It’s been 20 years since a group of artists from the Bogside area came together to create the first in a series of murals that have gone on to become one of the region’s iconic landmarks and a major tourist draw.
But creating a tourist attraction was never part of the original concept back in 1994, when brothers Will and Tom Kelly and their friend Kevin Hasson came up with the idea of that iconic gas mask mural on Rossville Street.
Fast forward 20 years and the Bogside Artists have taken their skills across the world, are about to open an extensive new city centre gallery, carry out improvements to the murals and are putting together the first instalment a book about of their eventful journey over the past decades, to be published in the coming months.
Recalling how it all started, Tom said: “1994 was the 25th anniversary of the Battle of the Bogside and we were already functioning and painting as artists. Willie had got his degree down in Dublin. I was already working in the Orchard Gallery as the Workshop Tutor and Kevin was painting his way around Europe.
“So we were all functioning as trained artists and we were acutely aware that most murals seemed to be propagandist and some of them were pretty sectarian as well, mostly around Belfast, and they were very amateurish and sort of guttural reactions.
“We decided we would come together, do something different. No ‘shooting over coffins’, no ‘phoenix out of the ashes’, no propaganda, none of that nonsense, we were going to engage in serious communication here through art.
“After we painted the young guy with the gas mask, the response of the local community was tremendous. We, between the three of us, then conceived the idea of why not paint with the support of the local people, we had a vision then to paint the entire street. The vision was a collective idea. We were excited about the whole notion of it.”
Kevin adds: “What was foremost in our mind was the passion behind what we were doing, and we were only doing it because of our own personal experiences of growing up our entire lives in conflict, and like most of the rest of the people in this city, that was the drive for us doing the People’s Gallery.
“The Bogside was effectively a wasteland ignored and neglected for 40 years because of conflict and that was the environment we painted these murals in.
“Years later from 1994 to ‘98 we probably had four/five murals and police and soldiers were still heavily on the ground. It was not until Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998 that tourists started to pour into this city, which we never expected and which we had never seen. The only foreigners we seen were wearing camouflage uniforms and TV cameras so the whole tourism aspect was never on our agenda.
“No-one expected an international flux of visitors. After 1998 we saw how quickly some people jumped on the tourism thing and even back then some people accused us of pandering to tourism even though we already had murals.”
The idea, the artists- all of whom lost relatives in the Troubles themselves- said, was to create “a very human story”, that would “not be to any political party’s advantage, either SDLP or Sinn Fein or anyone else”.
“This was just going to be a human document,” Tom said. “We knew we needed the support of the people, we knew we needed to share this vision with them. The way we operate is exactly the same today- we go to the people directly behind the wall and if we get their consent, and if any of the murals have anyone that might have died or was murdered or blown up or shot, then we go to the family and we won’t paint anything until we get their consent because we are acutely aware they have to look at it every day and they have to pass it, so we did that with all the murals.”
The artists collected thousands of signatures from local people supporting their vision for an outdoor People’s Gallery, which they presented to the Housing Executive, who were supportive of the project from the outset and since have helped render many of the 27 ft gable walls while refurbishing homes in the area back in the 90’s.
“That was when we came up with the name as well,” Tom said. “As we began to move forward with two, three, four murals, this would be the People’s Gallery because at the end of the day we are not under anybody’s wings, we are not controlled, used, usurped or managed by anyone.
“We feel very strongly as three artists from the Bogside and who have walked the walk and know what discrimination is about and know what oppression is, that freedom of speech and freedom of expression would be the very foundation of what the Bogside Artists would become.”
The Artists say the people of Derry, and especially the Bogside, have supported them throughout the past two decades.
“On occasion we have to go and restore the murals. You always see that support. One family not only brought us our coffee and tea, they even brought us out a sofa!” Tom said.
Will said that the Rossville Street location was foremost in the artists’ minds as they developed the People’s Gallery.
“We were articulating a collective experience that we had all lived through, that’s important and as far as we were concerned we were serving the people.”
He also said the artists wanted to challenge the lies told about the people of the area, what he termed “the tabloidisation, misinformation , misrepresentation of the people of the Bogside as muck savages that had been mysteriously equipped with weapons”.
Kevin added: “To us it was all about the street, Rossville Street. We could have painted murals anywhere on any available wall and any housing estate anywhere else but... we knew it was all about Rossvile Street, that it was one of the most historical streets on the entire island, because of the events that happened on that street, Battle of the Bogside, Bloody Sunday- it was running battles up and down the street between Bogside and city centre for almost 30 years. That was the reason we painted the series of murals on the street. 12 of them, which is a narrative not only of us but the entire people of this city. It’s all about Rossville Street being one of the most historical streets.”
The Artists said that over the years they have encountered opposition, difficulties and “petty jealousy and resentment” from certain Republican factions, and believe it is part of a wider campaign by one faction to take control in a territorial sense of the Bogside area and everything in it.
“We were determined to maintain our independence and we remain independent today,” Tom said. “As long as the support of the local people is there that is all we need and all we ever needed.”
Over the past 20 years, beyond Derry the artists have received international recognition, with commissions, exhibitions and university lectures and visits across Europe, America, Canada, Australia, and China.
Among the highlights have been creating murals at the Smithsonian in Washington DC and in China, receiving the Joseph Beuys Award, and also more recently the Kurt Schwitters Award.
The Bogside Artists say they remain committed to their original vision and to the people of Derry who supported them, and have vowed to continue with their work.
They said they remain proudly independent, despite the difficulties presented by lack of funding and the lack of support or commissions from official and other quarters down the years.
Will said: “We are not part of the loop, if you are in the loop you get well catered for. We don’t have to prove anything to everybody and we can’t be insulted, we are insult-proof these days. We have been chastened by the experience but we are stronger for it. They can throw at us whatever they want.”
Kevin “20 years later we are not going away. We will not be controlled by anybody.
“Anything we achieve we will achieve it on our own merit.
“If we had danced to the tune of someone else’s drum we would be well heeled today. We have got principles though and we stood by them for the past 20 years. We are still here.”
With the help of a group of visiting medical students from a university in Florida who have an interest in art as healing, the new gallery at Union Hall Place off the bottom of Shipquay Street, is now open, with current exhibitions including testimonies from those on both sides who lost people during the Troubles, and large scale depictions of striking photographs by local man Barney McMonagle.
The official launch will be conducted by Emmett Doyle.
Kevin said they are looking forward to continuing with their work into the future.
He said: “The Bogside Artists back in 1994 received the support of the people and 20 years later we are stronger than ever and we personally would like to thank the people who support us and our murals. There are some very close friends who have stood with us, too many to mention and they still stand with us today and we would like to thank them for their enduring support, and most of all we want to thank the residents of the Bogside.”
Will adds simply: “We sail on.”