Creators of city icon defy the stereotypes

Tom Kelly and Kevin Hasson with UUP leader Mike Nesbitt.
Tom Kelly and Kevin Hasson with UUP leader Mike Nesbitt.

LONDONDERRY’S Bogside artists are asking Derry City Council and other statutory agencies to step up to the plate and support the renovation of their world famous People’s Gallery in Rossville Street - one of the biggest tourist draws the city boasts - but with mixed results sofar.

The Sentinel recently caught up with two of the collective, Tom Kelly and Kevin Hasson, and learned - amongst other eye-openers - how the murals were actually weather-protected using British Army issue protective lacquer and also how they believe unionists are spot on about the deliberate airbrushing of the ‘UK’ prefix out of the City of Culture picture by nationalists.

A mural that was unveiled by the the Duchess of Montrose in Austria in 2011. It's entitled 'The New World Order.'

A mural that was unveiled by the the Duchess of Montrose in Austria in 2011. It's entitled 'The New World Order.'

The artists also told the paper about their supporters amongst the Scottish aristocracy, the Duke and Duchess of Montrose, who unveiled a work of art of theirs in Austria in 2011, and about their long-standing work with the Protestant community in Londonderry.

Before Christmas the Sentinel reported that the artists had turned their backs on Londonderry UK City of Culture as they believed only the well-connected will benefit from a projected £200m tourist dividend accruing from next year.

This remains the position, although they have been at pains to point out that their opposition is borne not out of predictable political reasons, but because they believe the promised benefits of the year-long jamboree will accrue only to those in a position to exploit it.

Speaking to Mr Kelly and Mr Hasson it’s clear there is also a strong feeling that they haven’t been given the respect they deserve by the civic authorities in Londonderry.

A mural created by the Bogside artists on the invitation of the Smithsonian in 2007. Hailed abroad, ignored at home?

A mural created by the Bogside artists on the invitation of the Smithsonian in 2007. Hailed abroad, ignored at home?

At times they have looked on with bewilderment at the support doled out to other projects in the city, whilst they feel they’ve been ignored and undersold.

But back to the beginning. It’s a little known curio that the original murals of the People’s Gallery in one of Northern Ireland’s most recognisable republican areas were originally protected by varnish that was supposed to be used to fire proof British Army landrovers against paint and petrol bomb attack,

Mr Kelly said that they managed to get their hands on the lacquer through friends in the Protestant community.

“He (the friend) was able to get his hands on a s**tload of varnish from the British army because he was friendly with some of the squaddies,” he explained.

“When he found out we were trying to get some of the murals varnished he gave us some of the varnish that they used to put on the jeeps and the landrovers to protect them from paint bombs,” he added.

Thus the earliest incarnation of the iconic People’s Gallery in the largely republican Bogside was unintentionally protected by the Ministry of Defence (MoD).

That was around 1994 when the artists decided to paint their first mural - ‘gas mask.’

It was a bid to provide an historical record of the things that had happened in the area - including the Battle of the Bogside - the 25th anniversary of which fell that year. They gathered a petition of support for the murals that ran to up to 2000 signatures and managed to get the Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE) on board.

Mr Hasson explained: “Our thinking at the time was of the challenge to get this image and put it up on a 35 foot wall. The soldiers were on the street at the time and harassed us a bit but nothing bad.

“Then eventually when the mural was completed the soldiers were coming over and shaking our hands and saying it was brilliant.”

In fact, years later when the present complement of a dozen murals had been completed, it had become de rigeur for departing Army units to visit the area for valedictory group shots in front of the artwork.

“We were standing on the street one day, covered in paint, with paintbrushes in our hands, looking up at the mural,” explained Mr Hasson.

“Down they come and pull up beside us and one asked us ‘our you the boys painting this mural?’ We say, ‘aye,’ and he puts out his hand and says, ‘I just want to say that’s brilliant mate.’

“The boys out the top with the guns were also saying it was brilliant. As they were then winding down Operation Banner we used to watch the convoys going up Rossville street and back in the day that would have been raiding parties.

“We watched them come up Rossville Street in the landrovers and all come piling out, going up to the murals like a football team and a guy with a camera and big tripod taking pictures and then all in and away.”

The artists also say they’ve had a good relationship with the unionist community in Londonderry stretching back to the 1980s.

Mr Kelly said: “We’ve worked with Jeanette (Warke) up in the Fountain to paint the inside of the Youth Club.

“I’ll tell you something even better than that, the people of that community, whilst I was up there, discovered I was going to Romania, back when a lot of people were going there with support and gift aid and so forth. They actually gathered up £1k and Dean Morton handed it over to us for the Romanian Children’s fund.”

Equally, the artists have worked with schools all over Londonderry and have completed numerous projects in predominantly unionist areas like the Fountain and Irish Street.

They also count well-known unionist muralist, Marty Edwards - the creator of some of the best known murals both political and non-political on Londonderry’s east bank - as a long-standing friend.

Mr Kelly said the gallery was designed from the very start to be totally non-sectarian in outlook and stressed that it belongs to everyone in Londonderry.

He cites the ‘Peace Mural’ - an outline of a dove on a grid background gradually seeping from dark hues in one corner to lighter hues diagonally opposite - as symbolic of their philosophy.

