Battle lines: 30 years of unseen 'Troubles' art

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From stylised depictions of Orange marches to frescoes of drive-by shootings, artists stood on the front line to ensure the 30-year conflict in Northern Ireland was chronicled for the world to see. But the world at large has never seen it – until now

A drizzly evening on the Falls Road. From the side of the red-brick Sinn Féin office, the face of Bobby Sands – boyish and wavy-haired, like a 1980s soccer star – beams down at the traffic crashing through the puddles. It's a messianic portrait from April 1981, showing the newly elected Irish republican MP in idealised good health – a far cry from the cadaverous protester who would die three weeks later, after 66 days on hunger strike in the Maze.

I turn off the main drag on the short drive into Belfast city centre, and am confronted by a very different scene. With a macabre civic pride that might be suited to some underground, alternative tourist brochure, a gun-wielding, balaclava-clad paramilitary greets me with the words: "You are now entering Loyalist Sandy Row, Heartland of South Belfast Ulster Freedom Fighters."

Each of these images is as emblematic as the other of the deep tribal divisions that bedevilled this city through the siege years of the Troubles – and the stuttering grass-roots dialogue, scored into its fabric, that long pre-dated formal peace talks. Crude and amateur though they appear, for those of us who witnessed the 30-year conflict from a safe distance – indeed, for many who lived through it in Northern Ireland – such murals are also as near to "art" as anything that emerged from the province during that time.

But all this is about to change. This Wednesday, the Arts Council of Northern Ireland will use its annual conference to unveil a new digital archive showcasing work by a "lost generation" of artists who devoted much of their careers, with tepid support from the cultural establishment, to chronicling their experiences of the Troubles. Works by Victor Sloan and John Kindness – whose stylised depictions of Orange marches and drive-by shootings respectively escaped to temporary exhibitions as distant as Finland and Brazil in the 1980s, but found few venues willing to air them in Ulster – will be displayed alongside lesser-known practitioners, including some whose art has never before been seen outside their own sectarian communities.

Accompanying the visual art will be Troubles-inspired poetry by Seamus Heaney, Ciaran Carson, and Pulitzer Prize winner Paul Muldoon – on "loan" from Emory University, Atlanta. There are also 12 specially commissioned essays, including one by Carson and another by former BBC Northern Ireland correspondent Fergal Keane, chair of this week's conference.

The digital archive is only the beginning. October sees the grand reopening of Belfast's Ulster Museum following a three-year, £17.2m refurbishment. The new-look attraction will take visitors on a millennia-spanning journey through history, beginning with an exhibition of Mesolithic hand tools and culminating in the province's first permanent gallery dedicated to the 1968-98 conflict. Amid relics of the fighting itself, such as bullet-strewn boots and the shirt worn by founding Social Democratic and Labour Party leader Gerry Fitt when he was bludgeoned by a police baton at a civil-rights rally, will hang yet more artwork. Iconic photographs of Bloody Sunday marches will be juxtaposed with paintings such as Ulster Crucifixion – a triptych by Troubles "war artist" Ken Howard, depicting a boy dangling from a lamppost, sandwiched between walls daubed with loyalist and republican graffiti.

But why has Northern Ireland, and the world at large, had to wait so long to view so much of this work – and what makes present circumstances so much more conducive to exhibiting it than those of 10, or even five, years ago?

"With the best will in the world, some things couldn't have happened during the Troubles," explains Andrea Rea, the arts council's Troubles archivist, who's spent three years sourcing work, clearing copyright and smoothing over sensitivities to compile the archive. "It's a testament to the spirit here that people continued to produce art, theatre, and so on, at all.

"The artistic legacy of the Troubles is an important body of work in itself – not just in relation to what's happening politically. When I started researching this using the council's archive, I discovered that there was speculation years ago about the need to collect together these artworks. It didn't happen then, but there's a sense the time has come."

Despite occasional "reminders of the bad old days" (she refers to recent shootings by IRA splinter groups), the resumption of devolution at Stormont marked, she argues, as opportune a moment as there will ever be to start confronting Ulster's collective memory of the Troubles. When early suggestions – including the republicans' favoured option, a Conflict Transformation Centre at the Maze Prison site, or some form of physical archive in Belfast's "Titanic Quarter" – proved divisive, a digital resource was the obvious alternative.

