Battle lines: 30 years of unseen 'Troubles' art in Northern Ireland

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A drizzly evening on the Falls Road. From the side of the red-brick Sinn Féin office, the face of Bobby Sands – boyish and wavy-haired, like a 1980s soccer star – beams down at the traffic crashing through the puddles. It's a messianic portrait from April 1981, showing the newly elected Irish republican MP in idealised good health – a far cry from the cadaverous protester who would die three weeks later, after 66 days on hunger strike in the Maze.

I turn off the main drag on the short drive into Belfast city centre, and am confronted by a very different scene. With a macabre civic pride that might be suited to some underground, alternative tourist brochure, a gun-wielding, balaclava-clad paramilitary greets me with the words: "You are now entering Loyalist Sandy Row, Heartland of South Belfast Ulster Freedom Fighters."

Each of these images is as emblematic as the other of the deep tribal divisions that bedevilled this city through the siege years of the Troubles – and the stuttering grass-roots dialogue, scored into its fabric, that long pre-dated formal peace talks. Crude and amateur though they appear, for those of us who witnessed the 30-year conflict from a safe distance – indeed, for many who lived through it in Northern Ireland – such murals are also as near to "art" as anything that emerged from the province during that time.

But all this is about to change. This Wednesday, the Arts Council of Northern Ireland will use its annual conference to unveil a new digital archive showcasing work by a "lost generation" of artists who devoted much of their careers, with tepid support from the cultural establishment, to chronicling their experiences of the Troubles. Works by Victor Sloan and John Kindness – whose stylised depictions of Orange marches and drive-by shootings respectively escaped to temporary exhibitions as distant as Finland and Brazil in the 1980s, but found few venues willing to air them in Ulster – will be displayed alongside lesser-known practitioners, including some whose art has never before been seen outside their own sectarian communities.

Accompanying the visual art will be Troubles-inspired poetry by Seamus Heaney, Ciaran Carson, and Pulitzer Prize winner Paul Muldoon – on "loan" from Emory University, Atlanta. There are also 12 specially commissioned essays, including one by Carson and another by former BBC Northern Ireland correspondent Fergal Keane, chair of this week's conference.

The digital archive is only the beginning. October sees the grand reopening of Belfast's Ulster Museum following a three-year, £17.2m refurbishment. The new-look attraction will take visitors on a millennia-spanning journey through history, beginning with an exhibition of Mesolithic hand tools and culminating in the province's first permanent gallery dedicated to the 1968-98 conflict. Amid relics of the fighting itself, such as bullet-strewn boots and the shirt worn by founding Social Democratic and Labour Party leader Gerry Fitt when he was bludgeoned by a police baton at a civil-rights rally, will hang yet more artwork. Iconic photographs of Bloody Sunday marches will be juxtaposed with paintings such as Ulster Crucifixion – a triptych by Troubles "war artist" Ken Howard, depicting a boy dangling from a lamppost, sandwiched between walls daubed with loyalist and republican graffiti.

But why has Northern Ireland, and the world at large, had to wait so long to view so much of this work – and what makes present circumstances so much more conducive to exhibiting it than those of 10, or even five, years ago?..

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