Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

Further reflections since 2007 - 2010 by Bernard Conlon


Bernard Conlon during Press declaration in Belfast 21.9.2009

As someone who is into history and culture, I greatly welcomed an invitation to Athens in 2007. At short time before, I had started to take more than a cursory glance at Northern Ireland's infamous political art / wall murals.

A new mural valueing the laughter of children, Belfast 2009

Bernard Conlon and the wall mural he commissioned to commemorate the EU-supported North Belfast Urban II programme, Lower Oldpark, Belfast – a unionist area separated from nationalist areas by a peaceline.  Bernard Conlon provided communications advice to the agency delivering Urban II.


A Personal, Peace and Painting Process

As someone very much into history and culture, I greatly welcomed an invitation to Athens in 2007. A short time before, I had started to take more than a cursory glance at Northern Ireland's infamous political art / wall murals.

Having studied history (and politics) and been a journalist, the notion of narrative is the supporting stone of my personal philosophy and perspective. This background along with an aesthetic attraction to the use of colour in bleak urban environments, especially in a damp, grey climate, led me to believe that the mural tradition could have a life beyond conflict.

Firstly, I saw murals as an interesting, if simple way of conveying and documenting history.   Every major milestone of Irish history is vividly depicted on Belfast’s walls.  This visual history display could, I felt, help people, especially the young, explore identity and help with education.

Identity is a complex concept and can open up plenty of Pandora’s boxes. Where there is conflict and division culture likewise becomes highly contentious. When I went to mainland Europe in the mid 1980s I became engrossed with both. I did a Robert Schuman Scholarship at the European Parliament in Luxembourg.  After this short parliamentary stint I went to Brussels to work as a journalist on the expanding European Union (EU) project.

An immensely positive relationship with a native Irish (Gaelic) speaking, intelligent and vibrant woman from the West of Ireland completed an interesting circuit at that time. Having left Belfast at the height of the Troubles, I now finally had the distance, freedom and space to expand my intellectual and emotional horizons. I could explore where I had come from and collectively where both parts of Ireland and Europe were going.

This led to a zealous crusade of cultural activism in the shape of a “culture and information forum” entitled Ex-Isle – Deoraiocht (in Gaelic). Exploration was through events: exhibitions, public debates, lectures and all manner of musical evenings: from classical recitals to raucous, pre-River-Dance Ceilis (folk dances).  This heady cocktail of culture and intense journalism lasted for several years until my neo-Bohemian existence inevitably started running out of steam.

A few years later I met Hatto Fischer in Brussels, who probably sensed my dented, but still intact idealism and curiosity. I had already started to drift back and forth to Belfast, courtesy of budget air travel.

I had come full circle: I went to Brussels to escape Belfast and ended up back in Belfast – to escape Brussels.  I was back in a society emerging from decades of conflict. It had an almost celebrity-like peace process and was awash with grants for everything. I felt like a stranger: a fish out of water and very much out of the local  loop.  A few good friends provided a sufficient network.

I started to hear again from Hatto Fischer around 2006. In late 2007 just before I had started a contract, ironically on an EU programme in inner-city Belfast, Hatto invited me to Athens for a Kids’ Guernica exhibition. Kids Guernica, a worldwide children’s art movement for peace, were displaying their massive portable peace murals, the same size as Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, in conjunction with a conference of former European Cities of Culture.

So, on the last Aer Lingus summer season flight out of Dublin to Athens, in October 2007, I was heading for a feast of culture, art and networking, reminiscent of my Brussels heyday. During the journey I introduced myself to former Irish Minister of Culture, Michael D. Higgins, who was also attending the joint event, and whose company I would share in the coming days. Hatto picked us both up at the airport and drove at breakneck speed through Athens as good food, wine and convivial conversation was the agenda that evening. It was quite literally like coming home.

Portable peace murals - suddenly my fascination with wall murals made sense. There was, I was now convinced, a greater purpose in this omnipresent Belfast art form.

Shortly before my Athens trip, I had scoured Belfast with press photographer friend Kevin Cooper collating images of both republican and loyalist murals. A youth training organisation commissioned me to work with their trainees. This included a mural tour and explaining 800-years of Anglo-Irish history.  The murals provided an animated teaching aid. In the debriefing afterwards dormant passions induced by the images surfaced. Nonetheless, I was convinced of the value of interpreting this visual legacy of the Troubles.

The 2007 Athens visit was catalytic and cathartic.  Finding my-self back in an international setting with like-minded people had an inspiring impact. While in Athens I was subtly coaxed to get a Belfast Kids’ Guernica painting done. The decisive and defining moment for me was seeing a small, improvised Palestinian painting. The deeply disturbing images it portrayed and hearing how the original painting had been blockaded from travelling touched me deeply.

I returned to Belfast not realising how challenging it would be to get a painting done. I had no practical art skills, nor access to a ready catchment of young people. Finding Cathal Cauldwell, an art teacher in the Little Flower Girls School in Belfast, who got a group of his pupils to produce the painting, was a fortunate breakthrough.

Exhibiting in Belfast was yet another challenge. The Belfast Children’s Festival, for example, inexplicably turned down the Belfast Kids’ Guernica painting that I had striven for months to bring to fruition.  This was typical of the restrictive inertia that I encountered. Finally, one of Belfast’s oldest cultural institutions, the Linen Hall Library saw the Kids’ Guernica painting as the perfect way to commemorate United Nations International Peace Day on 21 September, 2009. They also kindly exhibited the painting for a week.

It was yet another Kids’ Guernica exhibition in Florida State University (FSU), Tallahassee, in January 2010 that provided the opportunity to document the Belfast Kids’s Guernica’s challenging odyssey. A specially produced publication for the exhibition by FSU’s Tom Anderson published the tale of the first Belfast Kids’ Guernica painting.

Moreover, it was an academic event on Art and Design and Social Justice, held annually by the university and in 2010, concurrent with the Kids’ Guernica event that also afforded the opportunity for me to reflect more formally. I commented on the Belfast painting and how the wall mural tradition could be mobilised for building peace. Preservation through digital photographic and other recording, while gradually removing the majority of the murals from residential areas was just one aspect of what I considered.

All this was done by the authorship of a short paper and its presentation for the FSU conference. The paper finally came to be entitled: The Art of Conflict and Peace in Northern Ireland.

This paper allowed me to objectify my engagement with a worldwide Portable Peace Mural project, inspired by Picasso’s Guernica and clarify my thinking on Northern Ireland’s conflict.  The paper and the interaction in Talahassee, has also helped me to identify a practical approach to peace-building using art. The Belfast Kids’ Guernica painting provides a template and an excellent educational tool.

I have also been prompted to tentatively contribute to Kids’ Guernica’s evolution and its global role of giving a voice to voiceless children. It provides them with a platform, tainted as it unavoidably is with the complex antics of adulthood, but a very valuable and virtually unique platform nonetheless.

On a more personal level, the journey alluded to here, has allowed me to get more in touch with my own narrative.  It has helped me elucidate my own history: my youth in Belfast, personal exile, relationships and my time in Brussels which, as I used to say when on my crusade: was “the crossroads of contemporary Europe.”

The impact of plenty of positive people as an antidote to the less benign and engagement with, rather than just facile consumption of culture, is even a temptation to a personal, albeit, tentative artistic output.  This all makes me hopeful that the decade that I have recently begun will continue to let me capture narrative and express experience, including the Kids’ Guernica experience – and hopefully help to preserve and promote peace in the process.

Bernard Conlon, Journalist, Belfast, Northern Ireland

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