'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.
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