CURATING Portrait of Northern Ireland: Neither an elegy nor a manifesto, has been a Herculean task – and sensitive to it.
Speaking to me last week as the final touches were made to the exhibition, which opened to the public at the Golden Thread Gallery in Belfast yesterday, curator Shan McAnena explains that because of Covid-19, his work began in May.
The task of sifting through and selecting works ranging from sheet music to today would have taken three times as long before the pandemic – albeit with the help of an advisory board and the support – albeit without artistic interference – from the Northern Ireland office, they pulled it out together.
“It would normally have lasted a year and a half, but we got there,” says McAnena.
“I wanted to showcase the best Northern Irish artists and their work, but we knew it would be complex and sensitive. That’s why we came up with John Hewitt’s line, ‘Neither an elegy nor a manifesto’.”
The result is magnificent. It’s elegant, stimulating on the importance of the fact that Northern Ireland is now 100 years old, sometimes playful and ultimately moving.
It explores our very identity. The title of the exhibit, as stated, is the title of one of John Hewitt’s poems that opens with the line “Keep These Dead In Mind”.
We can’t avoid that in the Troubles section, where aesthetically you witness the birth of a terrible beauty via Joseph McWilliams’ large canvas capturing an Orange and Woman of Belfast V parade by FE McWilliam. This small sculpture shows a falling figure, taken in the Abercorn Tea Bombing of Rooms in Belfast in March 1972. It is pretty, doomed and anonymous. We do not know his name, so there is a universality in his suffering.
Speaking to one of the team working in the gallery, the young woman in her twenties noticed that her favorite photo was probably Victor Sloan’s Holding The Rope, showing a little girl jumping in chaos and violence Troubles all around. She said she loved him because it reflected what she grew up with.
But there’s a bigger picture, so to speak, and the non-chronological show is imaginatively divided into sections, starting with A Sense of Place.
After noticing an elegant poster from the 1930s inviting you to tour Ulster via the Cunard Line, you see Paul Henry’s little lyrical landscape, In the West of Ireland (1921), one of the works of art you see. want to fly.
The Belfast-born artist, whose work has also appeared on posters, resonates through paintings of fishermen from the Republic and Donegal. This table therefore links us to the Pre-Partition, to the notion of the whole island of Ireland rather than to the jurisdictions created in 1921, following the Government of Ireland Act passed a year earlier.
The exhibition – which also has a place in the Belfast International Arts Festival program – runs at the Golden Thread Gallery until November 4.
McAnena, who has lived here for 30 years, is English and reveals that she was initially slightly hesitant to accept the role, saying the show was not “50 percent Catholic, 50 percent Protestant work.”
She notes: “It is not for the artist to produce a documentary but it is interesting that the artists here can identify themselves as Irish, British, Northern Irish and European.
“We approached over 140 artists and only six said ‘No’, and not all for political reasons. But art can break through labels, offering everything from provocation to joy.”
It is a nuanced spectacle. You cannot easily categorize the north or its artistic production.
Gretta Bowen’s lovely canvas, for example, is a magnificent slice of brut art titled Country Match of the Day, showing exuberant footballers painted using her son’s can of paint, does not belong to the labels of ‘the history of art.
In the second space, titled A New Tradition, you see local portraits of well-to-do bourgeois, a young mother pushing her baby in a pram.
There are breaks with convention already, and Emma Connolly’s I Hear Dogs Barking uses a cute palette to convey a nightmarish scene. The big dog terrorizes the foreground on the large canvas, his teeth visible like a Francis Bacon monster, while a small car seems to turn around behind him; everything is false.
Then we reach the Encounters with Modernism, a European movement. So this visual definition from Our Story in the Making shows that Northern Ireland is here and there, European and British.
Notable works occupy this space, including White Shapes Entering by William Scott. It’s a beautiful abstract work, using monochrome shapes inspired by the humble frying pan. Not an Ulster fry, then, but something that ranks with the production of big internationals such as Alexander Calder.
The important point is that Northern Ireland cannot be simply defined as orange and green territory; it is far beyond and greater than that. In a sense, the exhibition shows a nation united culturally or at least connected by its talent.
McAnena says the show’s ability to resist labels illustrates “the effort of people to understand what it means to live and be a part of Northern Ireland.”
No matter how serious the political and sectarian differences, Northern Ireland as a brand is very creative and strikes well above its weight in all the arts.
Ireland is often seen as a place of writing, but it’s clear that visual art works too.
“Writing is important, but Northern Ireland is also a visual place and is now celebrated for its fine and applied arts,” observes McAnena.
There is a cross here with a cute portrait of Michael Longley in his living room by Jeffrey Morgan.
You must ask yourself, however, if art can ever heal division or help people solve problems.
As McAnena explains, anger can be inspirational as well as softer emotions, and we discuss the Belfast murals, one of which is depicted in a work in the Conflict section.
“We need art, and I think there’s something heroic about people who become artists because it’s not the best paid profession,” she says.
Although the works of the best-known artists sell for tens, sometimes hundreds of thousands, the curator mentions the importance of private collectors who, along with museums, keep the art world alive.
You leave after seeing a portrait of a young man who looks worried and thoughtful, although his eyes may have a humorous or semi-optimistic expression.
This subtle painting, Just to Feel Normal by Ian Cumberland, may indicate depression, and mental health is another theme in the exhibition.
Or maybe his face sums up our feelings about the past hundred years. There may not be a simple conclusion to The Making of our Story, the phrase featured in the exhibition program.
Philip Napier’s fascinating installation, Ballad No 2 (Antonio Gramsci) is accompanied by a raucous two-chord melody from the attached accordion. The sound is harsh, like a dying breath, and the work was first exhibited at the British School in Rome where the artist studied. It contains a photo of the Italian Communist Gramsci who died in a fascist prison but appears to have broader terms of reference.
I spoke to artists Catherine McWilliams and her son Simon, who each have works in the exhibit.
Her 1973 painting Girls on a Motorcycle has a resonance, as she explains: “It was about this time of year that I painted it and on such a dark evening. I saw these young girls, two or three on big bikes, some in the back wearing the fashion of the day, short dresses, and those big, bulky shoes. There was light coming from a building behind them. “
One of the bikers was accused of being a member of the IRA, and the lawyer representing her ultimately purchased the painting which the artist said he found funny. Catherine layered the bright image with dark gray, to reflect how the period felt.
His son Simon has a light painting of the Palm House in the Botanic Gardens, the Kew Gardens style greenhouse in Belfast designed by Charles Lanyon.
It is a large canvas and the building almost seems to float in its setting. We are moving to stand alongside the massive and impressive work of Catherine’s late husband, Joseph McWilliams, in the Chronicling Conflict section.
Entitled Twelfth Parade, North Queen St, it’s colorful, energetic, and rather beautiful, until you realize the context is a cult-fueled dead end. The deliberately blurry and exciting execution of detail, with what looks like brushstrokes applied quickly, gives a sense of action that isn’t immediately disturbing.
The exhibition has been brought up to date with a room dedicated to the work of young graduates of the Belfast School of Art.
We immediately notice a superb self-portrait of Adela Puterkova, who photographed herself naked, but only showing a gloriously plump and anonymous half-body. Defying supposed notions of slim attractiveness and current reflections on body image, Puterkova is reminiscent of Jenny Saville’s beautiful oversized nudes.
Elsewhere, there are other self-portraits – one showing a girl with a ponytail, another a young woman watching in footage shot from the center of a childlike stylized daisy shape.
Its expression ranges from uncertainty to happiness and thoughtfulness – much like the expressions of anyone lucky enough to visit this exhibit.