The 4 Corners Festival opened up some insights into the Belfast arts scene this morning at a prayer breakfast at Willowfield parish church in East Belfast. Five speakers and performers shared what’s happening in their corners of the city in an aim to inform, inspire and set the scene for the rest of the festival.
Morris Kincaid, the Chief Executive of East Belfast Partnership, explained how a local, grassroots initiative, the Woodstock R&B Festival, had ‘fired our imaginations’ and led the Partnership to develop more innovative events through its EastSide Arts Festival over the past few years. Among the most notable is an initiative mooted earlier this month to have Van Morrison play a concert on Cyprus Avenue this August. Kincaid shared how this was bringing international attention to the area, with people from all over the world making plans to attend.
Deirdre Mackel, the Arts Development Manager for the Upper Springfield Development Trust in West Belfast, shared her experiences from her last 17 years with the organisation. She described ‘a hunger for participation in arts activities’ in her part of the city, where people had traditionally been disconnected from city centre arts venues. In its early days young people were trained by artists and produced an array of street art. In latter times a popular garden of reflection has been created in the upper Springfield, and women transformed the old Andersonstown barracks site with a knitted-garden tea party.
Emily DeDakis, the Literary Manager of Accidental Theatre and advocate of the Arts Matter NI campaign, then spoke about the proposed cuts and the impact this would have on the arts. (DeDakis’ full contribution has been reproduced here. Her 19 January piece in the Belfast Telegraph can be read here.)
DeDakis pointed out that the entire arts budget is 1/6 of 1% of the overall Northern Ireland budget –barely enough to run the health department for a single day. Our artists already make significant sacrifices for their profession, most subsisting on an average £6,000 per year income, and with many opting to go abroad for better opportunities. She urged people to get involved with the Arts Matter NI campaign and to write letters to their MLAs, noting that ‘physical letters’ rather than emails seemed to get more attention.
The duo of Jan Carson and Hannah McPhillimy, who will be performing on behalf of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland in Brussels next week, shared a snippet from their music and literary project. Carson read a passage from her first novel, Malcolm Orange Disappears, published this past summer, which detailed the traumatic effect on the mystical (and fictional) ‘flying children’ of Jefferson, Oklahoma, of witnessing the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps. McPhillimy followed with a rendition of ‘Homecoming’ on ukulele and vocals. The haunting refrain ‘she might choose home someday’ brought together themes of risk-taking and love casting out fear.
I’d been asked to close the proceedings with prayer. So I shared how the speakers and performers had reminded me that every creative act is a prayer, and observed that they had demonstrated how artists could help fire our imaginations about how to ‘renew the ruined places of the city’ (Isaiah 61).
The 4 Corners Festival is organised by a small group of Christians. But Christians in Northern Ireland haven’t always seen the arts as a source of inspiration. The proposed cuts signal that artists’ contributions are also undervalued by the rest of society.
Image: Fr Martin Magill, Emily DeDakis, Deirdre Mackel, Rev Jonathan Abernethy-Barkley, Jan Carson, Hannah McPhillimy (By Brian O’Neill)