“The squares on the Peace Mural represent equality, equal on all sides - regardless of politics, ideology or theology,” explained Mr Kelly.

“What’s important about that mural is that it starts in a dark corner and makes its way up towards the light. This is what we aspire towards, that people will look and actually work actively towards peace, and awareness, light and a sense of fair play.”

The artists say they deliberately tried to get away from the political graffiti and murals that would have been daubed on walls of the area in the past.

Mr Hasson pointed out: “For all those years during the Trouble, IRA supporters would’ve had the crude graffiti on the walls - ‘RUC out,’ ‘Brits out’ - and so on and so forth. That was the general lay of the land down there. The Bog had basically become a waste land.”

And Mr Kelly added: “We called it the People’s Gallery because it’s for all the people, Catholics and Protestants, That’s why there’s no flag waving, no pictures of people shooting over coffins, no Phoenix out of the ashes, it’s a simple documentation of what happened, but it’s done with the cathartic spirit in mind because it finishes with the Peace mural. It’s just a human story.”

The artists have won plenty of fans including the Duke and Duchess of Montrose, Brian Friel, John Hume, the Dalai Lama and Nancy Groce of the Smithsonian Museum.

Yet there lingers a sense of bewilderment that despite being acclaimed in places as far flung as Shenzhen (China), Maribor (Slovenia) and Washington DC (United States) and recognised by the Lonely Planet guide as one of the main draws Londonderry has to offer, they don’t get a fair crack of the whip in their home town.

“We have a friend in the Duchess of Montrose who recognises our murals for their reconciliation work and who was in fact very kind and generous in responding to an invitation from Austria to come over and unveil one of our murals, which she actually did,” explained Mr Kelly.

“The difference between how we are seen and treated in places like that in comparison to Derry is amazing,” he added.

Mr Kelly also said there was rightly great excitement when the Lonely Planet named Londonderry one of the top four places in the world to visit during 2013.

But with some justification he asks if the support provided for one of Londonderry’s biggest tourist draws has been proportionate?

“The Lonely Planet, when they brought their six pages out about Derry, four of those pages were about the Bogside artists and the People’s Gallery,” he said.

“At the end of the day, not one newspaper, not one radio station mentioned this. What is with it with the dumbing down of the Bogside? What is the purpose behind it?” he asked.

The artists have been forthright in their opposition to UK City of Culture 2013 but not for the reasons some might suppose.

Indeed, they have sympathy with Londonderry unionists who see the UK being put on ‘mute’ by nationalists and republicans involved in the celebrations, particularly Sinn Féin.

Said Mr Kelly: “This is where you see the UK being airbrushed out of it. All of a sudden it becomes the Culture Company, City of Culture, Legenderry, any name you want to put on it.

“They’ll not give it its proper title. If I was a unionist I’d be annoyed because it’s been airbrushed out to suit their own purposes. Who are they serving? The people? All the people? Or are they only serving their own people?”

But the artists have also been unimpressed by a lot of the UK City of Culture hype.

They believe that “the promised benefits will accrue only to those in the position to exploit the situation and take advantage of the estimated £200 million guaranteed to flood into the city thanks to an expected massive increase in tourism.”

Mr Kelly said: “What we have seen was the only people who were really jumping up and down and celebrating were the hoteliers and the people in a position to exploit it, who are already sitting on piles of money no doubt.”

Culture Minister Carál Ní Chuilín is on record as saying that wages must rise, jobs must be created in poorer areas, the city must be more equal and there must be better relations between Protestants and Catholics or UK City of Culture 2013 will have been a failure.

Mr Kelly said: “It’s interesting all the talk of 2000 jobs, new hotels, that’s a nonsense and that’s never going to happen. We are not supporting the UK City of Culture but that’s purely on cultural grounds it’s not political.”

The artists are their own men and are certainly no respecters of reputation. Although Mr Kelly urges the local civic authorities to have the vision to emulate their counterparts in Mexico City who attract four million visitors to view Diego Rivera’s work each year, they aren’t the biggest fans of perhaps the most famous mural artist of all time.

“The thing about Diego Rivera - people have romanticised views about all sorts of people, Diego Rivera, would be one of them,” said Mr Kelly.

“Diego Rivera painted all of his murals, the ones in particular that people go to see, after the revolution.

“He was also brought back from Paris to paint them, funded by the Government. That makes it very different to the Bogside artists.”

Instead both Mr Kelly and Mr Hasson cite a common love of Bob Dylan as a key influence.

Said Mr Kelly: “Personally, a lot of our inspiration would have Renaissance design elements, Raphael, Botticelli and stuff like that.

“Some of the motifs we’d use. On a personal level Rembrant would be a big favourite of mine, and Bob Dylan who painted pictures with words.”

Mr Hasson concurred: “That would be about right. Artists from the classical era, Rembrant. I’m a big fan of Van Gogh too, just his boldness. And Bob Dylan. We are all Bob Dylan fans all three of us.

“He sings about a lot of stuff and he writes about a lot of stuff but he never passes judgement on anything. It’s more an awareness of what’s around or happening. Storytelling. That’s what we see our murals as doing as well.”