A different show of colours

 

Portadown is showing images of Orangeism during Drumcree week - but this time it's good news from the North, writes Susan McKay

'Whenever the name Portadown came before my eyes," wrote the historian, Frank Wright, "It was nearly always bad news." This particular week is usually associated with the bad news that is Drumcree, an internationally known byword for trouble of the worst kind.

However, good things are happening in Portadown, things that may put the Co Armagh town on the map in an entirely different way. Much praise for this must go to a dynamic young American who is turning a new arts centre in Portadown's old market into an exciting venue for contemporary art.

Megan Johnston, manager of the Millennium Court Arts Centre, is so busy enthusing about the two exhibitions she is opening this week, she almost forgets to mention that next spring she's getting the only European showing of work by the brilliant architect and designer, Frank O Gehry. "He did the Guggenheim in Bilbao," she says. "Everything he does becomes a tourist mecca. He opens up your eyes to seeing connections between design, architecture and art. It's huge that we've got this. It will draw visitors from all over Ireland, the UK and even mainland Europe. People won't look at Portadown in the same way again."

For now, she's putting the finishing touches to two complementary shows about a more familiar subject, though both seek to alter perceptions of it. Orange Segments looks at the Orange Order through its own banners, memorabilia, books and photographs, particularly those relating to Portadown District Number One. Its declared aim as an exhibition is to "show the multifaceted, complex and contested nature of the Orange Order, examining why and how it has existed for more than 200 years".

It was the Order which came up with the idea of exhibiting in the Millennium Court Centre rather than in the Carleton Street Orange Hall, around the corner. "They wanted more people to see it," says Johnston. The centrepiece of the exhibition will be Loyal Orange Lodge 273's large banner showing "the Drowning of the Protestants in the River Bann, 1641". This was made in 1970.

"Seeing Orange" presents work by contemporary Northern artists who have made use of Orange imagery. There are paintings, photographs and videos by artists including Victor Sloan, Rita Duffy, Paul Seawright, Dermot Seymour and Colin McGookin.

Sloan, who lives in Portadown, is famous for his poignant, distressed photographs of Orange events. The show will include a recent video called "The Walk".

This shows, in slow, plodding motion, an Orange walk, but the marchers seem to disappear into a mirror, and the sound is distorted so that drumbeats sound out suddenly like shots, and voices are slowed down to groans. In the end, the last shiny black shoe marches into the mirror and an empty streetscape remains.

It is a melancholy piece, similar in tone to Dermot Seymour's "Bovine Testicular Union", which shows young loyalist bandsmen resting on a red, white and blue kerb, oblivious to the fact that the road down will shortly teeter into oblivion. Seymour's "Border Turtle" is included in the exhibition - it shows a headless Orangeman with a band pole standing on the back of a dead turtle.

Colin McGookin's work, in bright acrylics, uses Biblical and Masonic imagery from banners and arches. Guns are scattered through the ladders, compasses, scales and burning bushes. In one of his works, there is a column like a totem pole, with a coffin at the base, then a cross, two stars and a pistol pointing upwards into the dove from Noah's ark.

David Jones of the Orange Order has seen some of the material in Seeing Orange, and has, Johnston says, "no problem with it".

The Orange Order's demand to be allowed to march through the nationalist Garvaghy Road area of Portadown led to massive disturbances during the last years of the 20th century. Hundreds of Catholics across the North were forced from their homes, and at least a dozen people, including three children and an elderly woman, were killed in related violence. Some of the most brutal loyalist killers disported themselves at Drumcree alongside local Orangemen. How will all this be represented in Orange Segments? It won't. "I've worked super-hard in the two years I've been here to make this a neutral venue," says Johnston. "It's one of the only neutral venues in this town. I won't have a single image of Drumcree, or of the Garvaghy Road. It would just be too divisive."

During a recent exhibition at the gallery of work by Dermot Seymour, several pictures were vandalised. The initials of the paramilitary UVF [ Ulster Volunteer Force] were scrawled on the canvasses.

"Curators try to see trends and new directions. My own curatorial process is all about risk management," says Johnston. "We've had Alice Maher's portraits with necklaces made from lambs' tongues. We've had Crazy Coffins, featuring bespoke coffins. We had The Agreement, by Shane Cullen." The Cullen show consisted of large panels on which the Good Friday Agreement was printed.

"There was a huge debate about the piece at Craigavon Borough Council and on our board: is it art, or is it propaganda? The DUP didn't like it, but they at least didn't stop the funding."

The centre is joint funded by the council and the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, and has to raise 30 per cent of its own costs. Its board includes representatives of all the main political parties. "They are all very nice to me," says Johnston. "They admire the fact that I'm passionate about this place."

The fact that Johnston is an outsider clearly helps. She also has serious art credentials. Her last job was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where she oversaw seminal publications including the catalogue for the Vermeer and the Delft school exhibition.

"I've been exposed to the highest levels of professionalism and I come from a position of authority," she says. "If I say it's art, they have to say, okay, it's art."

Johnston is from St Paul, Minneapolis, "where Prince and Bob Dylan are from". She studied with the feminist art historian, Griselde Pollock, and has also worked in Minneapolis, at the Weisman (designed by Gehry) and the Walker Art Centre.

"That's where I got the idea that it's my responsibility to get the community involved. Irish people aren't any more inarticulate about art than anyone else. In New York they pretend they understand! You need to make a gallery really friendly and make it possible for people to ask stupid questions. The worst experience when you see art is to feel nothing.

"Our gallery attendant, Dermot Burns, is out there all day talking with people. Everyone here is engaged. We do school tours, artist talks, audio tours, and we've done seven catalogues so far," she says.

There's a visual arts worker, Steve Lally, a multi-media arts worker, Feargal O'Malley and a verbal arts worker, Adrian Fox. Paul Muldoon, Mebh McGuckian and Glenn Patterson are lined up for readings. The place is buzzing with activity.

Johnston describes herself as a "recovering Catholic". She was, she admits, "simplistic" about the politics of the North before she came here. She mixed in Irish-American circles, and had a "typical black and white, green and orange view". That has all changed.

"I live in West Belfast and work in Portadown. That has really opened my eyes. I see a lot of complexity now. I dislike some of the people I thought I'd admire, and I like people I thought I'd hate."

She is dismayed there is no collection of political art in Ireland, so that a lot of the art that reflects aspects of the Troubles has left the country. "What I really think is that there's a post-colonial mentality that modern Irish art isn't worthy - yet it fits very comfortably into an international arena." She finds much that is relevant in Benedict Anderson's ideas about imagined communities, and clearly feels disappointed in the absence of intellectual rigour among some of the art academics she has encountered here.

Orange iconography fascinates her, and she is writing a masters dissertation about the construction of culture and its visual manifestations, focusing on the image of King William on his white horse. "People in Northern Ireland are visual experts - they know how to read the signs - my young stepson took off his Celtic shirt when he came to Portadown!"

She was surprised by the resistance she met in her studies. "Academia was uncomfortable talking about Orangeism as culture," she says. "They assumed there was nothing to discuss, as if it was just kitsch. But everyone in Northern Ireland knows that image of King Billy. How can you say it isn't important?"

Orange Segments and Seeing Orange, opens on Wednesday at the Millennium Court Arts Centre, William St, Portadown, Co Armagh. Until July 30