The Portrait of Northern Ireland: Neither an Elegy nor a Manifesto exhibition is a collaboration between the Northern Ireland Office, the Government Art Collection, the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and Belfast School of Art as part of the wider cultural programme of the Northern Ireland Centenary.
Curated by Shan McAnena the survey features over 100 artists including Paul Henry, William Scott and the Turner Prize nominated Array Collective as well as a selection of recent graduates from the Belfast School of Art.
Speaking about her involvement Shan said: “I was invited by the Northern Ireland Office to curate the show back in May, which was a challenge because it wasn’t a huge amount of time to bring together that amount of work and do justice to the fine art practice of a century in Northern Ireland, but I was confident that artists would be keen to engage with the exhibition.
“It’s been really exciting and a privilege to be able to showcase the breadth and depth of the range of fine art practices here in Northern Ireland and to have a platform that reflects the quality of work that exists.”
Taking its subtitle from a John Hewitt poem of the same name Shan feels that, regardless of what people’s views on the Northern Ireland Centenary may be, the exhibition serves an important role in documenting the last 100 years.
“It’s neither a lament nor a celebration of Northern Ireland,” she comments. “It’s an acknowledgement that it exists and that artists have responded to the geographical, social and political experiences of life lived here.
“This is a chance to pause and reflect. Whatever one feels about the centenary — some people want to celebrate it, some people want to lament it and some people want to ignore it altogether and that’s perfectly within their rights — I think it provides an opportunity, of which there are very few, to show this wonderful range of artwork that has been made and continues to be made by people in Northern Ireland that directly reflects the universal and particular experiences of people here.
“It can never hope to be a definitive portrait of art in Northern Ireland over 100 years — we wouldn’t have a building big enough — so we’ve had to make some quite difficult decisions about what and who to include but we have tried to be as inclusive as possible.”
As Head of Belfast School of Art, Louise O’Boyle was passionate about ensuring the work of recent graduates was represented within the exhibition.
“That was definitely one of the things we were really keen to do as part of the advisory group,” she explains. “It’s really important that if you’re doing any kind of portrait or overview such as this that as well as looking backwards you look at what’s happening now.
“There is so much going on with emerging artists right now that is as much about what’s happening globally as it is about what’s happening locally and we’ve got extremely connected graduates in that way.”
Louise is hopeful the exhibition and the inclusion of this fresh talent will attract a new generation of art lovers.
She said: “It’s such a beautiful exhibition; it’s very engaging and open and I think people will be quite surprised when they see how the work from decades ago seems very contemporary and how professional the work of the emerging artists is and how well the two sit alongside each other.
For Belfast artist Simon McWilliams, his involvement in the exhibition is particularly poignant as his work will be showing alongside that of his parents Catherine and Joseph.
“The Centenary is a divisive area — some people see it as a celebration and some people don’t want to talk about it but I think the title of the exhibition captures that well. I’m very glad that my mum and dad are both in it and I’m looking forward to seeing the collection,” he says.
While his parents’ artwork captured aspects of the Troubles, Simon’s is more concerned with landscape and buildings.
“My late father, Joseph McWilliams, was probably the first artist to react to the Troubles in Northern Ireland and painted about them alongside landscapes. Perhaps because he was so involved with politics in his paintings I didn’t go down that path. I was more interested in just painting in itself.
“My work has been described as urban landscape — reacting to the landscape around me and a lot of it is connected to construction sites and buildings around the time of the Celtic Tiger and the boom in Northern Ireland”
The exhibition will also give Simon’s mother, Catherine McWilliams the opportunity to revisit one of her 1973 paintings for the first time in nearly 50 years after it was bought at auction recently and loaned it to the show.
Simon, who is also vice president of the Royal Ulster Academy, is confident that, following the pandemic, there is a renewed interest from the public for art exhibitions and shows.
“It’s been a strange time and in many ways it’s like a year was stolen from us so I think there’s definitely a sense that people want to get out there and experience things again and hopefully that benefits the arts sector.”
The Portrait of Northern Ireland: Neither an Elegy nor a Manifesto exhibition is now on view at the Golden Thread Gallery, Belfast, and runs until November 3; www.goldenthreadgallery.co.uk