The Celtic saints would talk about thin places – where the distance between heaven and earth collapses and we are able to glimpse the divine. Last night the Agape centre in South Belfast became a thin place as we listened in on a conversation between journalist Brian Rowan and artist Colin Davidson. Much of the night would involve discussion of ‘Silent Testimony’, Davidsons portraits of the forgotten victims of the troubles and Rowan set the scene from the start by describing his own reaction. “For the little I knew about art I immediately realised I was in a special place, a sacred space. So many have been forgotten by the troubles but with this exhibition you remembered.” Throughout the night the 18 portraits were projected on a loop on the screens behind the stage adding their silent presence to the conversation.
Davidson described how after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement he had thought about all those who had suffered loss and how there was nothing for them there. The thought stayed with him, percolating for years and eventually leading to this project. As well as the Queen and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Davidson has also painted many of the greats of the Ireland including Seamus Heaney, Brian Friel, Michael Longley and Kenneth Branagh. “From the start I wanted to paint the forgotten victims as equals – as important as Heaney or Friel.”
With the help of WAVE Trauma centre a number of people who were connected by their experience of loss were approached and agreed to be painted. Those painted had lost loved ones to violence from loyalist, republicans and the security forces. But the explanations merely described what had happened, not who had done it. “I didn’t take sides and I didn’t want the audience to take sides. I painted human loss and left room for people to react to what they saw.” And react they did. Kim Mawhinney from the Ulster Museum was in the audience and she described how they were overwhelmed both with numbers (more than 80,000 visitors) and the way people reacted. People were stunned, silenced, reduced to tears. They even brought in WAVE trauma to train the Museum Guides in how to support people who were being affected by what they saw.
Davidson recalled that one person asked him why he was dragging us all back into the past. He told them that, “Nothing could be further from the truth. This is current art. It’s about today and how what happened in the past is still affecting thousands of people today. It’s about recognising that loss is not just in the past.” Brian Rowan picked up on this point asking if it was really acknowledgement that was the key to moving on?
“That and compassion,” Davidson agreed. “Not one person I met talked about justice or answers, perhaps because they knew they would never get them. Everyone though wanted to make sure their loved ones were not forgotten. My feeling is that the forgotten victims are daily paying the price for the peace we all enjoy today. The least we can do is find a way to acknowledge that.”
Tim Mair from the PSNI who was in the audience picked up this theme saying listening to Davidson and the exhibition made him realise that the past is part of the future and not just an inhibitor to it. “There is a possibility of a broken, honest but vibrant future. This gives hope that we can carve tomorrow not from a tombstone but from something different.”
Journalist Eamon Mallie said the exhibition took him back to his boyhood because going through the gallery was like doing the Stations of the Cross. He asked the artist what he had learned from the process. Davidsons answer was as short as it was profound. “I learnt compassion.” Peter Osborne for the Community Relations Council asked a question of whether dealing with the past has become such a political football that it needs to be taken away from the politicians. Both Davidson and Rowan agreed with Rowan strongly believing that we need outside help to achieve this as we are all to stitched into the fabric of the last 40 years and it has become a blame process rather than a healing process. “We need to stop lying about the truth. More focus on compassion, acknowledgement and remembering would do us all good.”
The Thin Places beloved of the Celtic saints were places that jolt us out of old ways of seeing the world. We lose our old bearings but find new ones. Tonight’s event has kick-started a conversation among the audience and the 4 Corners team that has the potential to find a way of remembering the many victims of the troubles with compassion and acknowledgement. Watch this space. Our deep thanks to all those who were present with us tonight and especially to Colin Davidson and Brian Rowan.