Citizens Wallpaper: a co-produced community visual story
by Allan LEONARD
21 March 2023
Four “canvasses” of photographic images, covering the northern part of the island of Ireland, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Irish Sea, are part of an exhibition that was launched by Kellie Armstrong MLA in the Long Gallery at Parliament Buildings, Belfast. “The Citizens Wallpaper” is a project organised by the renowned photojournalist Martin Nangle, who serves as chairman of the Associated Photojournalism for Art and Culture (APAC) Association, a Northern Ireland-based charity established partly to engage, create, and share creative work of community participants.
In her introduction, Kellie Armstong described The Citizens Wallpaper as an artistic project, led by experienced international photojournalists, artists, and workshop leaders, and giving local participants skills and techniques in citizens’ journalism and photojournalism:
“The project engages communities in the creation of a visual representation of their lives, traditions, and cultures. It reflects diversity in a positive and respectful way, and promotes dialogue among divided communities.”
She explained that this project commenced in 2012 and completed in 2022, with an illustrated narrative in an innovative artistic work of a 35-metre-long canvas, with sound installation, reflecting contemporary culture, tradition, citizenship, and identity. The four canvasses of the wallpaper are: the Oriel Canvas, the Coleraine Canvas, the Belfast Canvas, and the Uliad Canvas.
Martin Nangle told the audience about his previous photojournalism work in Belfast, contrasting it with the work displayed today:
“During the 1970s and 1980s… carrying a camera was potentially dangerous and many people didn’t use them. But today… everyone now does have a camera with them at all times and the community can get involved [with projects like Citizens Wallpaper].”
He explained his inspiration for this project, from a trip he made to Normandy in 1984, when he visited Bayeux to see the Tapestry — a 68-metre-long embroidered work depicting events leading up to the Norman conquest of England. This tapestry was most likely constructed by female English needleworkers in the 11th century; Nangle said that he was impressed by the sheer challenge of its ambition for that time.
Nangle later discovered another tapestry project taking place in Hampshire, England, at about the same time he was in Normandy. The Test Valley Tapestry project involved three towns, 75 villages, and the support of some 40 groups of individual embroiderers. Some 1,500 local people of all ages contributed to the finished work, which is displayed in the council building of Andover, with each village community hall having a photographic representation of their contribution.
The Citizens Wallpaper project itself began on a Donegal hillside in 2013, when a group of musicians, artists, and re-enactment societies gathered at the ancient Celtic fort of Grianan of Aileach for a tournament display. Nangle made some images here and at another community festival, where a group of street artists from Ireland, the UK, and the US created murals expressing welcome, using imagery inspired by the Book of Kells.
Building on positive responses from local participants in Donegal and Derry/Londonderry, the Citizens Wallpaper project expanded to a four-canvas format, with each canvas composed of several panels, “to demonstrate that each town, each city, and each village across Northern Ireland and the border counties has distinctive features, as well as commonalities; that there is a complex relationship between past and present, history and culture.”
Nangle said that the exhibition highlights the diversity and character of the region, from ancient stones on White Island to the architecture of the Titanic museum, from hilltop festivals to motorbikes and golf:
“This canvas can continue to grow as the exhibition tours the province, acting as a catalyst for diverse community expressions of individuality within a single narrative, as more contributors are encouraged to become involved.”
The images on display themselves are a mixture of those made by Nangle and by other individuals in various camera clubs. For example, the Coleraine Camera Club made a series of images representing what local community members informed them was significant to them. This could be seen as a form of co-production, where instead of Nangle taking photographs of what might interest himself (with all of one’s cultural biases), or “read the minds of what’s in the community”, local people generated what become assignments for the more technically-minded camera club members. This may not be as directly engaged as having ordinary people make the images themselves, but it certainly keeps in the good spirit of engaging broader sections of the community — seasoned photographers are not the only ones for whom local history, land, architecture, and culture resonates.
There was a broad variety of images on display, representing many forms of cultural expression on this part of the island. The output of a “Citizens Wallpaper” is a fitting title from the input of the community groups and camera clubs that participated in this innovative project.
The Citizens Wallpaper exhibition can be viewed online until 23 July 2023 at the Eirene Gallery.