Shades of meaning in our bigger picture: Portrait of Northern Ireland - Neither an Elegy nor a Manifesto

In a project of huge breadth and ambition, the story of Northern Ireland's visual arts legacy has been distilled into a single exhibition featuring more than 100 works pointing to the past, present and future. Jane Hardy assesses an exhibition that deftly avoids the minefields in which other centenary events have found themselves, while not shirking the challenges of history and the way ahead

Willie Doherty's Ghost Walk III, pictured left, and Peter Neill's Dollar Gun are in the Chronicling Conflict section of the Portrait of Northern Ireland: Neither An Elegy Nor A Manifesto
Jane Hardy

CURATING Portrait of Northern Ireland: Neither an Elegy nor a Manifesto, has been a Herculean task - and a sensitive one at that.

Talking to me last week as the finishing touches were put to the exhibition, which opened to the public at the Golden Thread Gallery in Belfast yesterday, curator Shan McAnena explains that because of Covid-19, her job began in May.

The task of sifting and selecting work ranging in time from partition to today would have taken three times as long pre-pandemic - but with the help of an advisory board and support - but no artistic interference - from the Northern Ireland Office, they pulled it together.

"This would normally have taken a year and a half, but we managed it," says McAnena.

"I wanted to showcase the best Northern Irish artists and their work but we knew it would be complex and sensitive. That's why we came up with the line from John Hewitt, 'Neither an elegy nor a manifesto'."

Read more: Murals in Belfast and Northern Ireland: An explainer

The result is magnificent. It is classy, thought-provoking about the importance of the fact Northern Ireland is now 100 years old, sometimes playful and ultimately moving.

It explores our very identity. The title of the exhibition, as noted, is the title of one of John Hewitt's poems which opens with the line "Bear in mind these dead".

We can't avoid that in the Troubles section, where aesthetically you witness a terrible beauty being born via Joseph McWilliams's large canvas capturing an Orange parade and F.E. McWilliam's Woman of Belfast V. This small sculpture shows a falling figure, caught in the Abercorn tea rooms bombing in Belfast in March 1972. She is pretty and doomed and anonymous. We don't know her name so there is a universality in her suffering.

Talking to one of the team working in the gallery, the twentysomething observed that her favourite picture was probably Holding The Rope by Victor Sloan, showing a little girl skipping with the chaos and violence of the Troubles all around. She said she liked it because it reflected what she grew up with.

But there is a bigger picture, so to speak, and the non-chronological show is imaginatively divided into sections, starting with A Sense of Place.

After noticing a stylish 1930s poster inviting you to Visit Ulster via the Cunard Line, you see Paul Henry's lyrical small landscape, In the West of Ireland (1921), one of the artworks you want to steal.

The Belfast-born artist, whose work also appeared on posters, resonates via paintings of the Republic and Donegal fishermen. So this painting links us to pre-Partition, to the notion of the whole island of Ireland rather than the jurisdictions brought into being in 1921, following the Government of Ireland Act passed a year earlier.

The exhibition - which also occupies a place in the programme for the Belfast International Arts Festival - runs at the Golden Thread Gallery until November 4.

McAnena, who has lived here for 30 years, is English and reveals she was initially slightly hesitant about accepting the role, saying they didn't the exhibition to be 'a 50 per cent Catholic, 50 per cent Protestant job'.

She notes: "It isn't up to the artist to produce a documentary but it is interesting the artists here can identify as Irish, British, Northern Irish and European.

"We approached over 140 artists and only six said 'No', and not all for political reasons. But art can break through labels, providing everything from provocation to joy."

It's a nuanced show. You cannot easily pigeonhole the north, or its artistic output.

Gretta Bowen's delightful canvas, for example, is a gorgeous slice of outsider art titled Country Match of the Day, showing exuberant footballers painted using her son's paintbox, belongs outside art history labels.

In the second space, titled A New Tradition you see home-grown portraits, of affluent burghers, a young mother pushing her baby in a pram.

There are already breaks with convention, though, and I Hear Dogs Barking by Emma Connolly uses a pretty palette to convey a nightmarish scene. The big dog terrorises the foreground on the large canvas, teeth visible like some Francis Bacon monster, while a small car seems to upend behind him; everything's off key.