Fergal Keane's support for the timing rests on a different logic: "We're still in an immediately post-conflict situation. I don't believe that spasm of violence by republicans is going to be long-lasting, but I'm equally aware there's no magic point at which we can say, 'It's all over.' There isn't going to be."

What of the work itself? How much stands up to serious criticism? Rea is at pains to stress that Troubles artists worked less "with their eye towards the sale room" than with their mind on "things they needed to say". Yet the archive contains many striking images. Among the highlights are pictures from the council's own collection, including Joe McWilliams' impressionist oil-on-canvas Twelfth Parade – North Queen Street, and Christopher Wilson's enigmatic The Quiet Influence, a brooding charcoal drawing of a miniature house lying on the bare floorboards of a room.

One of the most prolific of the 50 artists included is Victor Sloan, a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and Royal Photographic Society whose international reputation was recognised by his home country only relatively recently, with a 2001 retrospective at Belfast's Ormeau Baths. His work – often using a distorted focus and sepia tinting to evoke early photography – embraces media from video to etching. His dominant theme is the sectarian parades he recalls from childhood.

For Sloan, a precise, softly spoken man, the gallery's launch, in particular, will mark an emotional milestone in the belated recognition by Ulster's powers-that-be of the value of indigenous artwork. The 63-year-old, from Portadown, who remembers cathartically "attacking" canvasses in his yard during the Troubles, says: "I've never been worried about whether my paintings will sell, but what's great is that I'll be able to bring friends with me to the museum to see art that was produced in that period in Northern Ireland."

Kindness, best known for using cartoon-style techniques to depict sectarian violence and for his "Belfast Frescoes", acquired by the Ulster Museum in 1996, recalls the lukewarm reception his radical ideas elicited at Belfast College of Art back in 1969: "I was a young student full of enthusiasm for the avant-garde art of the early 20th century. The Troubles changed the agenda – a lot of us felt a need to bring what was happening on the street into our work. The staff at art school didn't want to deal with that. The fact that, at the time, all the fine-art staff were English might explain the reticence – they were understandably nervous." '

Despite praising smaller galleries for "recognising my talents early", he remains mildly critical of mainstream institutions – including the council, which he feels could have assembled its archive sooner. But he praises it for co-funding annual residencies for Ulster-based artists at New York's PS1 Contemporary Art Center from 1986, which "made a big difference to the international outlook of Irish artists".

While Sloan and Kindness are sanguine about the establishment's failings, others are less forgiving. One outspoken critic is John Gray, retired former librarian of Belfast's Linen Hall Library, which houses the Northern Ireland Political Collection – a sprawling archive of 14,000 books, pamphlets, and posters accumulated from across the sectarian divide over the past 51 years. Gray, who wrote the introductory essay for the new archive, believes his "card was marked" in academia because of his determination to continue cataloguing throughout the Troubles: "One attitude was an explicit, 'Don't touch with a bargepole or your career will be over,' the other was a more implicit, 'Oh, you don't want to get bogged down in a parochial Medieval conflict.'" He recalls with barely concealed anger a notorious 1978 incident in which porters at the Ulster Museum refused to hang Conrad Atkinson's acrylic banner commemorating Bloody Sunday, Silver Liberties: A Souvenir of a Wonderful Anniversary Year – a "work-to-rule" act for which they won support from the institution's trustees. Along with many other Troubles-related artefacts (all effectively "lost" to Northern Ireland), the four-panelled work, festooned with graphic photos and cartoons, now hangs improbably in Wolverhampton Art Gallery. Gray says of Ulster's snub: "The museum was guilty of aloofness and avoidance. It's fair to say a lot of institutions were."

Though unlikely to satisfy everyone, its impending reopening should go some way towards rectifying such perceptions. As we explore the cavernous 13,000m2 building, chief executive Tim Cooke leads me through rooms reserved for familiar crowd-pleasers, including gold hoards salvaged from two Spanish Armada wrecks and Takabuti the mummy ("under wraps" pending her CGI reconstruction for a forthcoming BBC documentary), into a room the size of a school assembly hall reserved for the Troubles collection.

