13 July 2005

BOGSIDE ARTISTS: Stories of the people’s gallery

Daily Ireland

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By their own admittance, the Bogside artists are not trained art therapists. But the Derry trio know that their work has merit in this field.
The artists behind the North’s only “people’s gallery” have launched a book detailing the ethos behind their internationally acclaimed work.
In the book Art and Healing, the artists seek to place their works in a historical context. With human beings the subjects of the majority of their art, the stories that glare out from gable walls the length of the Bogside seek explanation and interpretation.
In the book, the artists reveal the influences that have spurred them into creating one of Derry’s biggest tourist attractions.
The artists — brothers Tommy and William Kelly and Kevin Hasson — have transformed gable walls in the city’s Bogside area with murals that depict some of the pivotal events of the city’s recent history.
According to William Kelly, the new book’s author, one of the chief influences on the work of the Bogside artists is the Austrian artist Friedl Dicker-Brandeis.
“We believe that the artist is, in some degree, in the healing profession,” William Kelly says.
Edvard Munch, Pablo Picasso and Vincent van Gogh are also held up by the artists as people who created art for the alienated.
To the elite of the art world, the Bogside artists — by depicting ordinary people thrust into extraordinary circumstances in artistic form on humble gable walls — would be coarse pretenders existing on the margins of “true art”.
However, this is true art. The subjects are powerful only in their trueness and faithfulness to reality — the schoolgirl shot dead with a British army bullet, the cheerful participants of a march that would end in carnage on Bloody Sunday, and the youth wearing a gas mask and bearing a petrol bomb as a means of defence against the state.
In the context of the Bogside, it is a personal history, owned by the people but held proudly to the outside world as a poignant and dignified homage to a resilient community.
For the tourists who flock to view the murals each day, the works have a much wider significance when viewed in the context of conflicts across the world. Children have been killed in Iraq — the gun is not choosy where it gains its expression. There have been thousands of protest marches across the world that have ended in innocent deaths. There are numerous examples of children having their innocence stripped from them and then being thrust into conflict worldwide. This is where the people’s gallery really becomes a people’s gallery — when the reference points are elevated out of the Bogside and the North of Ireland.
In Art and Healing, the trio explain their international travels and how they came to interpret artistically events such as Bloody Sunday and the Battle of the Bogside.
The world-renowned playwright Brian Friel has described the artists’ work as “a work of conscious ostentation, of deliberate defiance. 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.
“I suspect the Bogside artists have a lot of excitement squaring up each new virgin gable wall and a lot of fun endowing it with eloquence.”
The artists have been painting murals and conducting workshops in the famous area of Derry for more than a decade. Their work has gained international acclaim.
William Kelly said: “A vitally important part of our commitment is the workshops we do with the disenchanted youth of the city.
“These children have little recollection of the Troubles that began way back in 1969 but their parents, like us, lived through them.”
Kelly has described the book as an attempt to inform students and the young who have “sensible” questions to ask about Irish history and Irish affairs.
The Bogside artists can claim a unique approach to recent history and have produced murals that have become a benchmark for other artists.
“Our own efforts as mural painters have been directed to helping heal people by depicting their experiences on gable walls,” William Kelly added.
“In this manner, we have endeavoured to help them to reflect on a shared history and to ponder the price they had to pay for democratic rights. Not to have commemorated the struggle in this way would have meant that we failed in our vocation as artists for, make no mistake about it, art really is a vocation with a social dimension.”
Art and Healing is dedicated to the people of the Bogside and “the youth and children of the city of Derry from whom we have learned so much”.
At the heart of the book’s message is the employment of art in a curative way. Kelly said: “The making of art, by its very nature, is healing and we, who teach this in our workshops, can attest to this simple fact.”
It is easy for the powers that be to dismiss the Bogside artists as a band of rebellious intellectuals. It is true that they are disgruntled — the very mention of the Turner Prize makes them wince.
In the book, Kelly said: “The winner of the Turner Prize is no ordinary man, we are expected to believe. He is ‘superior’ and, invariably, not only does he believe this himself but spends the rest of his life demanding the homage that he has been led to believe is his due. He is invariably superior in some other obscure way that makes no sense to anybody except the people who have elected him.”
For the Bogside artists, the only recognition they crave is the approval of the community that they serve. The only message they wish to convey on the Bogside gables is a human one.

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