Peacebuilding and the arts: reaching the future through the past — murals

Peace cannot be kept by force. Conference: Building Momentum for Peace. Skainos Centre, Belfast, Northern Ireland. @GlobalPeace @CDPB_NI @CooperationIrl @BeyondSkin (c) Allan LEONARD @MrUlster

Peacebuilding and the arts: reaching the future through the past — murals
by Jack FARRAR
6 October 2023

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

If you have spent any time in Northern Ireland, it will come as no surprise that our discussion of visual art now turns to murals. They are a defining feature of our urban landscape, with about 300 on display in Belfast alone. Many of these murals are overtly political. They commemorate dead soldiers, celebrate past battles, mourn lost civilians, and remember injustices.

There is a popular narrative that these murals, depicting the region’s past and present political and religious divisions, are anathema to a society seeking to build peace. It is said that the Irish have an unhealthy obsession with remembering, continually resurrecting the past through symbols and stories which fan the flames of hatred and contribute to a seemingly endless cycle of violent struggle. In this view, murals are not merely innocent expressions of cultural identity, but they reproduce past traumas under the excuse of commemoration and, as Paula Schmitt argues, “reincarnate the bitterness of the old victim into the vengeance of the new perpetrator”. The judgement of these murals as harmful has long been influential, leading to a government-funded scheme to oversee their removal as part of the peace process, the Reimaging Communities Programme. If memory was the cause of popular prejudice and sectarian division, then surely forgetting was the solution. Who could oppose an initiative designed to replace offensive imagery, alleviate past anxieties, and ultimately break the cycle of violence? 

Bill Rolston, however, questions the motivation of this programme and offers a more nuanced and textured account of the political murals of Northern Ireland. Informed by the study of collective memory, Rolston considers murals to be dynamic sites of political activity that bridge the past and the future, making the present tolerable. He acutely recognises that to understand murals, we must understand memory. The cessation of armed conflict ignites a new battle: a struggle over the meaning of the past. A window is opened for less powerful groups to shape their memories and for previously censored narratives to challenge the supremacy of the official interpretation (p. 292):

“What is involved is a dialectical struggle between those official memories of the powerful which seek to be hegemonic and the counter-hegemonic interpretations of other groups in society, especially those who have been marginalized and oppressed.”

In the face of prevailing narratives that seek to marginalise their experiences, communities are reluctant to abandon their old symbols and beliefs. These symbols, after all, were relied upon for psychological support in the darkest days of the conflict. 

Mural artists give visual expression to unspeakable experiences. The construction of meaning from what seems incomprehensible is declared by psychologist Eugen Koh as a critical step to recovering from trauma, and thus to peacebuilding:

“In the aftermath of trauma, in the face of the devastation to the psychic landscape of individuals and communities, where one is left speechless, when laws and taboos seem irrelevant, previously held values and beliefs severely challenged, and rituals and ceremonies are held with the feint [sic] hope of deriving meaning for one’s continuing existence, the creative aspect of culture is called upon to resurrect it from its broken, fragmented, and most basic forms.”

This is the transformative potential of art. The artist gives form to the unimaginable and facilitates the creation of shared community narratives, which guide the process of healing.

Republican memorials may initially appear stereotyped, decorated with predictable tribal symbols, Celtic crosses, and tricolours. But this, for Rolston, is to miss their point (p. 293): 

“Local people are not merely going through the motions of acknowledgement. Here, as in memorials in other areas, the symbols are accompanied by a list of the names of the dead. This immediately locates the memorial as being redolent of emotion that is close to home; these are sons, daughters, parents, neighbours.”

Symbolism is equally central to the construction of identity in Loyalist communities. The Union flags and British crowns that are intimately woven into working-class Loyalist streets “are not displays of a semi-remote, à la carte Britishness, but symbols which speak to the community about what they have experienced” (p. 294). Rolston incisively argues that the premature removal of these flags and symbols does not merely question the identity of the living, but betrays the memory of their dead. To avoid diverse representations of the conflict is to deny the suffering experienced by many communities in Northern Ireland.  

It is crucial to approach the delicate mural question with nuance. Some works of public art portray outright depictions of sectarian violence and hatred, are deeply offensive, and repeatedly provoke trauma for victims. In such instances, adopting an absolutist stance of uncritical conservation would likely be a bulwark against progress. Nevertheless, we should exercise caution when removing them, recognising that murals often accommodate complex community narratives that rest beneath their surface symbolism. The long tradition of murals in Northern Ireland is a story enmeshed in the memory, hurt, and healing of the people living here. Any future development ought to be nurtured within the working-class communities where the murals are painted, rather than imposed upon them through a top-down process of intervention.

Commentators who deride murals and memory as merely anachronistic extensions of tribal politics fail to appreciate the dynamic nature of symbolism. On the contrary, embracing trusted symbols can help prepare communities for change and the daunting task of reconciliatory political reform. Traditional murals are a familiar hand to hold as we creep anxiously towards an unknown future. French painter Georges Braque famously declared that art is meant to disturb, as science reassures. However, when the artist is working in an already disturbed society, their greatest function may be to comfort us. The way forward, therefore, is through remembering rather than forgetting. 


Neil Jarman: “Painting Landscapes: The Place of Murals in the Symbolic Construction of Urban Space

Eugen Koh: “Art, Healing and Northern Ireland

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

Paula Schmitt: Advertised to Death: Lebanese Poster Boys

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