Thursday, August 7, 2014

A Game of Murals | Westeros & changing times in East Belfast

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Even if you’ve never been to Northern Ireland, you probably know about our murals. Certainly, no visit to Belfast appears to be complete without a trip on one of the number of ‘troubles tours’ busses to some of the less than salubrious quarters of the city in search of this form of painted gable sectarianism. Much has been written about their origins, meaning, symbolism, and all that and, should the mood take you, you can read about it in the Wiki article: here. The Wiki article gives some examples of the genre, as does the rather good Belfast Murals site: here. However you look at it, the murals break down into two main groups:

1) Murals by ‘themuns’ – they’re sectarian, they’re ugly, they glorifying terrorism, and they’re probably not particularly well made … which, quite frankly, is all you can expect from a bunch of savages like that!
2) Murals by ‘usuns’ – they proudly display our beautiful, inclusive culture and commemorate our fallen freedom fighters. They are genuine works of art that are far superior to the disgusting daubs perpetrated by ‘themuns’.

You can see some examples of both from my own collection, taken in 2002: here.

However, there’s a third group of murals that no one really seems to know what to do with. The Wiki article calls them ‘other’, while the Belfast Murals site allows you to filter your search by ‘Social/Cultural Murals’. If it’s not obviously about themuns or usuns, it appears that we are unable or unwilling to process it.

Building the bonfire on the Comber Greenway July 2014
A little while ago, I wrote a brief piece for this blog about the 2014 Game of Thrones Exhibition in Belfast. My theme at that time was that, although it was a selection of the costumes and props on display (beautiful as they are), it was the Northern Irish landscape and a number of our heritage sites used in the filming that were of more interest to me. Then as now, I’d suggest that if you are planning a holiday to these parts, you could do so much worse than adding some of these places to your itinerary. Obviously, the filming of this series in Northern Ireland has had a very positive impact on our economy, with literally millions of pounds being spent here by the production crew. It has also been a boon for unshaven, long-haired, and generally unkempt men that are suddenly welcomed with open arms as multitudes of well-paid extras (you know who you are!). What I hadn’t realised at the time was how much the idea of the books and TV series have sunk into the wider consciousness. The Wiki article referred to above describes the Northern Irish murals as ‘a mirror of political change’. I would only amend that to add that it can also act as a barometer for broader cultural change too. 
Morning of the 12th July 2014, Comber Greenway
In 2014, when some folks were building a giant bonfire to celebrate the 12th of July on the Comber Greenway in East Belfast, someone was doing something completely different right beside them. This is a large-scale mural celebration of Game of Thrones. It uses iconic images from the series (the Iron Throne of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros; Jon Snow’s white Direwolf, Ghost; and one of Daenerys Targaryen’s dragons) all set against a flowing, and somewhat frayed, map of the GoT universe, itself on a black background. As far as I can tell, the geographical names (e.g. Qarth, King’s Landing, Storm’s End, Riverrun, etc.) are added in, if not quite at random, then to create a balanced and pleasing image, as opposed to remaining true to the ‘real’ geography of the GoT world - though they are most certainly poorly punctuated. One visual element that initially caught me out was the manner of the depiction of the Iron Throne itself. The version known on the TV series, and from the books, is a very, sharp, spiky affair, known to draw blood from its incumbents. However, this version was all cylinders and rounded ends … I initially interpreted them as artillery cannon and thought there was some deeper militaristic or political message being communicated. It was only a little while later that I realised that they were actually the type of aerosol spray cans used to create this work. If anything – my lack of cultural savvy, aside – this must reinforce the distance between this and the ‘traditional’ sectarian and political murals. Instead, it is much more a part of the contemporary graffiti and street art movements, more influenced by hip hop music than ‘drum and fife’. Some of the locals of east Belfast may still engage in sickening racist attacks, but scenes like this give some hope that we’re moving away from a narrow, provincial world view to one that’s wider, brighter and more accepting of external cultural influences. Long may they paint!

Panoramic shot the the largest section of the GoT mural (click for larger image)

In the final section, I just wanted to add a few details of the mural, emphasising as much the image as the texture of the wall on which it is painted – partially flaked, with lumps, bumps and scores in the concrete … it has been home to numerous murals in the past and will, I am sure, be again in the future ... I'm just pausing for a moment to record this layer!

Well, I thought it was interesting!

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