Tuesday, February 10, 2009

A picture says a thousand words; here are half:

The artist stands beside a projection of his work in the dark, but he's fine with that. This is one of the murals from the exhibit and lecture of "The People's Gallery" in Derry, Northern Ireland, hosted by the DePaul Irish Society and Irish Studies Program the afternoon of February 9th in room 314A of the Student Center.

"We're artists, not politicians", says Tom Kelly, as he describes the meaning of the mural of a bearded figure emerging from prison cast in front of a woman who seems anonymous. She isn't, she's representational of all the women who went to prison in the North of Ireland, and he is a hunger striker.

"How do you paint this mural in such a way that isn't seen to be propagandist?" Tom remembered the image of this man on the BBC, the first prisoner to be released from Long Kesh prison in the early 1980's, after a very long and deadly standoff with Margaret Thatcher, the then Prime Minister of the UK. This man was a member of the IRA who believed he was a political prisoner, who, with his fellow IRA prisoners, claimed the rights of political prisoners were being denied to them. Margaret Thatcher believed they were terrorists and should be treated as such: limited access to visitors, wearing prison suits, and performing prison labor.

In protest, a group of IRA members died in a hunger strike that was preceded by a dirty protest (use your imagination) and then a nudity demonstration. The most famous of these protesters is a man called Bobby Sands. He is martyred in the Catholic community of Northern Ireland, the subject of multiple films, and the face on many murals across the country.

Tom said, "Our work is representative. We make no apology... We must face our experiences, to grow and develop as a people, for healing."

Throughout the program, images on murals like these depicted the faces of people in Tom's family who were murdered. One called "the Misadventures of Youth" showed three 15-year-old boys. One blew himself up accidentally in Tom's backyard, one was murdered coming out of a chip (fry) shop, and the other was killed by an IRA bomb.
One of these boys was Tom's best friend, and another was his first cousin.

"It's important that we not just question the state and the status quo, but that we challenge ourselves," Tom reasons for being a Catholic who depicted an IRA execution.

In this spirit, he closed the exhibition with a mural called "The Bridge." Four faces: MLK's, Nelson Mandela's, Mother Theresa's, and Nobel Laureate Catholic Political leader from Northern Ireland, John Hume's, surround a view of the Brooklyn Bridge. "It was built in the sand," Tom said, "many people died building it, and people said it would never stand." The bridge had fallen, but was built again, still standing, like those in Derry.

"We don't have a monopoly on suffering in Northern Ireland, the 6 counties of Ulster,; for a long time people says it was an impossible situation and is unsolvable. We say the unsolvable is solvable and the impossible is possible."

The presentation closed with the discussion with Tom's audience. "I've painted many a cross-eyed man in my life," Tom said describing his painting technique. Closing up shortly thereafter, he admits,"I'm a smoker, and with that, I've got to go have one."

Brave, and brutally honest, those Irish.

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