Art, peace and reconciliation: In conversation with Rita Duffy
by Allan LEONARD
11 May 2017
At the last lecture in the spring series of events hosted by the Mitchell Institute of Peace at Queen’s University Belfast, artist Rita Duffy conversed with Professor Fiona Magowan, on how she has applied her creativity to help better understand the world around her.
Duffy’s artistic awakening was at age 10, when she was invited to participate at the Ulster ’71 event, as a member of a choir at St Malachy’s school. However, her choir did not go: “The nuns told us that we weren’t going. I think it had something to do with the organisers wanting us to hold red, white, and blue balloons,” Duffy explained.
The symbolism of mythicism features throughout Duffy’s work: “Being a visual artist gives you access to worlds otherwise left out of.” Duffy described how she draws upon her personal experiences and familial links to explore broader themes of feminism, patriotism, and identity. She “trawls through family history” to de-mythicise it. For example, even though her Catholic grandfather died at the Somme, her family still felt discrimination: “Even dying for King and country doesn’t work if sectarianism is there; you can never belong.” As she put it, the legacy of colonialism comes through in the personal and the public, and it feeds back into her work.
Considering that this was in Belfast during The Troubles, Duffy described going to art school as being sent to a war zone. But instead of the students reflecting upon their contested environment, she told us there were abstract discussions on topics like the colour yellow: “It was learning art in a dislocated way … I wanted to make paintings about my time and my place.”
But Duffy has made work that is relevant elsewhere. She showed items from her watchtowers and surveillance series. A table and chairs inside a fortress is symbolic both in contested spaces with literal physical walls as well as figuratively inside our heads.
Either way, Northern Ireland hasn’t done so well with reconciliation, Duffy argued: “We haven’t really found the courage to be radical peace builders. We whinge too much; we’re too introverted.”
“There are huge narratives and stories that we haven’t told,” Duffy said.
Indeed, Duffy told us that she was “deeply sincere” when she originally suggested that elected members of the Northern Ireland Assembly should be offered counselling in trauma and communication.
So how does Duffy bring different sides of the community together?
Duffy answered by saying that an artist’s job is to push the envelope. She likes to use humour as a powerful resource, and revealed the playfulness of the Last Supper image, showing a cast of women in various adapted portrayals.
She said that the women were easy to work with, very engaging, but finds men can be too laden with fear. And whenever she encounters negative creative energy, she stops, because the process of art is impossible without respect. Creativity works when you recognise the possibilities, she explained.
As for transcending cultural divides, Duffy said that she follows what interests her and lets her work speak for itself: “I chose art as a way to navigate the Belfast that I was living in.”
She described the process of making art as like making coffee: “The filtration system, the brewing, the longer you work on an idea the stronger it gets.”
“You want to walk up to that line with the viewer without overstepping the mark — to a place where people can enter and participate,” Duffy added.
On the subject of feminism, Duffy gave a full description of the The Shirt Factory project, which ran in Derry-Londonderry as part of the City of Culture 2013 event. An installation of 300 shirts hung on William Street showcased women’s work and the role women played in building the city. The motivation was to transform the former factory to a working art gallery.
This evolved into producing objects of art for sale. For example, pillowcases were made from a digitised facsimile of a civil rights poster on one side, with a shirt front on the other. The symbolism of the pillow is that to get up off the sofa to march is to get out of one’s comfort zone.
Another product for sale was a jar of “B Special Honey” — “sweetening history in order to let it go” — Duffy explained.
These larder products all have tongue-in-cheek motifs, but also serve the purpose of sustenance at an essential level, thus putting our history and narratives in context. It’s an artistic variation of “you can’t eat a flag for breakfast”.
Yet context matters. Duffy said that you know that you’re in a peace process when you can make such items and people respond to them.
A benefit of these affordable pieces of art is the democratisation of engagement. Too often people go to galleries to passively reflect on priceless items on a wall, Duffy said, when they should be places of exchange.
Her installation The Souvenir Shop in Dublin, for example, offered Mexican grave candles of expected 1916 Easter Rising personalities, but also other canonised individuals, such as Edward Carson and Bobby Sands.
The idea is to purposely confuse viewers, in order to rethink assumptions.
Or as her hanging banner at The Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh proclaims, “Subvert, Confuse, Transcend”.
Duffy is disappointed that “we haven’t had more cultural courage”, collectively. But she is not one for giving up.
For example, the issue of Brexit and the Northern Ireland-Ireland border is to the fore with her forthcoming “Softening the Border” work in Belcoo (9–13 August 2017), with some “yarn bombing”.
And Duffy still wants to bring an iceberg to Belfast, to both put the Titanic experience in context as well as highlight a potentially much more serious calamity of global warming: “We can’t afford our divisions anymore.”
“Ice melting is a visual metaphor of real energy,” Duffy said, and has been encouraged by a Norwegian artist who left pieces of icebergs throughout Paris during recent conference talks on climate change.
Ultimately, however, Duffy said that art is a powerful social force and can cause amazing things to happen, but it is up to the public to decide whether to grow, forgive, and move on.