Collage: A Political Act, which runs until Sunday at the Ulster Museum, features recent acquisitions by international artists such as Troy Michie, along with works by Belfast-based Joy Gerrard and 2021 Turner prize winners Array Collective.
The exhibition explores how artists use existing imagery to make bold statements that spark conversations by creating new works.
Anna Liesching, curator of art at the Ulster Museum, says she wants audiences to understand that collage is more than cutting and pasting.
“It is not just about PVA glue and magazine cuttings, it can be many things.
“It is as powerful and arresting as more traditional techniques, such as painting or sculpture,” she says.
“Collage is an interesting medium, as it allows artists to repurpose imagery to create new art, challenging viewers to consume pieces differently and to reconsider how they view the world around them.
“I hope that Collage: A Political Act shows how artists have used this exciting art form to illustrate extraordinary messages that speak to current issues, such as reproductive rights, racism and identity.”
While all art delivers a message, the medium of collage does this with immediacy, she adds.
“A playful medium, that moves images around a page, it allows an artist to focus on what they are trying to communicate rather than on their technique.
“This exhibition includes a lot of work that portrays protests. Indeed, the medium of collage could itself be perceived as a protest against traditional methods of art creation.
“Collage is also about layers, and there are many layers to the stories behind these works.”
Troy Michie’s Riots was the piece that inspired the exhibition.
“I acquired it for the collection in 2020 and it’s a very moving work,” says Anna.
“On first appearance, it is interesting, graphic and beautiful, and when you discover its meaning, it gains an added power, inviting discussion about systematic racism and how people use clothes to define their identity.”
The exhibition also features Protest Crowd, Charlotte, USA, (Black Lives Matter 2016), (2017) by Joy Gerrard. Gerrard is known for work that interrogates relationships between crowds, architecture and urban landscapes.
Created with Japanese ink on linen, this striking and contemporary piece conveys a sense of the consolidated power of global protest movements.
“I was very excited when I heard that my work was going to feature in this exhibition,” says Joy.
“Firstly, I am very interested in the ideas behind it.
“I am fascinated by how artists can appropriate images and change them to emphasise a message, and enjoy the idea of disrupting an existing image by literally ripping it up.
“In this case, I have altered the original image in numerous ways.
“It has been enlarged, then translated into black and white and the composition has been changed and stretched.”
Like Anna, Joy feels collage, given its broad medium, can be effective at communicating a message.
“I think we see different types of collage in all sorts of art mediums. It is essentially a mixing and pasting together of different images, but it can be about mixing up words or editing bits of film together. It doesn’t have to be a literal tearing and pasting of paper.
“We often see collage used in contemporary advertising and in film to add information or to highlight a point.
“In terms of fine art, collage is often used in a graphic way. Apart from the artists in the exhibition, such as Troy Michie or Emma Campbell, there are many who use it to make political statements. Artists like Jenny Holzer or Barbara Kruger, for example, edit text in very political ways.”
Joy’s artistic perspective from above is incredibly moving, and it’s something that she says gives the audience many things to think about.
“In my work, I’m interested in how we relate to the crowd, and to issues that people are protesting about. An aerial view gives us both geographic and hierarchical context.
“How do we relate to the crowd? Are we part of the crowd? Or do we see the group of people as difficult or troublesome and in need of control? I think views of buildings and people always provoke thought about politics and the apparatus of governance and policing.”
Her piece concerns the Black Lives Matter movement, something she calls “a huge, universal issue”.
“I hope that it makes viewers consider the subject both locally and universally, and that it makes them think about humanity, and the will to change a wrong.
“We are, of course, very familiar with protest and politics here in Northern Ireland and it’s important to me for my work to be part of that conversation.”
Though every exhibition explores a different theme, Anna believes the logistics remain the same.
“As a curator, you’re managing a project with lots of moving parts and multiple teams that include conservation, designers, gallery staff, marketing, artists and partner organisations, such as other museums.
“In the lead-up to launching an exhibition, there is at least a year of research and writing, of trying to figure how best to communicate the ideas at the heart of the exhibition to the public.
“At National Museums NI, we aim to make our collections as accessible as possible, to reach new and varied audiences and to introduce people to new perspectives.
“I’m very lucky to work with an amazing and talented group of people, who work together to share our collection with the public.”
Joy is as appreciative of the local art scene, describing studio organisations in Northern Ireland as “amazing”.
She says: “They are very active and are doing incredible work. They often operate on a shoestring budget to support artists, which makes for a flourishing creative community.
“I would love for these organisations to have more funding, and for there to be a more active commercial gallery sector here in Northern Ireland to promote local artists’ visibility.”
Collage: A Political Act will be in situ at Ulster Museum until May 29. Admission to the Ulster Museum and to the exhibition is free. For opening times and further details visit nmni.com