On the surface, art is aesthetic. It is created from any number of mediums- photography, paint, pieces of sticks- but the end product is a physical product that can be seen, touched, or felt. However, art serves as much more than as a thing to be looked at. I have already discussed several exhibits and works that have underlying social messages. What I am going to discuss today is a photograph with a related purpose: to deepen our understanding of history. It is one thing to simply memorize dates and read accounts of people who experienced events of the past. It is another to live and breath their experiences through the emotionally charged artwork created at the time of these events. While we can never truly understand what it is like to live through conditions that are long gone, we can experience a deeper connection to them through artwork. What people paint, photograph, and scribble in their notebooks is a reflection of their deepest thoughts about life, which cannot be translated properly through a history textbook. Art is a fantastic companion to what you learn in history class, because it offers a human perspective on hard facts.
All that being said, I present Gilles Peress’ evocative photograph: “FIrst Snow in Arodyne, a Nationalist Neighborhood, Belfast, Ireland, 1981.” It hangs in the Tufts Art Gallery, inside the Aidekman Arts Center.
This photograph is aesthetically interesting. Several boys are positioned within the frame facing different directions. One lies down in the middle of the street. Another appears to be mid-run in the distance. On the viewer’s left, a child is half cropped out of the frame. We are given a wide street, dusted in white, that disappears into houses beyond.
An analysis of the composition of this photograph deepens our understanding of its historical context. This photograph was taken during the years of the Troubles in Ireland, which lasted from 1968-1998. At the heart of the issue were the constitutional rights and independence of Northern Ireland. In 1981 there was a second hunger strike that resulted in the deaths of ten political prisoners, all members of the Irish Republican Army. One was the IRA leader and member of British Parliament, Bobby Sands. He became a martyr. Violence and riots erupted in Belfast, killing both civilians and police officers.
What is depicted in this photograph is a moment of peace despite the Troubles and the violence. The youth of these boys reminds us that we are all people. Whether you are a loyalist, or a nationalist, or a viewer looking at this photograph thirty years later, we were all once children once. The inclusion of children also points to a loss of innocence. In a time of rioting and mass killings, children are forced to grow up very quickly. Here we see a moment where they can be free and young- perhaps a rare occurrence.
The composition itself is evocative. The street is a street people may have been shot at hours before during the rioting. One boy lays down on it, assuming the position of his dead countrymen. Another boy is cropped out partially. His partial existence in the photograph suggests his uncertain connection to the events occurring. He asks to be included in the scene, yet hides from it. Perhaps he feels the same way about the events unfurling around him.
The fresh snow on the ground could be interpreted as fresh and hopeful, but I see it as ominous. A sheet of snow attempts to cover up the blood on the streets. It warns of a growing cold; a coming storm.
One feels uneasy looking at this photograph. The title reminds us of the tumultuous context of the picture, but the boys appear to be playing. We feel uncomfortable looking at this joy because it is inevitably momentary. Will these boys become the next boy soldiers, holding guns and shooting their neighbors? How long will their innocence last? This kind of unease cannot be properly translated by only reading the facts about the events of the Troubles. It is important to know the timeline of events, but they should be supplemented with other material. This photograph provides an emotional counterpart to facts that allow us viewers to empathize with the feelings of Irishmen in 1981. We feel uncomfortable and frightened looking at these young boys whose lives are in danger.
I hope that you find this image as haunting as I do. If you attend Tufts as well, I urge you to see it in person at the Gallery. I also suggest reading more about the conflict in Ireland and viewing related artworks, as the subject is fascinating (while stomach-turning at times as well.) What I have provided is the bare bones of a very complicated issue, well worth exploring.
Until next time…
xoxo, Chloe <3