How the Institute’s “Agreement” exhibition came about (Ken Bartley, ArtisAnn Gallery)
As all good winter’s tales begin... it was a crisp, frosty Christmas Eve when I bumped into old friend and colleague Prof Pete Shirlow, Director of The Institute of Irish Studies, as he strolled along Belfast’s Ormeau Road. Since our days, many years ago, working at Queen’s University, Pete was now running a major “Arts for Reconciliation” research project, while I was the co-owner of the ArtisAnn contemporary art gallery in Belfast. We chatted about the potential for an exhibition to mark 20 years of peace in Northern Ireland since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement.
The summer before this fortuitous meeting, I had been at an arts festival in the County Antrim coastal village of Cushendall. As part of the festival the locals would get to vote on their favourite artwork produced at Bill Drummond’s Curfew Tower over the year; and the winner would receive a bronze Curfew Tower made by Raymond Watson. I had known Raymond’s artworks, since he had cast the hands of many of the people who had negotiated the Good Friday Agreement, but I had never met him. In another fortuitous meeting he and I were both in the kitchen of the Curfew Tower that night and we chatted about how his “Hands of History” ought to be shown again.
So, myself and Pete Shirlow planned how the Hands of History could be the centre piece of an exhibition which looked at 20 years of peace in Northern Ireland. This show was hosted at the Victoria Gallery and Museum in Liverpool in March 2018.
For this, Raymond cast many more hands of people who had negotiated the agreement and those who had helped build the peace, including some of those who could not have their hand cast at the time, as they were serving heads of government – such as Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and UK Prime Minister Tony Blair. Alongside these bronze hands were new artworks, which made use of original artefacts from the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland. One room was filled with the keys of Crumlin Road Gaol hanging from the ceiling, which visitors could walk through, see and touch the keys while a soundscape played all around them.
International photographers works were displayed which looked at how conflict and borders impact on real people’s lives from Belfast right round the globe. A group of quilts made by those who lost loved ones during the conflict remembered those who died. A specially commissioned animation, Lyrical Agreement, featured voices of people from Northern Ireland reading the Good Friday Agreement, hoping for a brighter future.
After a positive reaction to this show in Liverpool, we wished to bring it to Belfast, and we were delighted that the Golden Thread Gallery will be hosting the show from the Sat 7th December 2019 to Sat 18th January 2020. We hope that it will be the start of many new conversations.
The Belfast exhibition has been supported by:
- The Armed Forces Covenant Fund Trust with funding from the Covenant Fund
- Grant Aided by Belfast City Council
- Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool
- The ArtisAnn Gallery, Belfast
The project Agreement: A People’s Process has been supported by:
- Irish Government Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade
- Patrick Gaul
- British Council NI