Art of the Troubles at Ulster Museum

The opening weekend of ‘Art of the Troubles’ at the Ulster Museum was very busy, I’ve never seen the gallery that busy. I was very excited about seeing the exhibition because so many Northern Irish artists were featured and I find the troubles period of history the most intriguing. The first piece I was attracted to was Robert Ballagh’s ‘1500th victim’, an outline of a body on sand. I had heard about his installation in Dublin after Bloody Sunday where he had 13 drawn chalk outlines and used chicken blood to represent the 13 victims.


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I also liked Gerry Gleason’s ‘Rocket Man’, the rocket shape references the round tower used as a place of safety and security, but also has the same shape as a rubber bullet and a mortar. The colours reminded me a lot of footage of the troubles era, lots of military grey and dark backgrounds.


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 In the middle of the gallery I was intrigued by a six-sided piece made from prison doors. Rita Duffy created the piece as a response to visiting the abandoned Armagh Women’s Prison. Peering through the doors I was surprised to see the inside of the piece was painted bright red and contained lots of glass drops in the shape of tear, representing the women held in the prison.   There was also salt spilling out from underneath the doors, also representing the tears of the women. I thought the delicate glass drops and the heavy metal of the doors contrasted well and highlighted that the women imprisoned had a softer, more feminine side than you would first think of when visualising female prisoners.


Paul Seawright’s ‘Sectarian Murder’ series really resonated with me, because I didn’t live in Northern Ireland during the troubles sometimes it’s difficult to understand just how it impacted on ordinary people’s lives. The photographs in this series are documentary, displaying an ordinary everyday scene, albeit from a ground level perspective. It was only once I read the newspaper headline below that I realised each photograph was taken when a sectarian murder had occurred and the low-level perspective was what the victim would have seen. I noticed that the names of sectarian groups had been removed from the reports, which made it more about the victims. It felt very eerie, but also insightful. I find the subjects of Paul’s work very interesting and would love to see more.


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A lot of the pieces in the exhibition focused on the impact of the troubles on the people of Northern Ireland, ‘The other cheek?’ by John Keane shows a scene that could be any number of streets in Belfast with murals and a peace wall. The newspapers in the artwork represent the power of the press to incite , and there are ordinary people portrayed suffering and dealing with loss.


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I think it’s a good sign for the future that this exhibition can showcase some more contentious artworks, especially after so many people expressed disappointment with the troubles gallery when the Ulster Museum reopened in 2009. A lot of the tweets I’ve seen about ‘Art of the troubles’ have mentioned that the pieces bring back memories, but not in a bad way. A little bit of controversy means that the exhibition is a great talking point, and generates interest and visitors for the museum, which can only be a good thing!