Silent Testimony | Exhibition by Colin Davidson

Silent Testimony | Exhibition by Colin Davidson

Somewhere between 1969 and 1994 is where the faces of the sorrowful but powerful stories of Colin Davidson’s recent project, Silent Testimony, are set. Mr Davidson shows us the people of Northern Ireland and holds a light up to the dark time of the Troubles. Colin shared some of his views and feelings with CultureHUB. 

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Image 21014 – Kim Mawhinney Head of Art at National Museums Northern Ireland and artist Colin Davidson in the Silent Testimony exhibition at the Ulster Museum

Upon entering the gallery we are met with the unfaltering gaze of Virtue Dixon and the harrowing story of her daughter Ruth celebrating her birthday in the Droppin’ Well Public House with friends. It was there that in her final moments, the room collapsed around her in a time bomb attack. Witnesses claim to have heard the DJ playing ‘Happy Birthday’ to her at the exact moment the masonry had started to fall.

Horror, sadness and empathy take charge as you wander to each individual portrait. Graphic images stain the mind as you consider each story; a record sleeve belonging to that of young Terrance, strewn in the road beside a coach bombing on the motorway, the clock that now stands still in Paul Reily’s house since the moment he heard the news of his daughter Joanne’s death, the permanent and life debilitating injuries of Margaret Yeaman and Emma Anthony, the discovery of a body so tarnished by the earth after being found in a bog, that it was only by the gold cross hung around the neck that Walter Simon could confirm that it was his son Eugene who had been missing for 3 years.

You worked in partnership with cross-community victims’ support group WAVE throughout the project. I imagine that it would be very hard at times to meet these people and to learn of their stories. “I think it has actually changed me as a person even more than as an artist. The stories were harrowing to hear. I hope I have succeeded in channelling this emotion into the work. This is an exhibition, not rooted in the past. In fact it is very much about our ‘now’ in this place. This is the legacy of all conflict”.

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“I started talking to people who had suffered loss through the Troubles here in 2010. It was important to me that this idea was not seen as patronising or unhelpful. WAVE have been a key ally in the whole quest. I started talking to them seriously about the project in 2013. The paintings took around 12 months to complete”.

How did these portraits compare to other projects? “Put simply – the previous themes I chose to work within were born out of the need to be making a painting. The subject served this need. I looked for themes which would allow me to explore paint. Silent Testimony turned that aim, that need, on its head. The idea, the concept, came first. The paint served the idea for the first time in my practice”.

Bombings, torture, executions and such human suffering is with us here in the hushed stillness of the gallery. These faces in their silence testify with their eyes, and ghost-like shells smudged and altered by the pain of life. Using broad and rigid brush strokes, Colin brings us their day to day existence that we shan’t forget. Vacantly they look off into the distance to some other dimension, to perhaps a happier time with the ones that are gone.

It’s only when you stop and look down the length of the gallery that 18 pairs of eyes stare back, the convergence of their stare both bearing witness and giving us a sense of their loss. It can be assumed that Davidson joins them together in their sorrow, which helps to subtract that feeling of individual suffering from looking at the portraits as a singular thing. These images draw you into their world, their individual heartache, their Silent Testimony.

Jasmine Daniels

This exhibition runs from 05 June to 17 January 2016 in the Ulster Museum

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