The Belfast Murals

Perhaps the most distinctive thing you will see if you visit Northern Ireland is the presence of Murals in communities. Murals here are not simply pretty pictures – they all mean something, whether they be historical references, representations of current or recent community members, or messages. Murals within a community express aspects of community identity – although they are not always put up by members of the local communities themselves. I’ve been told that there has been a shift away from murals which glorify violence, although many murals of gunmen still remain.

Historically, the first murals were present only in Protestant communities – and they represented historical figures like Oliver Cromwell, or legends.  This mural in the Shankill refers to the legend of “the Red hand of Ulster“.

This is one of the most violent murals I’ve seen in Belfast. It represents the Ulster Deference Association, the Ulster Volunteer Force, and their historical origins. The UVF gunman’s rifle appears to be trained on you as you walk by – a trick of the painting which represents that you are being watched as you walk through these tight knit communities.

Murals began appearing in Catholic neighborhoods in the 60s and 70s. They play largely the same role as murals in Protestant communities – but there is a greater emphasis on the similarity between the struggle here and other civil rights struggles around the world. This mural depicts the Israeli Apartheid wall and calls for an end to Israeli aggression in Palestine.

This mural condemns the U.S. trade blockade of Cuba.

It took me a while to put my finger on what is so strange about the community murals in Belfast. I thought it was their glorification of violence, or their association with the history of the armed struggle. However, I think what is actually strange about these murals is first and foremost the fact that they are images put up by communities which refer to historical and ongoing focal points of that communities’ identity. This became most obvious when I saw a mural next to a large advertisement for a contemporary Hollywood film – I realized, we are completely used to seeing “murals” up everywhere – but we automatically assume those murals have nothing to do with the communities we find ourselves in – they come from the magical neutral place called “capitalism”. What is most transgressive about community murals is that they make it apparent that we are not in a “space” at all, but in a place – which has specificity, history, and a community which is not merely the random assemblage of people who happen to live here.

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about whether the Belfast murals could be a model for murals elsewhere which could play a role in founding communities without emphasizing sectarian difference. I think perhaps protest murals could be appropriate in some communities – one on topics which would gain widespread support, and hopefully would not be considered offensive by those who disagree. I think topics like “Save Transit City”, “Fair Trial for Omar Khadr” might be acceptable. Or, murals that celebrate positive victories in a communities past – why not a Jane Jacobs mural? Or perhaps a mural to the founders of CCRI?

I think the thing I like most about the Belfast murals is their poor artistic quality – they are not “masterpieces”. The emphasis on what the mural means, rather than on the excellence of execution, is a refreshing difference from our contemporary obsession with artistic excellence – a realm where meaning sometimes gets lost.

Advertisements

18 thoughts on “The Belfast Murals

  1. The fact that highly technically perfect art is absolutely everywhere does probably have something of a stifling effect on creativity.

    As a photographer, it can be depressing to see how any magazine or set of bus advertisements contains photos more technically perfect than you have ever taken.

  2. I don’t think “technical perfection” is a very good photographic goal.

    I think photography is about creative production, to be consumed by friends (amateur) or faceless, heartless clients (professional). It’s like blogging – I do it because I enjoy it, and I also enjoy when others enjoy it. It’s free creativity, freely consumed. not much for me to complain about here.

  3. I think technical perfection in photography is very important – akin to good writing in a novel. It isn’t a substitute for a good idea, but it is pretty much essential to producing something that is really good overall.

  4. Well, in that case, differences in sharpness that appear only in very large prints is not part of “technical perfection”.

    I think the major mistake made by photographers is the assumption that the camera makes the picture. In truth, the subject makes the picture – light being its most important attribute.

  5. The point of this entry was that art can be significant not because of technical perfection but because of what it means.

    I wonder what photography would look like with the emphasis on “meaning” or “community meaning” rather than individual aesthetic judgement would look like. Maybe “what it would look like” is the wrong question – the right question might be “how would it be produced” and “how would it be displayed”, since those are obviously key questions for community murals.

  6. This is interesting to me in light of a discussion I’ve been part of recently (and not so recently) about punk reacting against the technical “facility” of prog rock. I’m (inevitably) inclined to resist the idea of art as essentially cognitive content with an “emotional” (or what have you) delivery system, but of course addressing art as one thing is wrong-headed; the question has to be: what, in this given situation or set of overlapping situations, do I/we want art to do? (Though there is also always the question, what can art do here that exceeds our intentions?)

