Exhibition Review by Dr Robert Macdonald.
Viewed at a distance the Irish ‘problem’ has always been a complex issue of history, politics and religion. I have found it all very difficult to understand. However, Stuart Borthwick’s close up documentary photographic exhibition helps us to understand the visual complexity of Irish popular mural art and this goes part of the way to improve our overall understanding.
The photographs included in this exhibition were taken in Belfast 2008-2010, and exhibited at the Liverpool School of Art and Design in November in 2010. Whilst conflict in Ireland is centuries old, the genesis of the troubles of the late 20th century, originated in 1922, when following a Civil War and the passing of the Government of Ireland Act, Ireland was partitioned into the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland.
Unionists had painted wall murals as far back as 1908 and later, at the time of the Troubles in 1981, they became a noticeable feature, marking the Republican hunger strikes. The muralists had no formal artist qualifications and Loyalists and Republicans used the gable ends of residential properties in Unionist and Nationalist areas to further sectarian interests. The impermanence of murals means that many of their messages and themes have been lost. However, some murals are now seen as a semi-permanent fixtures on Belfast’ cityscape, and attract tourists from around the world. The murals commemorate the dead of all sides and they demarcate territory.
Popular art, such as the murals of Belfast, transcend narrow affiliations of particular political and ideologies and without connections to one or another artist schools. According to Gramsci popular art is historical, political and popular to its roots. It must ‘penetrate the soil of the people’. Popular art is the ‘wind of the people’, its a living language. Its a true art of its own time and stands comparison with Picasso’s Guernica, murals of Siqueiros and Orozco.
For those people interested in popular art and Irish history this excellent exhibition is not to be missed; it tells the story of a fraction of the Irish murals, and gives us an insight into the relationship between the past, present and future of the North of Ireland.
The exhibition is accompanied by a well illustrated academic pamphlet which includes a helpful bibliography.
Further Reading: Art & Society: Essays in Marxist Aesthetics, Adolfo Sanchez Vazquez,
Merlin Press, London 1973. See Chp on Truly Popular Art.