'We Are Here': amid all the masculine, military images, an Iranian artist's mural of Belfast's women
Leyli Rashidirauf is an Iranian artist who has spent the past few months in Northern Ireland. She's been painting a forty-metre mural alongside the Peace Wall that runs through Belfast.
It's an exceptional piece of public art - bold in conception and in execution. The mural depicts women: their faces, their limbs, their bodies. Some are local to the city; others have moved to Belfast, 'The city's walls are often adorned with military and masculine imagery', the artist told me. 'But this mural aims to claim a space that represents women'.
'We Are Here', the title of this artwork, is all the more remarkable because of its location. The huge mural is in a close to inaccessible fenced off area on the Shankill (that is Loyalist) side of the Peace Wall.
When Leyli Rashidirauf breaks off from painting to talk to passers by, she has to walk seventy yards or so and even then is conversing through a formidable metal security fence.
Yet the peace walls are one of Belfast's biggest draws. They are on the tourist bus routes, and feature in the taxi tours round the political street art - that's how we came across Leyli and her mural.
The Troubles continue to define Belfast, for outsiders above all. And this public art close to the Peace Wall is probably more noticed and talked about than if it was in pole position in the city centre.
'It was interesting for me to see that this wall serves as a tourist attraction, even though it still separates people's lives in the city. It reinforces a sense of isolation and division yet generates income and interest in this part of the city', Rashidirauf comments.
'This wall continues to play its unfortunate role of separation and othering.'
The mural is monochrome and painted in acrylic. It's on a wall that runs parallel to the peace wall, which is an altogether more formidable and unwelcoming barrier.
The project was undertaken under the auspices of ArtEZ University in the Netherlands, where Leyli Rashidirauf has been a Master's student.
'Our studio was located in the Shankill area of Belfast and most of the communities that were introduced to us were in this area', she explains. 'I decided to approach a community organisation called Alternatives. They showed me five or six different sites and eventually I chose this long wall facing the Peace Wall.'
'A plaque provides a brief explanation about the women I painted who shared with me their stories and experiences of gender, the body, space and belonging.'
'While working on this mural, as a woman painter of colour, I engaged in numerous conversations with local residents and visitors. My public presence as an artist raised questions and sparked conversations about political and social issues.'
'I believe the most significant aspect of the mural is the act of occupying a space through the images of women, their bodies and their gaze.'
Thanks to Leyli Rashidirauf for breaking off from painting and coming over to talk to us and for responding to my questions by email. And thanks to my friend Brian Kelly for the marvellous photographs.
This is Hornby Street in East Belfast - the place where my mother's father, Tommy Graham, grew up. And the street which his family was 'burnt out' from about a century ago.
You can see in the distance one of the cranes of the Harland and Wolff ship repair yard. Harland and Wolff was once the biggest shipyard in the world. It's where the Titanic was built - and where, a few years later, my grandfather was apprenticed.
This is the only family possession that links the Grahams to Hornby Street - just about the last remnant of the Northern Ireland connection. As you can see, it's tatty and the stamp has been soaked off. It's written by 'T. Graham' - not my grandfather but his father - to his 'Dear Wife' (her name was Maggie) and addressed to 39 Hornby Street off the Newtonards Road.
According to family folklore, Tommy senior was a merchant seaman - I still have a couple of his brass seafaring canisters, designed (I think) to measure specific gravity.
This postcard was sent from the SS Pakeha, then docked at a port in New Zealand. The mariner hopes that 'Tomy is being a good Boy'. There's no date - but it's probably from about 1910 or a couple of years either side.
This is an undated photograph found online of the Steam Ship Pakeha docked at Port Chalmers near Dunedin in New Zealand. The 8,115 ton ship was built, appropriately, by Harland and Wolff in Belfast. It was acquired for war duties during the First World War, reverted to a merchant role and was sold for breaking up in 1950.
So, what else can I find out about my family's Belfast pedigree? Well, here's my grandfather's birth certificate from September 1902.
This seems to be before the family moved to Hornby Street - though Connisbrook Avenue is not far away. Thomas senior is listed as a boiler maker, the craft to which my grandfather was apprenticed. As so often in artisan trades, the son followed in the father's footsteps.
Thomas senior seems to have moved from a tough job in the shipyards to a life I imagine was every bit as arduous at sea.
My grandfather's birth was reported by his mother - and as you can she didn't sign but made a mark, suggesting that she was illiterate.
At the time of the 1911 census, Maggie Graham was listed as the head of household, presumably because her husband was at sea. Nine-year-old Tommy - the oldest of what was then five children - was the only member of the household who could read and write.
What is really surprsing is that all of the household are listed as Roman Catholics. Hornby Street was, and remains, in a fiercely Protestant working class area.
The story I remember being told is that this was a mixed marriage - Tommy senior was a Protestant and his wife a Catholic. Her mother was a McKeown and had a sweet shop. All the boys of the marriage were brought up as Protestant; all the girls - I remember one of them, Jeannie - were Catholics. But as far as the census enumerator was concerned, all the children were listed as of the same religion as the head of household.
We can put some faces to these names - here's Maggie, my great-grandmother (after whom my mother, Margaret, may well have been named) with her mother, Mrs McKeown. It was taken in 1932, probably in Glasgow. They look as if they lived stressful lives.
How come in Glasgow? Ok - well, mixed marriages weren't all that uncommon in Belfast at that time it seems, but mixed households were sometimes targetted at moments of communal tension.
In the early 1920s, at the time of the creation of the Irish Free State and deep civil unrest, the Graham family was 'burnt out' of Hornby Street - forced to flee. I don't know whether Tommy senior was at home at the time or at sea.
The family moved to Glasgow, which had strong links to Northern Ireland and where there was also a large shipbuilding and maritime sector. What I heard from my mother was that her father, Tommy junior, stayed behind in Belfast to finish his apprenticeship before moving to join the rest of the family in Glasgow and getting work as a boilermaker in Govan.
When I first visited Hornby Street in search of my grandfather, more than thirty years ago, I came across a couple of old-time residents of the street who remembered the riots of the early Twenties which caused my forbears to leave. I broadcast their accounts at the time on the BBC World Service.
In Glasgow, my grandfather did well for himself. He married - Elizabeth 'Betty' Brunton was a Scottish Protestant - and brought the family up in Copland Place in Ibrox, close to the Rangers football ground. So in very much a Protestant part of town.
Here's Tommy and Betty on their wedding day, 16th July 1928. He was 26; she was 24.
My mother was born in Glasgow in the following year. In the late 1930s, the family moved to West Yorkshire. Then in the mid-1950s - by which time my parents had met and married - my grandfather emigrated to South Africa. He died there in 1965. We never met.
My mother never set foot in Northern Ireland.
And Hornby Street today? The old terraced housing has been demolished since I last visited more than thirty years ago, but it has been replaced by good modern terraced houses. The flags and emblems indicate that the people of Hornby Street are determiedly British, pro-Unionist, and admirers of the great Protestant hero King Billy, William the Third, who defeated the Catholic army of King James at the Battle of the Boyne back in 1690.
At the end of Hornby Street, at the junction with Newtonards Road, the Great Eastern is a traditional local bar - preparing for the 'Sash Bash'.
And just a few feet away from Hornby Street is political street art which seeks to demonstrate the area's continuing support for the Loyalist cause.
Northern Ireland is (largely) at peace - but it remains deeply divided, and in the working class areas of Belfast which bore the brunt of the 'Troubles', old loyalties still linger.
I wonder what Tommies senior and junior - or Maggie who had to make a sudden dash with her family to Scotland - would make of it all?
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