Next we reach the Encounters with Modernism, a European movement. So this visual definition of Our Story in the Making shows Northern Ireland to be here and there, European and British.

Some outstanding work occupies this space, including White Shapes Entering by William Scott. This is a beautiful abstract work, using monochrome shapes inspired by the humble frying pan. Not an Ulster fry, then, but something that ranks with the output of international greats such as Alexander Calder.

The important point is that Northern Ireland can't be simply defined as an orange and green territory; it's way beyond and bigger than that. In a sense, the exhibition shows a nation united culturally or at least connected via its talent.

McAnena says the show's ability to resist labels illustrates "the effort of people to navigate what it means to live and be part of Northern Ireland".

However serious the political and sectarian differences, Northern Ireland as a brand is very creative and punches way above its weight in all the arts.

Ireland is often thought of as a written place but visual art clearly also works.

"The writing is important, but Northern Ireland is also a visual place and is now celebrated because of its fine and applied art," observes McAnena.

There's a crossover here with a nice portrait of Michael Longley in his sitting room by Jeffrey Morgan.

You have to wonder, though, if art can ever heal division or help people resolve things.

As McAnena explains, anger can be an inspiration as well as more tender emotions, and we discuss Belfast's murals, one of which is depicted in a work in the section on conflict.

"We need art, and I think there's something heroic about people who become artists as it's not the best paid profession," she says.

Although the work of the best known artists sells for tens, sometimes hundreds, of thousands, the curator mentions the importance of private collectors who along with museums maintain the art world.

You leave after passing a portrait of a young man who looks worried and thoughtful, although his eyes may have a humorous or semi-optimistic expression.

This subtle painting, Just to Feel Normal by Ian Cumberland, may indicate depression, and mental health is another theme in the exhibition.

Or possibly his face sums up our feelings about the last hundred years. There may be no simply conclusion about The Making of our Story, the phrase on the exhibition programme.

Philip Napier's fascinating installation, Ballad No 2 (Antonio Gramsci) is accompanied by a two-chord rasping melody from the accordion attached to it. The sound is harsh, like a dying breath, and the work was initially exhibited at the British School at Rome where the artist studied. It contains a picture of the Italian communist Gramsci who died in a Fascist prison but seems to have wider terms of reference.

I spoke to artists Catherine McWilliams and her son Simon, who each have works in the exhibition.

Her 1973 painting Girls on Motorbikes has resonance, as she explains: "It was around this time of year when I painted it and such a dark evening. I saw these young girls, two or three of them on big motorbikes, some at the back wearing the fashion of the time, short dresses and those big, clunky shoes. There was light coming from a block of flats behind them."

One of the bikers was charged with being a member of the IRA and the barrister who represented her eventually bought the painting which the artist said she found droll. Catherine overlaid the bright image with dark grey, to reflect the way the period felt.

Her son Simon has a luminous painting of the Palm House in Botanic Gardens, Belfast's Kew Gardens-style hothouse designed by Charles Lanyon.

It's a sizeable canvas and the building seems almost to float in its setting. We move to stand beside Catherine's late husband Joseph McWilliams's massive, and massively impressive, work in the Chronicling Conflict section.

Titled Twelfth Parade, North Queen St, it's colourful, energetic and rather beautiful, until you realise the context is a sectarian-fuelled stand-off. The deliberately blurred and excitable execution of detail, with what look like rapidly applied, splashy brush strokes, gives a sense of action that does not immediately register as disturbing.

The show is brought right up to date with a room dedicated to the work of recent graduates from the Belfast School of Art.

You immediately notice a great self-portrait by Adela Puterkova, who has photographed herself in the nude, but only showing a gloriously plump, anonymous half-a-body. Defying supposed notions of slim attractiveness and current thoughts on body image, Puterkova recalls the over-sized, beautiful nudes of Jenny Saville.

Elsewhere, there are other self-portraits - one showing a girl with a ponytail, another a young woman peering out in a filmed sequence from the centre of a childlike stylised daisy shape.

Her expression varies from uncertainty to happiness and thoughtfulness - rather like the expressions of anyone lucky enough to visit this exhibition.