Art helping brush away our baser tribal instincts
We love to know who people are. In fact, you could say we have an addiction to it - that overwhelming need to put individuals into their assigned boxes. There are numerous jokes about this strange little predilection that we have. Are you a Protestant Jew or a Catholic Jew? A Catholic Buddhist or a Protestant Buddhist?
Of course, many of us like to think we're above such petty sectarian impulses. But a new exhibition at the Ulster Museum by artist Colin Davidson is a forcible reminder of the deep-rooted desire to label, to attribute innocence and blame, or even just to ascertain identity. More importantly, it gives us a glimpse of what life would be like with the labels taken away.
Silent Testimony is a show of 18 large-scale head portraits, each of an individual who has suffered during the Troubles. Their collective impact is powerful. The light in the gallery is deliberately muted, and each face swims out at you with its own story of grief to tell. But none of them are looking directly at you. Their eyes are elsewhere, lost in the past. You feel as though you have strayed into the intimacy of their suffering, intruded on something profoundly private. You're a witness to their pain, yet you don't know these people, each one is a stranger.
Davidson tells us only their names and a few bare details about what happened to them. Some of the details are poignant, they catch at your heart.
The record cover, belonging to her 24-year-old brother Terence, that Mo Norton spotted lying by the side of the road on a news report in 1974, which told her that Terence had been killed by a bomb explosion on a coach. The rose-gold cross found around the neck of Walter Simons' son Eugene, when his body was discovered in a Co Louth bog in 1984; the cross belonged to Eugene's dead first wife. The tiny widow's pension that Maureen Reid used to bring up her family of 10 children when her husband James was killed in a bomb attack on a bar in 1976. The clock in the bedroom of Paul Reilly's daughter Joanne, which is stopped at 9.58am, the exact time she was killed in 1989.
But Davidson doesn't tell us anything that identifies these subjects religiously or politically, or even anything about the perpetrators who inflicted such horrors on them. All that is stripped away. What you are left with is the individual. A representation of the flesh and blood human being, in all their singular, vulnerable complexity, struggling with the weight of grief that they must constantly carry. This was a deliberate decision on Davidson's part. He told me that he didn't want visitors to the show to say - oh, that's a Protestant, or that's a Roman Catholic, and therefore feel less empathy for the sitter. In fact, at first he thought of presenting the portraits without any kind of captions or information about the subjects at all, other than that they were eighteen individuals who had suffered during the Troubles.
What struck me as a viewer was the itch to know more. That default curiosity that we're conditioned to feel. Of course, anyone with even a cursory geographical and political knowledge of Northern Ireland won't find it hard to guess at the circumstances of most of these stories. Who did what to whom.
If you did go away and seek out the full details you would find that the entire show is as representative as it's possible to be. Davidson worked closely with the Wave Trauma Centre to make sure his sitters were from every community, every country, every decade of the Troubles. They are men and women; parents and children; victims of republican, loyalist and State violence. But none of that impeccable balance announces itself within the show. All you see are the faces... and the loss.
Art can't cure our sectarian disease. I fear that nothing can. But sometimes it can open up, however briefly, a different way of seeing the world. This show asks us to imagine what it would be like to respond to people without the traditional markers of identity shaping our reactions, whether consciously or unconsciously. It asks us to remember the victims and survivors whose silence shores up our imperfect peace. It challenges us to let go of the labels, the tribal shorthand of enemy or ally, and connect with the person.