Inside Her Majesty’s Prison Maze, known colloquially as The Maze, we stood in his prison cell – number 7, H-Block, of the Ulster Defence Association (UDA). He used this cell as a painting studio. Like most of the buildings used inside The Maze, it was excessively warm. I wanted to see if he would take part in the prisoners’ group exhibition Captivating. In 1998, I was commissioned by the Belfast-based Prison Art Foundation (PAF) programme to be artist in residence in The Maze and to curate the first exhibition of prisoner art from the four prisons in Northern Ireland. Research for this exhibition involved visiting each prison and prisoner who was creating art. As we left his cell and he walked me to the first airlock gate, I was told how the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Mo Mowlam had come in to see the prisoners. They had voted to pull out of the Belfast / Good Friday Agreement talks. She had visited them – an unprecedented act for a Secretary of State – and her visit had changed their minds.The Agreement talks and process continued. Mo Mowlam’s groundbreaking act stayed with me. She was a woman who took a political and personal risk and I, as did others, admired her bravery. She inspired me years later to create artworks, using video portraiture, of key political figures involved in the Belfast / Good Friday Agreement.
To date I have made six video artworks with the following: David Ervine, Progressive Unionist Party, filmed in Belfast, 2004; Monica McWilliams, Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition, filmed in Belfast, 2005; Lord Alderdice, Alliance Party of Northern Ireland, filmed in Belfast, 2005; Martin McGuinness, Sinn Féin, filmed in Derry/Londonderry, 2005; John Hume, Social Democratic and Labour Party, filmed in Derry/Londonderry, 2005, and David Trimble (by then Lord Trimble), Ulster Unionist Party, filmed in Banbridge, Co. Down, 2017.Sadly, on the morning of the 19th August 2005, when I was filming the Martin McGuinness portrait, Mo Mowlam passed away.
One of the reasons I felt compelled to make this body of artwork was because of the actions of Prison Officer Billy Hull, who I got to know well while I was artist in residence in The Maze. Billy Hull was one of the longest serving prison officers there. He was also a family man, keen gardener and a radical amateur historian. Over a period of fifteen years at the height of the conflict, he repeatedly disobeyed an order to destroy materials. Instead he saved them. Despite this disobedience, he was given time off his regular prison duties in order to collate, curate and present his subversive museum.One day nearing the end of my residency, he asked if I’d like to have a look at a ‘demonstration’ he had made. The artefacts were displayed inside the old laundry building within the confines of the prison and not accessible to the public. I filmed the exhibition Billy had curated and this film resulted in the work called Billy’s Museum. It became the starting point for Keeper. Billy’s Museum shows the display Billy curated of these surviving objects along with interviews with him about prison and the objects. The artefacts represented in this artwork depict a scattered, non-linear biography of place, time, culture, ritual, routine, subterfuge, life and death. A living history. An artwork. A record. It was more than likely that these objects and artefacts could eventually go missing or be destroyed. I recognized the responsibility I held for what I had recorded. The film Billy’s Museum (2004) is still the only civilian record of these artefacts. This responsibility to mind and preserve the record of a shared history is central to Keeper.
Keeper is an archive comprising artworks and gathered material relating to the lived experience of Northern Ireland. Keeper artworks are continually being developed and each is unique to the time, to the legacy and to the context. They are created from found objects, digital and film colour cinematography, black and white 35mm film photography, 35mm colour slide, digital audio site recordings, and interviews. Initially these artworks were generated from the original Long Kesh compounds (1971) and the cellular HM Prison Maze (1976 – 2000). Keeper as an art project is continually evolving. Each manifestation of the Keeper exhibition is unique to the exhibition context and gallery space. The Keeper archive has expanded over twenty years and no longer contains elements exclusive to these two sites of incarceration. The Keeper archive holds the Belfast / Good Friday Agreement video portraits (AGREEMENT) as well as video portraits of Northern Ireland’s Nobel Peace Prize Laureates.These portraits are silent, twenty minutes in duration and continuously looped in gallery presentation, and in all of them the subjects are still, seated, their gaze focused and looking out towards the audience. The first video portrait I made was of David Ervine of the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP), filmed in Belfast in 2004. In his youth David Ervine was a member of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF). He was a prisoner in the original Long Kesh compounds which preceded The Maze prison and he features briefly in Billy’s Museum. When filming the portraits I used Billy’s Museum as a method to engage the portrait subject. David Ervine smiles in his filmed portrait, at the point when he sees himself. In conversation afterwards he told me about the educational importance of the Long Kesh compounds for him. Gusty Spence, also of the PUP and UVF, through discipline and with the encouragement of constructive discussion, stimulated David Ervine and others to ask questions and to debate. His formal education was completed while still in prison through the Open University.
The Soldier and The Queen artwork is based on remnants of this prison-based education. The spoken text and words depicted on three monitors are sourced from Shakespeare’s play Antony and Cleopatra, a book I found abandoned on the floor in a pile of books inside the education hut. Hand written notes in different handwriting form another recounted story. In The Soldier and The Queen this marginalia is narrative and non-linear, spoken by two Northern Irish men and the text is visually presented using video.