"Even if the refurbishment was happening and the Troubles were still going on, we'd have to do this," he says of the rationale behind the gallery, "but clearly there's a different opportunity in terms of the programme around it that would not have existed if the intense violence was continuing."

The museum does have some prior experience of tackling the Troubles– through its 2003 exhibition, Conflict: Ireland at War, which charted its history of warfare from the Stone Age to the present day. Cooke, an expansive, twinkly-eyed ex-BBC journalist, says this put it in touch with the community groups it consulted in developing the new gallery. He adds: "The unique thing about this focus on the Troubles is that it's seen in a broader context. This museum explores the origins of the universe, Ireland's emergence as a geological formation, the first settlers – all of our history."

So what does he say to the enduring criticism that his institution was guilty of neglecting Troubles art when the artists most needed it? "That's certainly a subject about which there could be a substantive debate," he says after a pause. "On the other hand, you could argue that maintaining the role of an independent, universally accessible international museum in that context is an exceptional achievement in its own right – bearing in mind Northern Ireland was a society constantly on the point of disintegration."

Cooke, raised in Belfast, also believes museums were duty-bound to portray Northern Ireland as part of a wider international canvas: "My school activities were constantly disrupted. We had sticky-tape over the windows, so if they were shattered they wouldn't explode. At one stage, I was blown to the ground by a car bomb behind the Europa Hotel. But in 1972, the worst year of the Troubles, we got out of school for a couple of hours to see the refurbished Ulster Museum. To see this much broader representation of Irish history and our place in the world was a shaft of light in a dark place."

Rea goes further, suggesting the council's role was to promote escapism: "Part of it was to bring together the best of the arts as a sort of antidote." She believes the apparent reluctance of public institutions to collect Troubles-related material had less to do with censorship than their hope – naïve though it might now seem – that the conflict would be over quickly. By the time they realised their error, there were already glaring gaps in the record.

One artist who did gain some recognition for documenting the Troubles at the time was Ken Howard – a former Royal Marine commando embedded with British troops by the Imperial War Museum on the strength of a series of (literally) warts-and-all images of operating theatres he'd produced for Charing Cross Hospital. Now 77, with a mane of silver hair, he recalls: "I was the first official war artist after the Second World War, but I had to tell the press I was the 'official artist of the Imperial War Museum'. I wasn't allowed to say 'war artist' – the Government wouldn't admit it was a war."

Howard received a handsome £500 for his efforts (a commission he later doubled, by selling the museum several of the resulting paintings). He attributes his ability to stay impartial to his "half-Scot, half-Lancashire" pedigree – not that this stopped Catholics in the Falls teasing him about his "propaganda drawings" as they peered over his shoulder while ferrying him beer and sandwiches.

Three decades after his last Ulster posting, the Royal Academician vividly recollects leaping in and out of helicopters, sketchbook in hand. He once narrowly eluded IRA bullets by slinking back to barracks moments before an Army patrol was gunned down in the marketplace where he'd been drawing. But if he retains a single image above all, it's that of a 10-year-old boy scaling a lamppost – one he would later adapt into the painting he regards as his finest. "I was in the Falls Road drawing, and a boy climbed a lamppost. When he came down, I said, 'I'll give you 50p if you go back up,' and I drew him," he says of the origins of Ulster Crucifixion. "A year later I went up Shankill Road and found a wall with the writing 'No Pope here,' which was religion; 'UVF,' which was politics; and 'Remember 1690,' which was history – the Battle of the Boyne. I thought, 'If I was religious, I'd think these three things – religion, politics and history – were the reasons for the crucifixion.' Then my mind returned to the boy, and I decided to put him in a triptych. He'd be 35 to 40 now."

He adds: "It was children who suffered most in Northern Ireland. I always wanted to be objective, but I felt strongly about that. If adults want to run around shooting each other, that's up them, but what about the kids?"

The Troubles Archive is launched on Wednesday at the Arts Council conference Art and Conflict at the Grand Opera House, Belfast (www.goh.co.uk). The Troubles Gallery opens at the Ulster Museum (www.ulstermuseum.org.uk) in October

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