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Cambridge exhibition by the Bogside Artists marks half a century since Bloody Sunday

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An exhibition of murals from the Bogside area of Derry/Londonderry, Northern Ireland, opens at St Paul’s Church on Hills Road in Cambridge this Sunday (January 30) – 50 years to the day since Bloody Sunday in 1972.

Tom Kelly in front of his Bloody Sunday mural. Picture: The Bogside Artists
Tom Kelly in front of his Bloody Sunday mural. Picture: The Bogside Artists

The exhibition, ‘Art, Conflict, and Remembering: The Murals of the Bogside Artists’, features 12 murals painted on the gable walls of a series of flats in the Bogside area between 1994 and 2006, depicting scenes such as Bloody Sunday, the Hunger Strikes, and the death of many children – including family and friends of the artists – by Tom Kelly, his late brother William Kelly, and life-long friend Kevin Hasson.

Together they are known as the Bogside Artists, and the murals – now a major tourist attraction – tell the story of the Troubles as experienced by them and their community. Some of these powerful works are instantly familiar having been reproduced and put on display all over the world.

The three men grew up in the Bogside and Creggan during the darkest years of the conflict and, like most people from that era, witnessed many horrific events at first hand particularly in the 1970s. Kevin Hasson was even there on the day of the Bloody Sunday massacre – he was 14 years old at the time.

Tom Kelly, who was around 13 at the time, was forced to stay at home “under sort of house arrest” on that fateful day by his father who had a feeling something might happen. Tom, who reveals that for children at that time “the riots and the marches were almost like our form of entertainment”, will speak at several events on Saturday, February 12 and Sunday, February 13 at St Paul’s.

On the Saturday evening there will also be a showing of the documentary film Bogside Story featuring the artists and the Italian photojournalist Fulvio Grimaldi, who was an eyewitness to the events as they unfolded on Bloody Sunday.

Poster for ‘Art, Conflict, and Remembering: The Murals of the Bogside Artists’, an exhibition on at St Paul's in Cambridge
Poster for ‘Art, Conflict, and Remembering: The Murals of the Bogside Artists’, an exhibition on at St Paul's in Cambridge

Tom says: “We all had a tendency to paint and draw and we were all born here in the middle of the Bogside – and we all grew up seeing things children should never see... We got together in 1994 and formed this group, the Bogside Artists, purely to try and document the experiences that we’d already had.”

He continues: “With a lot of discussion between the three of us, we knew what we wanted to do. We wanted to do something that was truly unique insofar as most murals in the North of Ireland tend to be one side or the other – a ‘them and us’ sort of thing – and they tend to be very propagandist, and the actual rendering and the actual painting and design doesn’t really come into it in a lot of ways.

“As artists we wanted to actually paint an open-air art gallery for our own community in the Bogside, which is synonymous with the conflict here. It was the scene of Bloody Sunday, it’s more or less where the conflict began in 1969 with the Battle of the Bogside, and of course John Hume [a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize], who heralded from the Bogside, was the architect of the Good Friday Agreement.

“So we wanted to paint the key events that affected our community – but what we weren’t going to do was paint the usual clichés of gunmen shooting over coffins and big insignias and names of organisations, a phoenix out of the ashes and all that nonsense.

“It wouldn’t shy away from painting and showing our experience, but at the same time it would be done in such a way that it would be a cathartic experience for the entire community, as well as for us the artists. All three of us, we’ve lost family members in the conflict so we’ve been personally impacted in many ways.”

Tom says that there is a Christian message behind the 12 murals, encouraging people to “look and to examine and to see what people do to other people and what they’d do in return”. He recalls that each member of the trio would play a key role in every step of the process.

“Basically, we were keenly aware that egomania runs rampant within the art world,” recalls Tom, who notes that not everyone was appreciative of their efforts (“We were all listed for execution at one stage by a loyalist paramilitary group”).

“So we decided that if we were happy with the design – which we would do together – we would then consult with the people directly adjacent to the wall where the painting would go on, and unless they gave their consent then the mural wouldn’t happen.

“Secondly, we went to the wider community and we got nearly 3,000 signatures which went then to the local housing authority because they owned the buildings – and we got their consent as well. So we were working with the community, but the art itself was purely the Bogside Artists’ design and it was agreed between the three of us.”

Tom Kelly and Kevin Hasson, right, in front of their Bloody Sunday mural. Picture: The Bogside Artists
Tom Kelly and Kevin Hasson, right, in front of their Bloody Sunday mural. Picture: The Bogside Artists

On how they worked together while doing the painting, Tom reflects: “Let’s say if I was doing a portrait and I then nipped off for a coffee or to go to the bathroom, then it was understood that by the time I came back, that portrait might be finished...

“It was like that with all 12 – all three of us would work at each mural and we would just work from early light until the light faded and we would stay with it until it was finished. We knew the creative process was probably as important as the finished product.”

Tom concludes: “We’re not artists because of what we do, it’s because of what we are.”

Bloody Sunday (January 30, 1972) was the day when 13 unarmed civil rights demonstrators were killed by British Paratroopers in the Bogside. The brutal attack, and the subsequent cover-up of the soldiers’ actions, marked a major turning point in the history of the Troubles.

As Lord Saville concluded in his Bloody Sunday Inquiry report of 2010, it ended peaceful demonstrations and radicalised many young people into joining the Provisional IRA. The Saville report prompted the then Prime Minister David Cameron to make a formal apology.

The exhibition, curated by Adrienne Chaplin, includes reproductions of the murals alongside historic photographs and audio-visual materials to place them in their broader social and political context. It can be seen at St Paul’s Church, Hills Road in Cambridge and lasts from January 30 to February 20. Opening hours are Monday-Saturday: 12.30- 5pm, Sunday: 2-5pm.

Tom will be speaking on Saturday, February 12, at 2pm and 7.30pm, following the film The Bogside Story, and then again on Sunday, February 13 at 2pm and Monday, February 14 at 2pm. The latter will focus on the role of art in processing trauma, with clips from the play Anything Can Happen 1972: Voices from the Heart of the Troubles written by Damian Gorman, in which Tom participates.

For more details, visit bogsideartistsexhibition.org.

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