Belfast is a city in change and, as throughout its troubled history, street art has been a powerful expression of that transformation. My presentation will intentionally avoid commenting upon the sectarian political murals on Falls or Shankill roads — a subject that has been exhaustively covered. Nor will it discuss Irish politics in detail, other than as subtext.
The topic of my presentation will instead be the ways that contemporary Belfast, especially in the Cathedral quarter, is attempting to chart a course away from sectarian politics — and, more important, attempting to do so through the same artistic genre (street murals) that have historically been used to concretize sectarian politics. These are the key connections between my topic and the conference theme of transitions/tearing away.
Annually, Belfast’s hosts the “Hit the North” festival which attracts some of the world’s finest street artists. Works are commissioned and, when finished, become part of the city’s socio-artistic mosaic. These are public works — accessible, street-level, not sheltered in museums, exhibits, or galleries. They engage in a cultural conversation about Belfast’s ongoing evolution to a post-industrial, tourism-based city, one in which peace, reconciliation, and celebration work to replace partisan divide, violence, and bloodshed. Belfast is one of the world’s great cities for street art, and street art is now the world’s most popular form of art.
Drawing from the scholarly contexts of narrative theory and urban studies, my presentation will lead listeners on an aesthetic tour through the most famous works in the Cathedral Quarter, ones that cannot be found on any map. I will explain the stories of these works and position them as intentional artistic correctives to the more overt political murals that appear elsewhere. Essential to my topic will be the question whether they are, in brief, post-political and post-memorial. Regardless, they are essential to Belfast’s present and continual cultural Renaissance.