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Northern Irish Art

This research group aims to identify, share and connect multiple strands of research on contemporary and historical Northern Irish art. Our goal is to develop the profile of Northern Irish art practice and scholarship in addition to creating opportunities for curators, artists and researchers.

A contested term in itself, Northern Irish Art is often found on the periphery of wider national discussions on Irish or British art. With Brexit, the centenary of the partition of Ireland, and continued debates around national identity, (de)colonisation and borders, there has never been a more important time to address the rich and complex subject of Northern Irish art.

Within this group, we will address, explore and trouble the ways in which work related to the North of Ireland has been collected, curated and interpreted, and identify gaps in existing knowledge. Largely, but incorrectly, viewed as a place of simplistic binaries, the research group aims to disrupt this notion of Northern Ireland by creating space for conversations around overlooked practices (for example, queer Northern Irish art; art by BAME artists; pre- and post- conflict practices) as well as political and Troubles related art.

Questions under consideration include:

  • Nationally, and internationally, what key areas of research are currently being addressed in relation to Northern Irish art, and how can we broaden the discussion on modern Northern Irish art beyond a narrow focus on the Troubles?
  • What is needed to establish an archival resource of historic exhibitions and actions that have been produced in relation to Northern Irish Art?
  • How are curators and public institutions throughout the UK addressing complex issues of national identity, conflict, borders, partition and (de)colonisation in relation to the research, exhibition and interpretation of Northern Irish work?

The Northern Irish Art Research Group is co-lead by Anna Liesching (Curator of Art, National Museums NI) and Clare Gormley (Head of Programmes and Partnerships, Belfast Photo Festival).

 

a busy exhibition space with large, colourful photographs hanging on the walls

Activity in 2023

In 2023 most of NIAN’s activity was based around the exhibition of newly BPF commissioned work by Hannah Starkey entitled Principled and Revolutionary: Northern Ireland’s Peace Women. NIAN’s main contribution to this exhibition, which was timed with the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, was a symposium on ‘Women, Art & Activism’.

Another major project was Written By Us, Not About Us: a publication in partnership with the African Artists Foundation that commissioned 8 writers from NI and Nigeria to write on current art practice. The publication, which is also supported by the British Council, will be launched in Summer 2024.

One of the most fruitful activities of 2023 was the first in person meeting of NIAN members in February. This meeting went over the previous activities and plans were put in place for the year ahead, concentrating on our online presence and developing more member-led activity. This resulted in a steering group being set up to drive this activity forward.

Looking ahead we plan to shift our focus to looking more at historic painting in the North of Ireland through symposium. We also hope to create better access to past activity through our website.

Activity in 2022-2023

Events that funding has enabled included the exhibition A BIGGER PICTURE – outstanding feminist and queer photographic artists from the Belfast School of Art | Golden Thread Gallery. This was guest curated by ourselves and Clare Gallagher following her talk on this topic at the partnership symposium we carried out with the Courtauld in January 2022. The exhibition was in summer 2022 and also involved an online public event which had 60 attendees. The event was chaired by ourselves and platformed the topics raised in the exhibition which fit with the thematic for the NIAN activity for the year.  

 We also ran a public talk as part of an Ulster Museum exhibition ‘Against the Image’. This exhibition featured work by Northern Irish Artist Victor Sloan. We hosted a NIAN in conversation with the artist in the gallery with 50 in attendance. We commissioned photography of the show to feed into our mission of exhibition legacy.  

Activity in 2021

The group’s research questions for 2020-21 were:

  • Nationally, and internationally, what key areas of research are currently being addressed in relation to Northern Irish art, and how can we broaden the discussion on modern Northern Irish art beyond a narrow focus on the Troubles?
  • What is needed to establish an archival resource of historic exhibitions and actions that have been produced in relation to Northern Irish Art?
  • How are curators and public institutions throughout the UK addressing complex issues of national identity, conflict, borders, partition and (de)colonisation in relation to the research, exhibition and interpretation of Northern Irish work?

The aim for the inaugural session of the Northern Irish Art Network (19 March 2021) was to establish a membership base and work closely with those individuals in order to ascertain what they want from a research group focused on art of the North of Ireland, using the questions outlined above as a starting point for discussion. It offered researchers the opportunity to take a moment outside of very hectic schedules to reflect on their work, and where they see themselves in this research landscape. The points raised then helped us establish an action plan of activity for the group. Some reflections included:

  • Members want a space for collaboration, connection and partnership (a key an area was linking museums/galleries with academia)
  • A safe space to challenge and explore the complexities of terminology, language and framing of art associated with the North of Ireland
  • A need to create awareness of the diverse range of activity in this area
  • Create legacy for all that has come before, mapping and grounding collections, exhibitions, projects and publications – practical outputs
  • A need to go beyond discussions of the conflict, looking at the expansive and varied history of this place – from the pre-historic to the contemporary
  • Aid institutional change
  • Frame the North of Ireland in an international context and its relationality to other places
  • Facilitate and encourage critical discourse on Northern Irish art on historical and current practice

After collating all this information from members they concluded that in order to fully tackle their needs they needed to create a structure that truly encapsulates this sense of variety whilst giving time to individual areas equally. They established a system of thematic seasons, each period of activity going ahead will take a research theme at its centre and inform a structure of events. The first season (part of this funding period) was ‘Borders and Partition’. Coinciding with the major activities of institutions in the centenary year of the partition of Ireland; in particular a collaboration with the Ulster Museum for the Willie Doherty ‘Where’, an exhibition in collaboration with FMAV, Modena and funded by the British Council. The group also commissioned four films that looked on the themes of borders and the centenary of partition. The convenors interviewed Willie Doherty and Anne Stewart (looking at Doherty’s ‘Where’). Additionally, they interviewed Trish Lambe of the National Gallery of Photography in Dublin to discuss her work around the border and Peter Richards of Golden Thread Gallery Belfast discussing his work.

Clare Gormley and Anna Liesching, January 2022

Image copyright: Belfast Photo Festival & Hannah Starkey

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