Sunday Independent

Bogside's artists turn from guns and protests to give their troubled estates a vision of peace

By David McKittrick Ireland Correspondent
24 May 2004
Sunday Independent

Something big is happening, politically and artistically, in Derry,
the famous city which at several key junctures found itself at the
epicentre of the Northern Ireland troubles.

Having spent years chronicling events which over the decades
periodically convulsed the city, its most important artists are now
turning their attention to a dramatic new theme: that of peace.

For 10 years, the three local men known as the Bogside Artists have
created an art gallery on eight walls along the city's Rossville
Street. Some call it the People's Gallery; one wag christened it
Bogside Modern.

This street is where the "Battle of the Bogside" erupted in 1968 as
people took on the security forces at the start of the troubles. It
is also where British troops shot some of the 14 fatalities of Bloody
Sunday in 1972. Most of the murals' themes are grim, portraying
death, commotion and riot. But the artists say the ninth and last in
the series will be different.

One artist, Tom Kelly, said: "We had 30 years of conflict, mayhem,
brutality, oppression, violence. We lived through it, we breathed the
tear-gas, we were involved in the riots and all the rest of it.

"We are well aware that what we've already depicted are not the most
positive images. But now the bulk of people are pursuing peace, and
so the last mural we're planning will encapsulate something of that.
It will be full of colour and energy and light, looking to the
future, with imagery of birth and rebirth. It will be trying to
capture the hopes, dreams and desires of this generation, and the

The eight murals attract much attention. Coachloads of tourists pose
for photographs in front of them, with the three artists staging
tours for visitors "from as far away as Brisbane and Helsinki". They
are fiercely independent, insistent that they are artists who happen
to come from the Bogside and who have stayed true to their roots.
They still draw the dole, they say, scorning "careerism" and "the
egomania that runs riot in the art world".

They rail against art elitism, against "your upper middle-class piece
of cheese, glass of wine" set. They decry "the art-speak bullshit",
complaining that they have had little or no help from political or
artistic officialdom.

They have won praise from the Derry playwright Brian Friel, who
said: "This is work of conscious ostentation, of deliberate defiance
but it has delicacy too. 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."

And the artists are neither republicans nor propagandists. One of
them, Kevin Hasson, said: "We were aware we could easily be tagged
because of what we were depicting, but the fact is that all shades of
nationalist opinion were involved in those events." Kelly
added: "It's simply capturing a moment in time, saying, 'This is what
happened, make of it what you will, bring your own baggage to it'."

One of their most popular and most striking murals, entitled "The
death of innocence", shows a young girl killed during clashes with
the Army in 1971. Kelly said: "That was a call to take the gun out of
Irish politics, because we know in any conflict the innocent die, on
the West Bank, Tiananmen Square or wherever.

"We have been at the forefront of helping other mural painters to get
away from the sectarian, tribalistic imagery, to think in terms of
culture and history rather than the guy with the mask and the
Armalite or Kalashnikov."

Catholic and Protestant youngsters attend their workshops. Kelly
added: "Some of our greatest achievements are not our murals or our
exhibitions; it's seeing friendships forged in our workshops that go
on out in the streets."

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