Art of the Troubles: Culture and Conflict

Dr Stefanie Lehner (Queen’s University Belfast); Dr Laura McAtackney (University College Dublin); Dr Cillian McGrattan (University of Ulster)

The importance of culture in Northern Irish political life was reinforced in the events surrounding Pastor McConnell over the past week. It is clear that within Northern Ireland, the effects of fear, judgment, prejudice, hate and intimidation make themselves felt in various forms throughout society.

Cultural difference, then, shapes and informs the contours of political life – it works to valorise certain principles and beliefs and delegitimise others; it can be harnessed to ideas about whose voices should be listened to and whose ought to be muted; and it frames who and what is important while also excluding other ideas and values. In some ways this is part of what culture does: it provokes a response, an evaluation and a debate: We prefer or like certain things but not others.

When Richard Haass spoke of cultivating a ‘civic vision’ for Northern Ireland, he presumably had in mind the idea that these judgments and preferences can be filtered through channels that lead away from violence and threat and instead towards respect for difference.

The ongoing exhibition at the Ulster Museum explores how artists engaged in and represented these alternative and alternating visions throughout the Northern Irish conflict. Building on and complementing that exhibition, we are assisting the Institute for British-Irish Studies at University College Dublin with convening a public event at the Museum on Friday 6th June (free places can be reserved by RSVP [email protected]).

The aim of this event is to explore the role of art and artistic representations in reshaping social identities in Northern Ireland through the Troubles and through to present day.

The conference wishes to interrogate the ‘art of the Troubles’ as conceived and experienced in both its relationships and materialisations within and beyond the academy.

The conference will examine and highlight the role of art and artistic interventions in reshaping social relations in Northern Ireland, in moving beyond conflict and division and destabilizing long accepted polarizations within Northern Irish society.

Including, but moving beyond fine art, ‘art’ is conceived in its widest possible sense – to include all forms included in the exhibition but also broadening to encompass literature, theatre, music, comedy, public art, murals, memorials and film. In broadening this conception of art the conference wishes to address the following questions: How do artistic interventions shape the perception of division? How do (or even can) they work to reshape perceptions in ways that represent (or undercut) inclusivity and consensus? How do artistic interventions work to reveal forms of belonging and sharing that remain obscured and hidden by more mainstream ethnonational imagery? How do visual arts work to dismember reified memories and reconfigure alternative futures? What is the role of popular visual culture in fostering plurality, peace and stability? What lessons can be drawn from other post-conflict and deeply divided societies in promoting reconciliation through art? The overriding aim of the day is to highlight and explore the role of art and culture in defining, questioning and presenting alternatives to conflicts and divisions that still manifest – in both longstanding and new forms – in contemporary Northern Ireland.

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