A major art exhibition to showcase the creative talents of Northern Ireland

The Portrait of Northern Ireland: Ni an Elegy ni a Manifesto exhibition is a collaboration between the Northern Ireland Office, the Government Art Collection, the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and the Belfast School of Art as part of the larger cultural program of the Centenary of Northern Ireland. .

Urea by Shan McAnena, the survey presents more than 100 artists, including Paul Henry, William Scott and the Array collective, nominated for the Turner Prize, as well as a selection of recent graduates of the Belfast School of Art.

Speaking of her involvement, Shan said, “I was invited by the Northern Ireland office to host the show in May which was a challenge as it wasn’t a lot of time to muster that amount of work and do justice to the fine art practices of a century in Northern Ireland, but I was convinced that the artists would be delighted to participate in the exhibition.

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Portrait of Barry Douglas by Colin Davidson, courtesy of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland

Portrait of Barry Douglas by Colin Davidson, courtesy of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland

“It has been truly 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 poem by John Hewitt of the same name, Shan believes that no matter what people think of Northern Ireland’s centenary, the exhibit plays an important role in documenting the 100 last years.

“This is neither a lamentation nor a celebration of Northern Ireland,” she comments. “It is a recognition that it exists and that artists have responded to the geographic, social and political experiences of life lived here.

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Exhibition curator Shan McAnena


Exhibition curator Shan McAnena

Exhibition curator Shan McAnena

“This is an opportunity to take a break and think. Whatever you think of the centenary – some people want to celebrate it, some people want to bemoan it and some people want to ignore it altogether and it’s perfectly within their rights – I think it offers an opportunity, there are very many little, to show off this wonderful array of works of art that have been and continue to be made by the people of Northern Ireland that directly reflect the universal and particular experiences of the people here.

“There can never be any hope of being a definitive portrait of art in Northern Ireland over 100 years – we wouldn’t have a building big enough – so we had to make some pretty tough decisions about what and who to include, but we did. tried to be as inclusive as possible.

As Director of the Belfast School of Art, Louise O’Boyle was passionate about the fact that the work of recent graduates was represented within the exhibition.

“It was definitely one of the things we really wanted to do as part of the advisory group,” she explains. “It’s really important that if you do a portrait or the big picture like this, besides looking back, you look at what’s going on now.

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Director of the Belfast School of Art Louise O'Boyle


Director of the Belfast School of Art Louise O’Boyle

Director of the Belfast School of Art Louise O’Boyle

“There is so much going on with emerging artists right now that is as much about what’s happening globally as it’s about what’s happening locally and we have graduates extremely connected that way.”

Louise hopes the exposure and inclusion of this new talent will attract a new generation of art lovers.

She said, “It’s such a beautiful show; it’s very engaging and open and I think people will be quite surprised when they see how very contemporary the work of decades ago looks and how professional the work of emerging artists is and how two are side by side.

For Belfast artist Simon McWilliams, his involvement in the exhibition is particularly poignant as his work will be presented alongside that of his parents Catherine and Joseph.

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Belfast artist Simon McWilliams


Belfast artist Simon McWilliams

Belfast artist Simon McWilliams

“The Centennial is an area of ​​division – some people see it as a celebration and others don’t want to talk about it, but I think the title of the exhibit makes it good. I’m very happy that my mom and dad are both in it and can’t wait to see the collection, ”he says.

While his parents’ works 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 respond to the unrest in Northern Ireland and painted about them alongside landscapes. Maybe because he was so involved in politics in his paintings, I didn’t go down that road. I was more interested in the painting itself.

“My work has been described as an urban landscape – reacting to the landscape around me and much of it relates to construction sites and buildings in the days 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 paintings from 1973 for the first time in almost 50 years after it was bought at auction recently and was loaned it to the exhibition.

Simon, who is also vice-president of the Royal Ulster Academy, is convinced that in the wake of the pandemic there is a resurgence of public interest in art exhibitions and performances.

“It’s been a weird time and in a lot of ways it’s like a year has been stolen from us so I think there’s definitely a feeling that people want to go out and experience things again and hopefully may it benefit the arts sector. “

The Portrait of Northern Ireland: Ni an Elegy ni a Manifesto exhibition is now on display at the Golden Thread Gallery in Belfast and runs until 3 November; www.goldenthreadgallery.co.uk


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