Sounds of the past unlocked by Belfast artist and former prisoner Raymond Watson

As Belfast artist Raymond Watson launches a soundscape of sounds from the past, he tells Gail Bell of the importance of unlocking memories purely by listening

Belfast artist Raymond Watson with the keys that set him off on an artistic journey back to prison
Belfast artist Raymond Watson with the keys that set him off on an artistic journey back to prison

BELFAST artist Raymond Watson is helping unlock the past with his latest project, a 'soundscape' rhythmically created from rattling keys and banging metal – the humdrum sounds of daily life while a prisoner in Crumlin Road Prison in the 1970s.

Now mostly based in the tranquility of Cushendall, Watson – who first came to attention with his sculpted bronze Hands of History artwork and the Belfast Flags of Hope community art exhibition – has reworked some of the original soundtrack from an audio-visual installation he had on display in Liverpool for this stand-alone piece of sonic art.

"Some of the soundscape was composed to accompany my exhibition on the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday peace agreement held in the Victoria and Albert Museum and Gallery in Liverpool, last March," he says. "It included a dedicated space for keys, but I think the soundtrack, on its own, is something you can listen to with your eyes closed and no other interference."

Entitled Unlocked, the unusual art form – composed with the help of daughters Toraigh and Dara – includes the sounds of jangling keys from Crumlin Road Prison, a metal food tray, grappling hook, banging grills and locks, shouts, whistles and rhythms – all accompanied by Irish harp and flute.

The piece, released in vinyl form, consists of two 22-minute tracks, with the sonic art on one side and narration, with sound effects, on the other.

For Watson, a former republican prisoner from Newry, art is the very antithesis of conflict and is all about constructive recreation, helping him on his own, personal peace process journey over the past 25 years.

Born into a mixed marriage, he joined the IRA for a brief period in his youth and was involved in planting the Newry Bus Depot bomb in 1978, going on to spend several years in prison. After his release he gained a degree in media studies and worked as a lecturer and journalist before being drawn into the world of art, initially in wood sculpture.

It's a world that has helped him explore notions of cultural identity and address issues of political and social discord at local and global levels – "wherever people are imprisoned by their own belief systems".

"The thing is, it’s not just about Northern Ireland; art derived from conflict is universal, whether it’s in the Basque region of Spain – where I’m going to give a talk this month – or in north-west Africa where I was invited to visit in 2014 as part of a project aimed at dismantling the world's biggest 'peace wall'," he says.

Following the visit to the Basque Country at the invitation of international peace research centre Gernika Gogoratuz, he will return home to concentrate on a quieter, more poetic kind of art.

"I am now concentrating on a body of work connected to Seamus Heaney which is due to open at the ArtisAnn Gallery in Belfast’s Bloomfield Avenue in June," he says.

"I’ve always been big into Seamus Heaney poetry and one of first exhibitions I did, many years ago, was based on his poetry. He wrote me a letter afterwards, with a lovely quote about reimaging images. This will be continuation of the same sort of theme."

And, while the Unlocked original installation is no longer running at the gallery in Liverpool, there are hopes it will be staged in Belfast at the end of the year.

"We are currently finalising funding to set it up in Belfast, so I’m looking forward to seeing people’s reactions here," Watson adds. "It ran for more than two months in Liverpool and attracted the biggest number of visitors the gallery had ever had. I was especially pleased that a bus-load of former British soldiers came to visit – they hired out a bus especially to come and see it.

"My own experiences are a lifetime ago now but sometimes people carry things for a long time. I hope people will find the soundscape thought-provoking and help them unlock things from their own past."

:: UnLocked (LP) is available to purchase at thehandsofhistory.com