    A couple of friends of mine have been part of projects giving cameras–the kind you get at the drugstore for $10 or whatever–to marginalized people and getting them to document the world as they see it. The photos were just displayed in their community centres or whatever, primarily to each other: art for the artist, not for an audience. (Empowerment, consciousness-raising….)

    By the way, on “apartheid” and Israel: what concerns me is what you might call the perlocutionary effect of the word. The word might have all its references in order with regard to Israel, but it seems to me that its effect is to preempt discussion by putting all the moral eggs in one basket: you can’t take tea with agents of apartheid–the mirror image of calling Hamas a terrorist organization and saying that you don’t negotiate with terrorists. But maybe you regard that as desirable–is Israel to be engaged with, or simply to be beaten?

    (Personally, I think the very idea of Israel–i.e., the idea of an ethnic state–has become practically indefensible in the West, with amazing rapidity over the last decade. The question now is how to achieve a workable “one-state solution” with as little ongoing conflict and repression as possible. It seems to me that this will be more difficult in Israel/Palestine than in South Africa because there are proportionally far more Jews in I/P than whites in SA. I would guess that the apartheid regime in SA could be effectively beaten in a cold war because it was in a bad spot to begin with. On the other hand, it would probably be instructive to look into how post-1994 pro-apartheid terrorism has been kept down–if indeed it has; I don’t know, if it hasn’t, we probably wouldn’t hear much about it anyway.)

  7. It would be more helpful to put comments on the post to which they respond.

    As for “what do I want art to do” – I don’t think the murals are “art”. They are aesthetic, public, and surfaces, but I don’t think they are any more “art” than a GAP advertisement.

    Your comparison to art by the homeless is apt – it certainly asks the “how is it to be produced” and “how is it to be displayed” questions I suggested in a comment. Your example, however, remains within “art on the pedastal”. If anything, the murals have more in common with Serra’s site-specific sculptures, since they are very much “off the pedestal”, integrated into spaces (although not so much architectural spaces as emotional and historical spaces).

  8. Hamas Isn’t the IRA
    And when it comes to the peace process, the Middle East isn’t Northern Ireland.
    By Michael WeissPosted Friday, Sept. 17, 2010, at 7:26 AM ET

    With the resumption of Arab-Israeli direct talks comes the regurgitation of a minority view that these talks are destined to fail because Hamas is excluded. The first salvo in this ongoing campaign came from Palestinian-American blogger Ali Abunimah, an advocate of the one-state solution, who expounded upon the need for recognizing Hamas in the New York Times. Peter Beinart made the same case in a broader Daily Beast column about Obama’s failed foreign policy. What both had in common, apart from thinking rather generously of a totalitarian and anti-Semitic Islamist party, is use of the Irish Republican Army and Northern Ireland as a convenient analogy for the Middle East peace process. Didn’t the British government eventually sit down with Sinn Fein, the IRA’s “political wing,” after decades of murderous mayhem in Belfast and bombings in the Tube, pubs, and other targets on the mainland? And can’t the same lessons learned from the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which inaugurated the end of the Troubles, be applied to the Arab-Israeli conflict?

    There are many obvious reasons why this analogy fails. The IRA never employed suicide bombers or called for the wholesale destruction of Great Britain. Nor was it the client of a theocratic state intent on becoming a nuclear power. It was also thoroughly integrated with Sinn Fein and could therefore act with greater strategic cohesion than the fragmented Hamas, whose political and paramilitary leadership is spread throughout Gaza, the West Bank, and Damascus, Syria. But, most important, the analogy misconstrues the history of the Northern Ireland peace process and the ultimate aim of the Good Friday Agreement, which was, chiefly, to undermine the terrorists, not to legitimize them.

    Abunimah and Beinart both refer to Hamas’ 2006 election victory, although neither acknowledges that the group has twice refused to hold new national elections this year, fearing a likely walloping at the polls. Moreover, Hamas has loudly denounced each and every framework for Arab-Israeli negotiations from the Clinton-brokered Oslo Accords of 1993, which created Palestinian democracy in the first place, to the Bush administration’s 2002 roadmap for peace. It’s worth measuring all this against the way “inclusive dialogue” with the IRA really proceeded.

  9. “Didn’t the British government eventually sit down with Sinn Fein, the IRA’s “political wing,” after decades of murderous mayhem in Belfast and bombings in the Tube, pubs, and other targets on the mainland? ”

    If you want to make the analogy and not look like an idiot – the British Army negotiated with both the provisional and official IRA in secret during the height of the troubles in the 70s.

  10. “whose political and paramilitary leadership is spread throughout Gaza, the West Bank, and Damascus, Syria. But”

    Why is Hamas’ political leadership fragmented?

