The Failure of Politics and the Power of Art

Portraits of people affected by Troubles in Northern Ireland inspired by 'feeling of injustice'

Paul Reilly’s daughter, Joanne (20), was killed in a no-warning bomb. The sitting for his portrait took place in her bedroom, which remains exactly as she left it. The clock is stopped at 9.58am, the time of her death.

An often asked question is “Who will speak for the dead?” A powerful exhibition at the Ulster Museum of Belfast, Northern Ireland reminds us that is sometimes the wrong question.

Belfast-based artist Colin Davidson has assembled “Silent Witness”, an exhibition of 18 portraits of people who suffered loss during the 30 years of conflict known as The Troubles.  Davidson makes clear that these 18 portraits are a single, unitary piece of art, stripped of sectarian identifiers and focusing on the irreparable impact of the violence on those left behind. He speaks not for the dead, but for the living whose voices are forgotten, if ever heard to begin with.

We have been admirers of Davidson’s work, especially the portraiture of notable figures he has become known for. But it is these dignified yet searing portraits and stories of people you don’t know that demonstrate the power of art. They offer a transcendent and consequential view that no photograph or prose could hope to achieve.

Those of us who work in politics are used to dealing with the push and pull of emotions and the salience of old grudges, slights and resentments – real or imagined. But beyond the success or failure of any particular campaign, we are mostly lucky enough to avoid dealing with the impact of the profound failure of politics itself. In places that do not share that luck – places like Northern Ireland, Rwanda, the Balkans or even some streets in America – the costs are personal, and unimaginably high.

Many in Northern Ireland would tell you with strong justification that the best thing to do about The Troubles is to move on from them. But Davidson’s work throws up a flare to show that we should pause and consider those who will never be able to move on. For them the idea of closure is a cheap and meaningless word. Acknowledging and remembering the costs underlying their silent witness seems the least that we owe. And for those of us who work in places where politics can be fraught, it feels more like an imperative.

If you should find yourself in Ireland, this exhibition is well-worth your time.