Being sitting on a piece of very proud news recently. Following a visit from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland in the personages of, Roisin McDonough and Noirin McKinney to my home and studio, thirteen of my artworks (those associated with the Troubles) have been included in the Arts Council’s Collection. This ensures, as Roisin said, that “my legacy as an Northern Irish artist was now assured.”
To have said to you (after close to 40 years of a career that was really just about survival and finding some way to ‘rare wains’ through art which meant working for others during the day and finding time at night and weekends to create something meaningful for myself in a vain attempt to gain some sort of validation,) phew!..(long sentence) was like music, and to have it said to you personally by both, the CEO and the Director of Arts Development, of the Arts Council, was both a proud and humbling moment.
So , I’ll give a little background to the art. My works relate to my direct experiences during the Northern Irish ‘Troubles’. Although, there are many facets and individual testaments stemming from that period my work reflects my own personal context and experience. I was born in 1958. That meant I was just entering my teens at the outset of the conflict in 1970. So, I experienced a “War in an Irish Town” to quote Eamon McCann for over twenty five years. It is that experience and its memories that now give form to my art.
That’s why my artworks are populated not just, with soldiers, rioters, security alerts, barricades, etc. but also, spacemen, superheroes, robots, movie icons, rock stars, science fiction and fantasy figures that were my means of escape, all juxtaposed side by side to highlight the absurdity of war and the importance of having a peaceful liberated existence and underlining the importance of youth, pop culture and joy.
Pop stars and movie icons represent the wider world culture from which I felt excluded as a young man. These images are re-contextualised when juxtaposed with the security landscape of my formative years. Placing John Wayne beside British tanks hints at a dominant, macho, male culture of force which I witnessed first-hand. Depicting Roman cohorts in the Bogside refers to the genesis of western imperialist and fascist regimes, that of the ancient Roman Republic and Empire. The quelling of barbarians by the sword, with God on your side has been the model for all self-respecting dictatorships since ancient times.
These works have also featured in two exhibitions. The first in 2016 was at Studio 2 in Derry and the second was at the Nerve Visual in 2018. The Studio 2 exhibition was accompanied by a discussion with other writers, poets and academics on the experience of artists during the Troubles. The second was part of a year-long commemoration of The Civil Rights Movement in Northern Ireland on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of marches in 1968. The Eamon McCann portrait was commissioned by People Before Profit for 2018. I also created a 36ft long mural inside the gallery for that exhibition. Above all, I hope these images generate and awaken that inner voice within the viewer and assist with a process of dialogue and healing to prevent any future waste of life.
The Art: Social & Political Context
My art reflects my own personal experience. I was born and raised as a Catholic in a Catholic city. My grandfather was a Labour councillor in Liverpool in the 1930s. He bequeathed a socialist conscience to my father, Jackie, who passed that on to me. My mother, Sadie, was part of that remarkable Derry matriarchy that kept Derry alive (during severe male unemployment and discrimination) through her work in the shirt factories. She had a great sense of humour which she employed to survive hard times and which she also bequeathed to me. These influences colour my art.
Derry knew religious discrimination and social injustice long before 1969. Poverty and unemployment were realities. I remember catching baffling echoes of the early civil rights movement at primary school and by the time I went to St. Columb’s College in 1970 the Battle of the Bogside had happened, the IRA had emerged and the British Army had been deployed on the streets. I passed through riots, gun battles, cordons and mayhem’ every day as a schoolboy.
What followed was a daily grind of helicopter surveillance, checkpoints, arrests, security alerts, barbed wire, blocked access, bombings, shootings, murders, atrocities, army and police operations all served up by a frightening number of security forces and paramilitary organisations.
What also followed, from us, the young people caught up in the Troubles, were coping mechanisms and escapism. As a young person I had no interest in conflict. What was more important was being young. Never mind ’dying for Ireland’ I couldn’t see any future in that. I wanted no more than to make loud noise with an electric guitar. I considered Rory Gallagher and Phil Lynott vastly more important than any religious or political dogma. Ironically, British Pop culture in the form of comedians or rock bands such as Led Zeppelin, Monty Python, Spike Milligan, The Stones, Pink Floyd, The Beatles, Bowie, etc. were far more influential than any politics or religion. If only we could emulate those. We got our wish, for in my teens, almost every male I knew, including myself, was unemployed.
We used the time to form bands. We were experts in Monty Python. I read everything from Tolkien to Joyce. More Tolkien in truth, since his fantastic landscapes, histories and sagas were wonderful escapism. Rory and Phil were successful Irish artists performing on a world stage. The success of these artists disproved the relentless bigoted view imposed on us by some, that, as Roman Catholics, we were somehow ‘inferior’. I often think that kind of ‘old balls’ takes two parties; one to look down and one to look up. You don’t have to look up and respect anyone if you don’t want to.
I loved the notion of a free subconscious spiritual being, free and unbound. When Star Wars came along we witnessed a cultural change that was global. I hated the inward looking, tribal culture of Northern Ireland. The sense that nowhere mattered more, a suffocating ignorance of the outside world exacerbated by tight security measures, martial law and religious extremism. For us, here in Derry we already had a ‘global’ sense of ourselves. Events such as the civil rights movement and Bloody Sunday had opened our experience to the wider world and that genie could not be bottled again no matter how hard some tried.
Not all that long ago, visitors avoided Northern Ireland at all costs due to the on-going, often violent sectarian conflict known here as the Troubles. But, following the IRA cease-fire in 1994 and the signing of the Good Friday (or Belfast) Agreement in 1998, those times have slowly but steadily been receding.
In conclusion, today, we have tours around the troubles hot spots with tour guides, museums and Trip Advisor reviews. Like Neil and Buzz on the Lunar landscape, tourists now pose for photos. I see them every day around Free Derry Corner and beneath the Bogside Murals attracted to a small public housing estate at the very edge of Europe with a troubled past. Maybe, what they don’t notice, are the still on-going social problems of severe unemployment, cultural identity, flags, bonfires and dissident Republicanism.
Like Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, perhaps they are immune to these other problems cocooned within the ‘space suits’ of tourist museums, tour guides, private transport and hotels. They pose at Free Derry, then smile and leave with memories of a surreal visit to an alien, barren place.
Joe Campbell March 2019