporary Art and Transitional Justice in Northern Ireland: The Consolation of Form

Walter Benjamin: The Arcades Project

Cynthia Cockburn: “The Continuum of Violence: A Gender Perspective on War and Peace

Graeme Gilloch: Walter Benjamin: Critical Constellations

Bill Rolston: “Trying to Reach the Future through the Past: Murals and Memory in Northern Ireland

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