  11. ” But, most important, the analogy misconstrues the history of the Northern Ireland peace process and the ultimate aim of the Good Friday Agreement, which was, chiefly, to undermine the terrorists, not to legitimize them.”

    This is an empty claim – the purpose of the agreement was to legitimize their grievances while condemning their actions.

  12. “Moreover, Hamas has loudly denounced each and every framework for Arab-Israeli negotiations from the Clinton-brokered Oslo Accords of 1993, which created Palestinian democracy in the first place, to the Bush administration’s 2002 roadmap for peace. ”

    Hamas has endorsed the relevant process – the Arab Peace Initiative – which is supported by pretty much the entire world outside US client states.

  13. “What both had in common, apart from thinking rather generously of a totalitarian and anti-Semitic Islamist party,”

    So, you don’t think the IRA was totalitarian or racist? It certainly had democratic elements, and relied on popular support – but Hamas was democratically elected in the Palestinian territories in an internationally recognized election. If anything, Hamas is far more democratic than the IRA! As for racism, the provisional IRA was extremely racist (romantic ideal catholic state ideology), although the official IRA’s marxist analysis was anti-racist.

  14. What do you think “the destruction of Israel” means? If it means the dissolving of the state as it currently exists, i.e. as including the occupied territories, then everyone should be in favour of Israel’s “destruction”.

    That said, it took me about 2 seconds to find references on Hamas’ stance on the Arab peace initiative.

    “Khaled Mash’al, Head of Hamas Political Bureau: “Hamas will accept the Saudi initiative and consult with the council of the Muslim Brotherhood”. (A-shark Al-awsat, 2/8/06) (In Arabic).
    Khaled Mash’al: “(Hamas) cannot oppose the unified Arab stance expressed in the resolution passed by the Arab League summit. That resolution, approved in Beirut, speaks of recognizing Israel and normalizing relations with it in exchange for a full withdrawal and a solution to the refugee problem”. (Rubinstein, Ha’aretz, 2/13/06).
    Azat Al-Ghashek, member of Hamas Political Bureau, during a visit to Saudi Arabia: “We will never oppose a unified Arab stance and therefore we call upon Israel and the international community to accept the Arab position, so far put aside by Israel”. (Al-Hayat, 3/12/06). (In Arabic).
    During preparation for the Khartoum summit, Amr Moussa, Secretary-General of the Arab League announced that Hamas representatives informed him that following the establishment of the new PA government, the Hamas plans to declare its support of the Arab Peace Initiative. (Al-Hayat, 3/26/06).
    In response to Egypt’s demand that the Palestinians accept the Arab Peace Initiative, Mahmoud Zahar, PA Foreign Minister, stated: “I will convey all that I heard to every decision-maker and make a clear picture about the initiative. But the problem is: does the other party accept it?” (YNET, 4/15/06).
    Mahmoud A-Zahar: “There are two necessary conditions for the success of the Arab Initiative: (1) fulfilling the basic demands of the Palestinian people; (2) acceptance of the initiative by the other side (Israel).” (Al-Hayat, 4/20/06) (In Arabic).”

    http://www.reut-institute.org/Publication.aspx?PublicationId=401

  15. Furthermore – if a real peace agreement is reached, it is logical to conclude that popular support for violence will decline on both sides. This has certainly been the case in Ireland – where popular support for continuity IRA factions is minuscule compared to support for IRA bombings during the troubles. If the Palestinian state has real elections, (as much as America hates democracy), these will likely lead to more moderate factions gaining power – but only if a genuine peace treaty is secured.

    The peace settlement now being attempted does not appear serious – the Palestinian negotiators are not democratically elected but head a neo-colonial army in the West Bank, who’s purpose is to keep down the Palestinian population in the small parts of the Bank which will not be annexed as part of these “peace” talks.

  16. It is ominous that only a few weeks after writing this post, a murder was carried out, allegedly by the Ulster Volunteer Force, on the Shankill road (which the black taxi tour travelled along).

    The relevant source is the 24th report of the Independent Monitoring Commission, which can be found here:

    http://www.independentmonitoringcommission.org/publications.cfm?id=74

    Here are there conclusions:

    “- The murder was committed by members of the UVF acting as such;
    – These members had sanction at central leadership level. The fact that there was no subsequent condemnation of the killing by the leadership means that the UVF has in effect adopted the consequences of the murder;
    – There were two main reasons for the murder and the way in which it was committed: to stop Mr Moffett’s perceived flouting of UVF authority, and to send a message to the organisation and the community that this authority was not to be challenged;
    – Senior leadership in the UVF could have prevented the murder had it determined to do so.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s