This project was the exhibition of the monumental mural painting Temple of My Familiar by Vancouver artist Nhan Duc Nguyen. It was first exhibited by us in Belfast, Northern Ireland (Sept. 17-25, 1994). Nguyen's work seemed oddly appropriate for exhibition in the middle of that war-ravaged city. There is an eloquence and beauty about it, in its storytelling and fantasy. Its theme is the triumph of the human spirit in the midst of adversity. It was produced over a three-year period, 1987-1990, while the artist was still in his teens, as a kind of catharsis for dealing with his own war-torn history as a child in Vietnam. The work was painted in panels on his mother's kitchen table, to be pieced together later. During the three years that he worked it, Nguyen was partially blinded in a knife attack by gangs while working in a local restaurant. The portion of the mural completed during his convalescence is particularly fanciful as he had to rely on memory and imagination to overcome his impaired sight.
The work is made up of 76 panels, 100 feet long by 16 feet high.The mural's content includes magical figures, creatures from Vietnamese folklore, euphoric images and Buddhist deities.
It had never been exhibited before Belfast and has never been exhibited in Canada. In fact, it had never been seen by the artist in total due to its size. We were able to exhibit it in Belfast in a 15000 square foot disused flax warehouse, the Blackstaff Mill, just off the Falls Road in a sectarian part of the city. It was relatively easy to find such a large-scale building in Belfast, many were built during the Industrial Revolution for the cloth trade.
While in Belfast, we made a 20-minute videotape document of the mural, the artist, its placement and site, and the city itself. When exhibited in West Belfast, a local arts critic stated:
"...it stood out as a highlight, if not the highlight, of the 1994 programme of visual arts in Northern Ireland."
It was perceived locally as a 'peace wall' in that its Buddhist themes somehow transcended the Catholic and Protestant religious divides of Belfast. Its mural format was also very much in keeping with Belfast's muralist tradition, and therefore the local audience was able to relate to it.
Like the mural, the project is monumental in scale, not the least of which is the placement of exhibition. When first shown in Belfast, it was in a city battling a civil war and with many obstacles in the way of placing art works behind British Army barricades. Since the early 1970's, there has been an intense struggle between the Protestant and Catholic sections of Northern Ireland, a struggle that has been complicated by the presence of the British troops. The result has been that various areas of the main northern cities, Belfast and Derry in particular, and most of the northern counties have been sectioned off along sectarian lines with the British Army in between. We were aware of these difficulties firsthand and in fact, saw them as important elements in siting the mural there. We saw the exhibition of the mural with its images of universal peace in the middle of sectarian fighting as an optimistic reminder that there can be beauty in the midst of insanity.
The idea for the mural project in Belfast developed from a previous visit.. We were extremely impressed by the heroism of our sponsors, Flax Art Studios, whose premises are on the Crumlin Road, the main dividing line between the warring Protestant and Catholic communities. People have been killed simply for crossing this road, and to get to it from the centre of Belfast entails going through numerous "no-go" roadblocks and checkpoints set up by the British Army. The city itself has a much stronger army presence than is revealed in the popular media, and the focal point of the Troubles is the Crumlin Road. In the week that we were there, a number of people were killed at the army roadblocks. When we exhibited the mural there, it was the first time that many of the Protestants attending had ever been to a Catholic area. The opening crowd was a mix of British Army troops, local people from the housing estates and wealthier Protestants. One attendee told me that he had never seen such a mixed crowd in Belfast.
Elspeth Sage, Curator