When planning the Keeper exhibition for the Hugh Lane in Dublin, two key political figures from the early twentieth century came to my attention: John Redmond and Sir Edward Carson. Their portraits by Sir John Lavery are housed in the collection of Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane. In 1912, John Redmond was the instigator of the Third Home Rule Bill, where Irish parliamentary questions would be dealt with by an Irish parliament in Dublin. Sir Edward Carson, representing Ulster Unionists from the north of Ireland, was resistant to the Dublin parliament. Ultimately by 1914 this led to the forming of two opposite militia: the Irish Volunteers in the south of Ireland in support of Home Rule and the Ulster Volunteer Force in the north against it. Sir John Lavery completed the portraits in 1916 on the condition – agreed with the sitters – that they would be presented to the Dublin gallery to hang side by side. There is a visual correlation between the four political figures of John Redmond / Sir Edward Carson and John Hume / Lord David Trimble. In the video portraits of Joint Nobel Peace Laureates John Hume and David Trimble, I aim to refer to Lavery’s stipulation of visual equality. I also aim to present a representation of what they embody, one element of which is signified by Senator George Mitchell’s words: ‘Without Mr Hume, there would have been no peace process; without Mr Trimble, no agreement’. John Hume and David Trimble were not the first recipients from Northern Ireland to receive the award.
In 1977, two women, Mairead Corrigan Maguire and Betty Williams, were jointly awarded the 1976 Nobel Peace Prize. They were leaders of the Peace People, the movement co-founded by them and journalist Ciaran McKeown. Their initiative was sparked by a particularly horrific incident on 10 August 1976, when three of Mairead's sister Anne's children were killed by an IRA getaway car whose driver, Danny Lennon, had been shot dead by pursuing soldiers. Mairead, Betty and Ciaran met on the day of the children's funeral and again in the following days later when Ciaran, with prior experience in community organisation and the Civil Rights movement, wrote ‘The Declaration Of The Peace People’ and laid out a four-month plan of weekly rallies at locations all round Northern Ireland, England, Scotland, Wales and the Irish Republic. The Peace People’s effective campaign for nonviolence saw the rate of violence in Northern Ireland during this period, as measured by number of fatalities, fall by 70%, and acted as a powerful catalyst for cross-community dialogue throughout the following decades. From 1977 on, much of the movement's work was below the media surface, in areas such as prisoner welfare, assisting people swept up in the conflict to leave paramilitary organisations, and holding confidential meetings with active combatants to encourage moves towards ceasefires. In the public domain, it also worked on justice issues and for an end to emergency legislation. In the 1990s, before and after the ceasefires, it organised a series of People's Peace Talks, offering platforms to both politicians and paramilitary leaders to debate their views in open forums. Four decades on, today's chairman Gerry Grehan and his colleagues continue to make the Peace People headquarters in South Belfast a welcoming venue for dialogue and other initiatives. Mairead and Betty continue to use their status as Nobel Laureates to work locally and internationally where they can towards building peaceful societies through nonviolent means.There is a generational memory and understanding which is fading from the collective history in Northern Ireland, Ireland and Britain. In the body of artworks that comprises Keeper I try to preserve memories and reiterate people's actions through portraiture. I believe that the memory and acknowledgement of the three founding members of the Peace People needed to be a part of Keeper at Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane, and I felt it timely to present representations of the Nobel Laureates together – John Hume, Mairead Corrigan Maguire, David Trimble and Betty Williams. Waves of societal change can be captured and symbolised through the portrayal of individuals. However, the legacy of an individual is subject to different interpretations at different times. It is not stationary. It shifts with societies' influences and the prevailing political climate. It is in constant motion as societal shifts affect the legacy. Over the years, the viewing of these individuals and what their portraits evoke in the audience changes. Time loops. Processes circle. In 2015, I came across the content of The People’s Portraits 1899-1918 at the Northern Ireland Prison Service Training College (NIPS) at Woburn House in Millisle, Co. Down. Senior Officer and amateur historian Jim Galloway was a Training Officer, and, in a part-time capacity, the guardian of Billy’s artefacts. He was also responsible for the organization and safe storing of prison history housed in Millisle. The People’s Portraits 1899-1918 is an artwork of one hundred framed black and white photographic portraits selected from the Millisle prisoner photographic collection. The original negatives are glass, split double for a face on and side profile photographic documentation, taken mainly at Armagh prison by a further two prison officers trained as photographers. All the individuals depicted lived at a time before the partition of Ireland. The end point of portrait selection is the year 1918. The process of selecting people from these prisoner portraits involved looking into their eyes. I was looking for a direct gaze back. The expressions vary, some amused, inquiring (I imagine many may have never been photographed before), sad, tired, resigned. The People’s Portraits 1899-1918 are simple human portraits until you are aware of the context in which they were taken. With the distance of time, the negative associations connected to the prison context are lifted. Their humanity is reassigned through the perspective of the distance of time. The People’s Portraits 1899-1918 evokes associations with Senator George Mitchell’s reference to the sixty-one newborns delivered in 1997 in Northern Ireland on the same day as his son’s birth. The possibility of sixty-one people who might know a Northern Ireland without civil unrest connects with the hundred people who had not experienced a partitioned Ireland. Keeper is about people. The portraits of the Peace People, The People’s Portraits 1899-1918 and the portraits of the key political figures involved in the Belfast / Good Friday Agreement embody the people they represented. I have had the privilege to meet and film key political figures who relate to Northern Ireland. When Mo Mowlam passed away her death ended her presence. Her important contribution has become a fading generational memory and her significant legacy resides in the words of others. With the death of David Ervine, Ian Paisley and more recently that of Martin McGuinness, societal memory continues to diminish. Their portraits are a formal visual fragment and representation of their remarkable legacies. Retained in Keeper is a potential future memory.
Amanda Dunsmore, KEEPER, 2018.