Legal Studies Professor Uses Art to Record Peace & Conflict
For nearly eight hundred years, and most recently three bloody decades, Northern Ireland/the north of Ireland was characterized by violent and politically-charged conflicts over the constitutional status of the territory. While the ceasefires and political peace talks regularly made the news, a series of non-violent, artistic demonstrations were often overlooked. According to Leah Wing, a faculty member in the Legal Studies program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, nearly 2,000 murals have been constructed across the region in the past forty years. “These murals,” Wing says, “played a role in articulating the political views surrounding the conflict and are now playing a role in the transition to peace.”
Wing, who has spent the last six years documenting the emergence of and changes to nearly 800 murals in West Belfast, says the murals have served many purposes: “They articulated the urgent issues of the day, called people to action, informed the international public of injustices, defied censorship, reflected culture and pride, and communicated resistance, pain, anger, hope, remembrance, and politics.” Wing hopes documenting and archiving the murals will not only preserve an important piece of history for the area, but demonstrate the power of art to transform communities and assist in imbedding the peace process by creating shared narratives of a shared future.
It is this power to transform that prompted Wing to found the Art of Conflict Transformation Event Series at UMass Amherst. Since 2008, the project has hosted public discussions, lectures, and webcasts featuring many prominent academics whose research explores international justice and truth recovery, as well as well-known international artists and conflict resolvers. In 2010 alone, the event series brought together more than 800 people to watch muralists from across the political divide in the north/Northern Ireland paint and unveil their murals right here in Western Massachusetts. The work of the Art of Conflict Transformation program has played an important role in exploring the landscape of art in conflict and its resolution.
Wing, who also co-directs the National Center for Technology and Dispute Resolution, regularly works with two muralists to document and archive the murals in the north of Ireland: Danny Devenny and Mark Ervine. The collaboration between muralists is symbolic of the transformation of the conflict in the region; Devenny is a former Irish Republican Army (IRA) prisoner, and Ervine is the son of a former Progressive Unionist Party leader and Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) member.
In 2007, Devenny, Ervine, and community members painted the first Republican-Loyalist jointly painted mural, a Belfast rendition of Picasso’s anti-war, anti-fascism mural “Guernica.” In 2008, as part of the Art of Conflict Transformation Events Series, Congressman Richard Neal and Professor Wing unveiled Devenny and Ervine’s second jointly-painted mural, “Painting from the Same Palette,” at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Devenny and Ervine joined the festivities via Skype, as hundreds locally celebrated the 10th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, which many consider to be the formal military end to the British/Irish conflict. Devenny and Ervine have painted nearly two dozen murals together in the north of Ireland and abroad, including an anti-racism mural which includes local heroine Sojourner Truth. This mural was unveiled this past May 2011 along the Peacewall dividing Loyalist and Republican neighborhoods in West Belfast. According to Devenny, Truth was included in that mural, in part, to symbolize his ties to UMASS and Western Massachusetts.
Although Northern Ireland remains the home-base for the vast majority of the joint murals, several others have been created and unveiled in the United States over the past 10 years thanks to the work of Wing and her colleagues. In 2010, Devenny and Ervine worked with UMASS students, faculty, staff, and administrators to develop a mural, “Liberty and Justice,” depicting UMASS educators and civil rights leaders, as well as symbols of diversity, struggles for justice, and points of pride. The mural hangs in the UMass Campus Center as a permanent part of the UMASS Fine Arts Gallery collection.
While in residence, the muralists also worked as part of the UMASS-in-Springfield project, painting “The Higher You Build the Barriers, The Stronger I Become,” depicting President Obama, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the aspirations of local youth. This mural was unveiled at the Dunbar Center in Springfield, Massachusetts. A mural of Fredrick Douglass and the local history of whaling and immigration was painted by Devenny in 2001 in New Bedford, Massachusetts at UMass Dartmouth’s Labor Education Center. Douglass also features in the new anti-racism mural on the Falls Road in Belfast.
This year will bring a new focus for the Art of Conflict Transformation Events Series. Transforming threads of resistance: Political arpilleras & textiles by women from Chile and around the world will include an art Exhibition online and on the UMass Amherst campus, lectures, and workshops in February-March 2012. Professor Roberta Bacic, an art curator living in Northern Ireland and a former professor at Austral University in Valdivia who lost her job for political reasons during the Pinochet regime and served on the post-Pinochet truth commission in Chile, will be a faculty in residence at UMass Amherst.
While at UMass, Professor Bacic will curate a new exhibit on the creation of arpilleras (textiles). Political arpilleras were first created in Chile in response to human rights violations during the Pinochet dictatorship. Like the murals in the north of Ireland, the arpilleras provided opportunities for citizens to speak out against violence and injustice. According to Wing, the Chilean arpilleras were typically sewn by women who had themselves or whose loved ones had faced torture, were imprisoned, or disappeared during Pinochet’s regime. The practice spread north in Latin America and then to other conflict zones around the world.
The exhibit hosted at UMass will feature 40 arpilleras, including a number of Chilean and Peruvian arpilleras which birthed the artistic movement, as well as textiles from Columbia, Ecuador, Ireland, England, Spain, Argentina, Zimbabwe and Germany. The UMass showing will mark the very first time the Colombian arpilleras are shown in public, and several will highlight conflicts currently occurring across the globe. Together, all the arpilleras will bear witness to the transformative power of the human spirit and the role that artistic expression can play in resisting state oppression and fostering conflict’s transformation.
Additional Art of Conflict Transformation events planned this spring include a poetry reading with Dr. Marjorie Agosin, a lecture on “Vicarious Resilience” featuring Dr. Pilar Hernandez-Wolfe, an interdisciplinary graduate student reading seminar series, class visits, and physical and online artistic galleries. Details about the full 2012 Art of Conflict Transformation Events and the online gallery of the arpilleras exhibition will be listed as they become available on the National Center for Technology and Dispute Resolution website: http://www.odr.info.
The Art of Conflict Transformation website, http://mural.umasslegal.org, also provides photos of joint and historical murals, more information about past events, including a short film of the muralists painting at UMASS, and a radio interview.