Troubled peace.

My artistic preoccupation with Northern Ireland only developed recently; previously, I fought against its representation and resisted articulating my experience. I was born under the shadow of the Troubles, into a culture of silence, struggling to comprehend my relation to my country. However, during lockdown, I noticed tensions rising and was forced to confront my resistance to this subject. My first-year project, ‘Forget the Troubles’, represented Northern Ireland’s culture of escapism, consciously avoiding the past’s unsettling presence. This early photobook is an artefact of cultural amnesia. ‘Troubled Peace’, my recent project, reflects on the past and its relation to the present, as a continuation of my second-year project, ‘It still Troubles me’, in which I first grappled with overcoming inarticulacy.


My work articulates an integrated Northern Ireland that hasn’t been appropriately represented. My photographs show my experience, as a product of the peace process, navigating integrated spaces. ‘Troubled Peace’ encapsulates the complexity of a country still haunted by the ghosts of the past. The photobook archives, and plays with the relationships between, different fragments that make up my perception of the country, looking at their connections and disconnections. It collates visuals of lived experience, personal heritage, belongings, expressions of culture, history, memories, ideologies, and media representations. Northern Ireland is typically represented as a divided society with a legacy of violence, which doesn’t completely reflect my lived experience. But still, this version of representation informs my idea of the country. The abundant content used in my work communicates the broad spectrum of Northern Irish identity and experience, and the difficulty I have understanding my country.


Theory, literature, and other artists’ work have assisted the articulation of my experience. Key influences are filmmaker Arthur Jafa and poet Seamus Heaney, who both articulate the experiences of a people, their history, and a specific landscape. Through Seamus Heaney’s writings on Ireland, namely his book Preoccupations and his speech, ‘Varieties of Irishness’, I learnt about the differences and the similarities between our experiences of Northern Ireland, helping pinpoint the aspects of my own experience that I wanted to articulate. The representation of the country I created, crucially, had to be integrated. A quote from his speech became the basis for expressing integration in my project, describing,


‘this capacity shared by all traditions upon the island to acknowledge the claims of two contradictory truths at one time without having to reach for the guillotine and decide between the head truth and the rump truth. Without having to decide either or, preferring instead the more generous and realistic approach of both and.’


“Both and” isn’t a simple statement, and my project doesn’t simplify the audiences’ understanding. My work complexifies Northern Ireland’s representation and confounds simple assumptions by expressing the nuance of ‘post-conflict’ Northern Ireland.

 

Arthur Jafa’s main focus is on what he calls a ‘philosophical blackness’; he articulates a vision of the Black American experience throughout history. His process, creating work by juxtaposing different found images and videos, influenced my own. His courage to push towards what disturbs him inspires me. I used to fight against typical representations of Northern Ireland because I couldn’t see myself in them. Jafa inspired me to think about these images, to confront what I didn’t like about them. His documentation process taught me to look for connections between my photographs and media representations. Addressing my relationship to these images is important because they impact my perception of Northern Ireland. Making connections between my own visual language and one that an audience would be more familiar with can also enhance their comprehension of the project.


Jafa’s work is about relation; he deals with complicated tensions to represent a black experience that’s inextricably bound up in what he calls a ‘complex of majesty and misery’. I also deal with complicated tensions. His work taught me to use tense relations in expressing the complexity of an experience. I noticed that images of rioting/violence and my own photographs both depicted a reaction to belonging, or lack of belonging, in Northern Ireland; they contained similar emotions. I highlight these similarities, whilst emphasising tension, ambiguity, uncertainty, and fear. I, like Jafa, play with the relationship between representations of the past, present and future to understand and articulate my relationship with my country.

 

The video accompanying the photobook recreates a sense of intense, bewildering information-intake, exposing the viewer to different representations of the country that I’ve seen throughout my life. It’s intentionally hard to digest. The pace and editing overwhelm the viewer with differing representations, and yet still they all speak a similar language. William Basinski’s “Disintegration Loop 1” plays softly in the background. The music reflects the peace process, a short tape loop is played repeatedly, the sound gradually changing as the tape decays. This repetition evokes the slow change and repeating past in my country. The tape’s ghostly decay nods to the hauntological aspect of Northern Irish experience, marked by a relation to pasts and failed futures. I felt Basinski’s piece about disintegration especially suitable because my work deals with the shortcomings of an integration process.


My project is a contradictory visual narrative of my experience growing up in the shadow of the Troubles. The photobook deliberately eschews text to reflect the willfully-suppressive silence I was born into. I use different images, in their visual language and their structuring on the page, to articulate the complexity of the integrated experience in Northern Ireland for both viewer and myself. I play with relationships between images, the territory of the page, time and place and images encroaching on others. I blend my own photography with media representations to highlight their similarities and differences. This is a subjective project, anchored in personal experience, that visualises my search for answers about my relation to Northern Ireland. Despite this however, it resists conclusions or a singular perspective, enacting my inability to answer my own questions and giving the audience a sense of the confusion I grew up with. The work makes clear how my relationship to the country was always impacted by external presences and representations. My self-analysis serves as an example of the integrated experience. Many elements are inextricably bound to the specificity of my experience but at certain points the media representations and photographs of tense ambiguities can open up to more general feelings that other, non-Northern Irish, people could relate to. Aspects of the photobook’s metaphorical content could relate to other similarly uncertain and inexplicable experiences; to what it means to be defined by trauma you never experienced.

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