Bogside's artists turn from guns and protests to give their troubled estates a vision of peace

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The Independent Online

Something big is happening, politically and artistically, in Derry, the famous city which at several key junctures found itself at the epicentre of the Northern Ireland troubles.

Having spent years chronicling events which over the decades periodically convulsed the city, its most important artists are now turning their attention to a dramatic new theme: that of peace.

For 10 years, the three local men known as the Bogside Artists have created an art gallery on eight walls along the city's Rossville Street. Some call it the People's Gallery; one wag christened it Bogside Modern.

This street is where the "Battle of the Bogside" erupted in 1968 as people took on the security forces at the start of the troubles. It is also where British troops shot some of the 14 fatalities of Bloody Sunday in 1972. Most of the murals' themes are grim, portraying death, commotion and riot. But the artists say the ninth and last in the series will be different.

One artist, Tom Kelly, said: "We had 30 years of conflict, mayhem, brutality, oppression, violence. We lived through it, we breathed the tear-gas, we were involved in the riots and all the rest of it.

"We are well aware that what we've already depicted are not the most positive images. But now the bulk of people are pursuing peace, and so the last mural we're planning will encapsulate something of that. It will be full of colour and energy and light, looking to the future, with imagery of birth and rebirth. It will be trying to capture the hopes, dreams and desires of this generation, and the next."

The eight murals attract much attention. Coachloads of tourists pose for photographs in front of them, with the three artists staging tours for visitors "from as far away as Brisbane and Helsinki". They are fiercely independent, insistent that they are artists who happen to come from the Bogside and who have stayed true to their roots. They still draw the dole, they say, scorning "careerism" and "the egomania that runs riot in the art world".

They rail against art elitism, against "your upper middle-class piece of cheese, glass of wine" set. They decry "the art-speak bullshit", complaining that they have had little or no help from political or artistic officialdom.

They have won praise from the Derry playwright Brian Friel, who said: "This is work of conscious ostentation, of deliberate defiance but it has delicacy too. Every mural explains, but it also embraces. Every mural instructs; but at the same time each has the intimacy and the consolations of a family photograph."

And the artists are neither republicans nor propagandists. One of them, Kevin Hasson, said: "We were aware we could easily be tagged because of what we were depicting, but the fact is that all shades of nationalist opinion were involved in those events." Kelly added: "It's simply capturing a moment in time, saying, 'This is what happened, make of it what you will, bring your own baggage to it'."

One of their most popular and most striking murals, entitled "The death of innocence", shows a young girl killed during clashes with the Army in 1971. Kelly said: "That was a call to take the gun out of Irish politics, because we know in any conflict the innocent die, on the West Bank, Tiananmen Square or wherever.

"We have been at the forefront of helping other mural painters to get away from the sectarian, tribalistic imagery, to think in terms of culture and history rather than the guy with the mask and the Armalite or Kalashnikov."

Catholic and Protestant youngsters attend their workshops. Kelly added: "Some of our greatest achievements are not our murals or our exhibitions; it's seeing friendships forged in our workshops that go on out in the streets."