An extract from History of Art BA(Hons) graduate from her recently submitted dissertation for History of Art (Irish Studies) MA, QUB.
The Art Behind the Wire
Historically, academic scholarship on loyalism has often presented a limited perspective regarding a diverse cultural and ideological narrative. Though contemporary loyalist scholarship has begun to move away from these established perspectives, they remain a dominant influence in academic and media representations of loyalism.
My recently completed master’s project sought to challenge that dominant influence by examining a lost nuance of the conflict’s historical narrative, specifically the original artistic production of UVF members imprisoned within the compound system of the Long Kesh/Maze Prison between 1971 and 1988. The project analysed the artistic production, the structure and nature of the compound system of imprisonment, and the evolving perspectives on UVF historical narratives and ideology. Though each of these areas has produced academic scholarship, when combined they represent a significantly under researched aspect of conflict scholarship.
The overall aim in the construction of the project was two fold. Since there had been no previous academic attempt to catalogue and discuss the variety of the compound artistic production, the initial remit of my work was to create the most extensive collection of art works and crafts possible. Along with the cataloguing process my project also documented ex-prisoner experiences of the artistic production. The artistic production represented a distinct social action within the cultural environment of the compounds and consequently, the best method for understanding these actions was to speak directly with the actors, the ex-prisoners. Particularly regarding prison experiences, past academic scholarship on the compounds has excluded ex-prisoner narratives from their analysis. However, the production of art works and crafts cannot be properly examined without these perspectives.
By combining academic research with these ex-prisoner perspectives it became evident that there were several mitigating factors that influenced the artistic production. The two most significant factors were the structure of the compound system and the influence of Gusty Spence upon both that structure and individual prisoners. The prisoner’s special category status allowed for greater self and group autonomy and the development of a communal environment. The impact of special category status and the autonomy it provided created an environment in which artwork and craft production was both possible and encouraged.
Whether making a political statement in a painting or making a birthday present for a parent, the UVF compound prisoners’ artistic production represented a broad range of objects and themes. The works catalogued for this project are representative of this range. The artistic production ranged from traditional to non-traditional media and included leatherworking, glass painting, oil painting, flag production, and mural painting. Not all compound prisoners participated in the production but for those who did it served a myriad of functions. For some prisoners it was an activity which passed the time of their imprisonment. Some created works for family members and friends, while others pursued various creative avenues and produced politically motivated works. Themes of the works included basic paramilitary images, personal images for family and friends, images relating to the culture and history of Ireland and Northern Ireland, and politically themed images addressing poverty and the conflict. In a larger context the artistic production represents a heretofore unexplored facet of the UVF’s prison experience.
Consequently, this project fills a gap in the historical record regarding the UVF, loyalism, and the conflict in Northern Ireland. Whether expressing political or personal sentiments, the artworks and crafts functioned both inside and outside the prison environment as symbols of the UVF’s prison experience. The final results of this project have demonstrated that there is considerable work yet to be done, documenting both the various artworks and the various ex-prisoner perspectives. This project represents a small sample of both but marks the beginning of a process which will hopefully work to establish a different perspective on the UVF’s prison experience.
The nature of this project speaks to a pervasive problem in academic research which reaches beyond the confines of the UVF and loyalism. Historical narratives are as complex and multifaceted as the cultures which produce them. A prevalent tradition within academic research is to essentialise these narratives in order to simplify this innate complexity. In this process narratives are often lost or overlooked and the historical record is rendered incomplete. In order to avoid the oversimplification of the complex history of the conflict the diverse narratives of all perspectives, loyalist and republican, unionist and nationalist, should be examined and explored. Through this method of thorough and expansive research it is possible that a more complete understanding of the conflict can be reached.