New murals lose their guns to highlight history

 

Armed only with paintbrushes, Northern artists are helping to "re-image" communities on both sides of the fence, writes Bryan Coll

MOST ESTABLISHED artists might consult an agent or gallery before they start work on a large project.

Dee Craig, on the other hand, needs the approval of paramilitaries before he can start to paint.

This week, the 36-year-old artist began work on a new mural in the loyalist Newtownards Road area of Belfast; a project funded by the Northern Ireland Arts Council's "Re-Imaging Communities" programme.

The mural is a new version of a memorial to the Battle of the Somme that was demolished during the construction of a new apartment block. The UVF imagery that dominated the old mural has been removed in Craig's updated design with the permission of the paramilitary group.

"We held public meetings to ask the community what they wanted on the new wall," says Craig. "Most were happy to drop the paramilitary stuff."

The new wall will carry the slogan ''For Valour" as well as four portraits of Victoria Cross recipients from Northern Ireland.

Last week, First Minister Peter Robinson unveiled another of Craig's recent works; a Narnia mural commemorating the works of local author CS Lewis.

But despite Craig's highly visible canvases, the traditional symbols of east Belfast show little sign of fading away. With almost the entire length of the Newtownards Road decorated with various forms of red, white and blue for the Twelfth of July holiday, and UVF signs painted on most shop fronts, it's hard to identify any real signs of a community make-over.

Craig explains that the slow pace of change is partly due to the territorialism of rival loyalist groups. "That part of the street is mostly a UDA area," he says, pointing farther down the street to the long-standing "Freedom Corner" mural, a loyalist take on the Free Derry Corner.

"They have been slower to embrace the changes than the UVF. In this part of the community, we're moving that bit faster,"

Around the Newtownards Road, and neighbouring loyalist areas like Sydenham, one of the most common themes on recently-painted walls, besides soccer, is the Titanic. East Belfast would appear to be uniquely positioned to gain from the extensive promotion of the Titanic as a new tourism brand for Northern Ireland.

With the Harland and Wolff shipyard being the mainstay of the neighbourhood economy for the first half of the 20th century, almost all of the labourers who worked on the iconic liner came from east Belfast. Today, construction is underway of the £1 billion Titanic Quarter - a residential, retail and tourism development on the site of the former shipyard.

But, according to John Keery of the East Belfast Community Historical and Cultural Association, residents are showing little enthusiasm for the project. "We are resolutely opposed to the Titanic Quarter", says Keery. "The developers promised us hundreds of jobs and apprenticeships but we have yet to see any of them."

The association has organised its own celebration of the Titanic, in the form of the East Belfast Titanic Festival, which runs until July 12th. According to Keery, the event has received scant support from Titanic Quarter management. "They said they would give us £200 towards it", says Kerry. "That was half the amount contributed by the corner shop."

With local history being repackaged by private developers, Keery believes new murals allow local communities to gain a sense of ownership on the past.

"A lot of young people today don't know anything about the Somme or the signing of the (Ulster) Covenant," says Keery, who runs a men's history class in a local community centre. "These murals show us where we come from but take guns out of the equation."

As visual chroniclers of Derry's past for over 12 years, Derry's Bogside Artists are also finding new roles for their murals in the post-conflict North. Brothers Tom and William Kelly and Kevin Hasson are responsible for the "People's Gallery" - a popular collection of murals commemorating the civil rights movement, the Battle of the Bogside and Bloody Sunday. Last month, the group unveiled the latest addition to the gallery; a portrait of John Hume alongside Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela.

Despite a shared desire to create positive visual images for their community, the Bogside Artists differ from their Protestant counterparts in that they receive little public funding for their work. "The Bogside was like a wasteland before we started," says Tom Kelly. "We were doing re-imaging work years before anyone else, but we get no support whatsoever".

Derry's main recipient of Northern Ireland Tourist Board funding is the Walled City; a scheme to promote Derry's city walls as a major tourist attraction. Along with the Titanic, the Walled City has been designated a "Signature Project" by the tourist board. "There are walls in lots of places around the world," says Tom Kelly. "The Bogside might not be the respectable face of the new Northern Ireland, but it's what makes Derry unique - just ask any tourist."