The news grabbing aspect of this exhibition in Belfast's Golden Thread Gallery is the appearance of Conrad Atkinson’s ‘Silver Liberties’ (1978), his savage response to an earlier Royal Jubilee. It is back in Belfast for the first time since it was turfed out of the Ulster Museum in a still notorious controversy.
Does it stand the test of time? Decidedly an angry agitprop work of the moment, it features the Bloody Sunday dead, a wall mural of a disembodied Brit ‘pig’ figure, and a gallery of contemporary IRA and Orange images on three panels in the green, white and gold of the Irish tricolour, and with another for supporting statements. It is too busy for its own good.
Certainly FE McWilliams’s 1972 sculpture of a woman caught in the IRA bombing of the Abercorn restaurant endures. All the more so because this exhibition, the eighth in the Golden Thread's Collective Histories of Northern Irish Art series, is curated by Maírtin Ó Muilleoir who may be ‘civic leader and entrepreneur’ and ‘commissioner’ and ‘collector’ of political art, but is also a Sinn Feiner.
He recalls how, when Sinn Fein met the Arts Council of Northern Ireland circa 1987, their hosts placed the McWilliams statue in the middle of the table. The Sinn Feiners didn’t know then what it represented, but Ó Muilleoir does now. it says in a way that only art can that ‘this is wrong’.
You would expect O’Muilleoir’s narrative to include the hunger strikes. Indeed, there are posters that he had a hand in. Brian O’Doherty’s 1989 ‘H-block’ is massive, a contemporary statement that the issue would not go away, and there is no more to be said of it.
Elsewhere the prison experience is reflected in Brian Vallely’s skilfully representational interior of the Crumlin Road gaol in ‘View From the Circle’ (1969), while Rita Duffy’s ‘Veil’ (2001) is constructed out of cell doors from Armagh jail – look through the peepholes and you see tears made of glass.
The world of surveillance has never been better captured than in Locky Morris’s ‘Town, Country and People’ (1985 - 86) where all life is lived in cones of light from helicopters circling above.
Jo McWilliams’s ‘May the Lord in His Mercy be Kind to Belfast’ (1988) is a triptych of Sammy Wilson, Ian Paisley, and Peter Robinson. In this subversion of official portraiture, Wilson and Paisley are bedecked in tattered regalia and their rictus like smiles come through large yellowing teeth, while Robinson is impossibly formal, prim, and uptight.
Compare this with Robert Ballagh’s sympathetic official portrait of Alex Maskey, as first Sinn Fein Lord Mayor of Belfast in 2002. There is no longer any need for McWilliams’s heretical approach. Maskey is simply surrounded by an idealised multi-cultural citizenry under the slogan ‘City of Equals’. Perhaps this was what the war was about.
Certainly there is no appearance here of an idealised Ireland. Instead we have Michael Farrell’s ‘Villa Romana’, subtitled ‘The First Real Irish Political Picture’(1974). In it fair Erin transmutes into Miss O’Murphy spreadeagled naked on a couch awaiting clients, or, alternatively, on a butchers slab as her body parts are labelled. She is wearing one blood red stocking with the knee-cap helpfully identified.
Dermot Seymour’s ‘On the Balcony of the Nation’ (1989) subverts its portentous title, as it is dominated by a lovingly observed cow which is accidentally breaking off the Northern Ireland part of the island!
Back north Conrad Atkinson comes centre stage again with his ‘Some Wounds Healing; Some Birds Singing’ (2007), an absolute contrast to the rage of ‘Silver Liberties’ in 1978. Here we have the ‘chuckle brothers’ McGuiness and Paisley (pictured above), as individual portraits made up of fragments including images from the Book of Kells and a line from Bobby Sands. Even in this larger form they both look the same.
The sameness becomes ubiquitous in wallpaper endlessly repeating the two portraits in miniature, and relieved only by a picture of a bedraggled bird, and this a reference to Bobby Sands’s last diary entry, ‘Bhí na héiníní ag ceiliúradh innui / The birds were singing today’. It was no doubt in this spirit that Atkinson celebrated our new order. Only the more sceptical of us reflect that wallpaper often covers cracks!
One of them is the Pat Finucane case, and Ballagh is still capable of a powerful thrust in an older style, as in his chilling 2010 portrait. Here we are looking at a framed photograph of the kind given a place of honour in many a household, except the glass here has been smashed by a bullet and blood spurts from the image behind.
The children of Bunscoil Bheann Mhadagáin have no such cares as they dance into the future with their own representations of comic superheroes reflecting one of Ó Muilleoir’s enduring enthusiasms.
The exhibition comes with a catalogue priced at £10 reproducing key images and including an eloquent essay by Ó Muilleoir.
Tears in Rain/Deora San Fhearthainn runs until December 3.