Fionnbarra O'Dochartaigh reviews The People's Gallery featuring the work of the Derry-based artists Tom Kelly, Kevin Hasson and William Kelly, known collectively as The Bogside Artists
AWAY FROM the paint-cans, brushes and outdoor scaffoldings this trio, and supporters, have taken to pen and ink to produce The People's Gallery, an outstanding glossy, full-colour illustrated book of 13O-plus pages, which captures not only the story behind their twelve most famous murals, but much more besides.
Those interested in art will no doubt hastily make it their business to obtain a copy at the earliest possible opportunity, while stocks last. So too should others interested in the lives of the artists themselves, the history of "The Maiden City" and that area known as The Bogside and pivotal events there in '69; the specific and diverse culture of "The Swinging Sixties"; the upsurge of popular resistance that led to the birth of civil rights movements in America and nearer home, as well as references to many people, places and events both at home and across the globe, down the decades.
It is highly noteworthy that The Bogside Artists are not in anyone's employ in so far as their work has never been funded by any political party, have no working relationship with tourist boards, north or south or with any similar local agency.
The People's Gallery is their vision and their vision entirely. Over the years this writer noted, as have no doubt the artists themselves, a definite hostility, often unexpected from certain quarters because of such a collective and dogged independence of spirit. However, one feels that most fair-minded folk would view such a public stance as not only admirable, but should always be highly encouraged within and beyond that field of human endeavour known as "the arts".
Such hostility may stem from such facts and misperceptions that:
- The gallery of murals are not a propaganda exercise for anybody or any organisation, nor are they Catholic as opposed to Protestant murals.
- The artists hold very different political and religious views and are obviously anti-sectarian. They therefore resent their work being classified as part or parcel of any supposed 'sectarian divide'.
- The murals tell the story of "The Troubles" and that is their singular purpose. They form a coherent visual narrative that is One, Complete, Whole and Indivisible.
- Even a brief visit to The People's Gallery at "Aggro Corner" - junction of William Street/Rossville Street - will quickly reveal that the trio have worked with a high degree of social responsibility, knowing that images of combat, guns, murder and mayhem, that some no doubt expected from them, they have avoided, viewing such as very irresponsible, inflammatory and antithetical to the needs of a community yearning for peace.
- The trio completed the bulk of their gallery in the summer of 2004 by which time their public works had long been established as a major tourist draw. An earlier publication, Murals appeared in 2001.
The artists, speaking on their work of several years, articulate a common strategy:
"Our gallery was undertaken as a service to the people who fought for their democratic rights, as this latest book makes abundantly clear." There is no doubt that as far as the three men are concerned they fulfilled their place in history to the very best of their abilities.
Tom Kelly puts it very well:
" The People's Gallery is an utterly authentic record of a period of our history painted by us who have lived it and breathed it. We know the murals are in the best possible hands-the hands of those who value them, understand them and respect them. These are the people we painted them for. It is their enduring and unconquerable spirit that refracts from these images that we have created."
On a dry and surprisingly warm afternoon on the last Friday in February, our former MP and civil rights leader, Nobel laureate John Hume, delivered a short address at the book launch of The People's Gallery.
John is depicted in a recent mural alongside other internationally-recognised figures such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa Of Calcutta with Nelson Mandela being the remainder of the quartet. As Bishop Edward Daly so fittingly reminded people as to why these four had been placed together:
"They were primarily champions of the little people, the nobodies who were cast aside in most societies as of no worth. That is what makes these people great and joins them together".
Hume told the invited gathering:
"I feel very privileged and honoured to be with The Bogside Artists on this very important day for the launch of their book, The People's Gallery.
"This book is a fascinating and entertaining read. As well as the accounts of each of the twelve murals, there is a short history of Ireland with special reference to Derry, an interesting look back at world events in the second half of the twentieth century especially in the struggle for civil rights in America and here in the North, and an insight into the different world famous artists who inspired them in the development of their own artistic skills and techniques.
"The chapters on the paintings reveal the sensitivity and empathy for each mural which the artists experienced. They had lived through these terrible times, but in the painting of each mural, they took the trouble to consult with relatives or people who were involved in the incidents. As Brian Friel, the world renowned playwright said: 'The work of The Bogside Artists is celebrated locally and internationally, but it is their reputation that is important both to the artists and the locality. The work is remarkable in that it is simultaneously a vibrant response to events still vivid in the psyche of the community and, even as it testifies, it transcends those immediate passions and proposes an historian's distance and objectivity. The work says: "You know the people in these pictures because they are your neighbours and your allies and you know what they endured; but have you thought about them in this way - as a people caught up in a chaos of tumultuous events and at the same time talking control of those events and shaping a new destiny? Because we, The Bogside Artists, believe that that is what has happened. That is what we are talking about".'
Hume continued: "Brian Friel recognised this sensitivity to the subjects and events which the chapters of the book reveal in great detail. This publication is an important record of a pivotal period of our history, and I have no doubt that it will make an enormous contribution to the respect for and interest in our city. I know it will be of great interest to our visitors, both national and international, and I heartily recommend it".
The People's Gallery is available from Tom Kelly, 46 William Street, Derry City Bt48 9AD; price £15.
Fionnbarra O'Dochartaigh, a local author and historian was a co-founder of NICRA in 1967. He is the current coordinator of the Derry & N-West Civil Rights Network. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Connolly Association, c/o RMT, Unity House, 39 Chalton Street, London, NW1 1JD
Copyright © 2009 Fionnbarra O'Dochartaigh