Silent Testimony

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After hearing Colin Davidson on a panel discussion at the Ulster Museum on Friday (as part of the Centre for Democracy and Peace Building’s Culture Night event – more on that here), we knew we had to go back to see his Silent Testimony exhibition. It was in part his thoughtful contributions to the panel as it explored the definitions of art and culture; and in part, Kim Mawhinney’s praise for the exhibition that convinced us to visit as soon as we could.

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Silent Testimony reveals the stories of eighteen people who are connected by their individual experiences of loss through the Troubles – a turbulent 30-year period in Northern Ireland from the late 1960s onwards.

Since 2010, Davidson has become internationally renowned for his series of large-scale portraits of actors, musicians, poets and writers. While painting these familiar faces, he became increasingly preoccupied, not with their celebrity, but more with their status as human beings. This continuing exploration of ‘common humanity’ is the foundation on which Silent Testimony rests.

Until now, the artist, who grew up in Belfast and studied art at the University of Ulster, has not responded overtly to what he witnessed or personally experienced during the Troubles. Silent Testimony is a powerful response which reflects on how the conflict has had, and continues to have, a profound impact on thousands of individuals – the injured, their families, the families of those who died and the wider community.

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It was immediately clear on entering the exhibition room that Silent Testimony was something powerful. Families, solo visitors, art students, friends – tilted heads, long stares, hushed conversations, furrowed brows, teary eyes.

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The portraits are haunting. Accompanied by a few lines telling stories of loss, shock, brutality, sorrow, and of the aftermath of these, Davidson captures what most could not: a vulnerability interlaced with dignity. His subjects’ gaze never meeting their surveyors’, rather looking on, their glassy quality inviting admiration and understanding; creating, in the silence, longed-for space to ask questions about their pain, your pain, my pain.

“Art is at home with the question. It gets right back to what it means to be human.” Colin Davidson

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During Friday’s panel discussion, Colin and Kim Mawhinney from the Museum both delved into the topic of art as healing or as a means of dealing with trauma. There seem to be three vehicles for this – making art, being the subject of art, and viewing art. Kim spoke of people visiting the exhibition and having conversations about their own pain for the first time.

Indeed, the exhibition has not just given Colin or his 18 subjects a voice – it has been visited by over 37,000 people since its unveiling in June. It will remain on the Ulster Museum’s 4th floor until January 2016.

Read what Colin has to say about the exhibition on his blog.

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