Gay rights, modern art and why Belfast is 10 years behind Glasgow

I find myself at Glasgow's wonderful Gallery of Modern Art, right in the heart of the city and just a short toddle from Border's bookstore, one of my favourite Clydeside haunts.  

I'm there for the sh[OUT] exhibition – contemporary art and human rights – specifically addressing modern art depictions of LGBT people, their rights and history. It is the latest in a biennial 'social justice' strand at GOMA which has also used art to deal with issues such as asylum-seekers, sectarianism and violence against women, over the last few years.

This particular exhibition, like some of its predecessors, has been backed by Amnesty International, and visitors are able to sign relevant AI campaign actions. The question which has not left me since I visited the sh[OUT] show is simple: would this LGBT life and rights-themed exhibition be staged in an equivalent public space in Belfast? Sadly, I have no doubt that the answer is NO. 

In so many ways Glasgow is like a bigger version of Belfast. Victorian-era architecture. Heavy industrial heritage. Revamped waterfront. A drinking culture that loves its hops, but has learned to embrace the coffee bean. And, of course, an unhealthy dose of sectarianism beneath – or not as the case may be – the surface.

But I fear Scotland's biggest city is still about ten years ahead of Belfast when it comes to the public promotion of gay rights through such an edgy contemporary art exhibition.  

Answer me this: which public institution would mount such an exhibition in Belfast? Arguably, the only large, public art gallery in the city is within the Ulster Museum, closed for the last couple of several years for refurbishment. It is scheduled to re-open in October, as part of the renamed National Museums Northern Ireland, although my spies tell me not to hold my breath.  

While there are some great smaller public spaces and private galleries in Belfast willing and able to take on more 'political' topics, such as the current Maze 2007/08 photo exhibition at Belfast Exposed, none rival GOMA or the Ulster Museum for public prestige, scale and popularity. And, unless Northern Ireland's premiere museum and gallery is willing to take on a new exhibition policy, which proves as radical as its ongoing physical overhaul, it is hard to imagine the walls of the Botanic Gardens venue being graced anytime soon by the more challenging work of, say, Robert Mapplethorpe

The (in)famous photographer is just one of the contemporary artists whose shocking (if you're shocked by that sort of thing – I’m not) work is depicted in the sh[OUT] exhibition, alongside an early David Hockney painting, a beautiful jewelled icon by transvestite Grayson Perry, a touching, naive piece by former popstar Holly Johnson and a range of other works by artists including Patricia Cronin, Nan Goldin, Sunil Gupta, Deborah Kass, Catherine Opie and Pierre et Gilles. I'll leave any further art criticism to Kelvin Holdsworth, Provost of Glasgow's St Mary's Cathedral, who blogs a mixed, but honest review here.  

An accompanying video and audio exhibition in the entrance atrium has young gay Glaswegians talking about their experiences of 'coming out' and 'being gay' today. These moving and often funny stories clearly illustrate the need for the exhibition: persistent homophobia in modern Scotland. 

While the Glasgow's Evening Times ran a sensationalist front-page story about the exhibition, the day I went, the Glasgow public seemed determined to make up their own minds … in large numbers. During my visit, hundreds of locals and tourists streamed through the third-floor gallery to check out the works and their underlying message of tolerance, while clear notices and gallery workers situated by the door ensured that no unaccompanied children would find themselves there unexpectedly.  

The large turn-out was no doubt aided by the headlines – that’s usually how it works! – but also by the investment in outdoor advertising which promoted the exhibition around the city. No treating this as a marginal-interest show.   

In the ‘reflection space’ a 'comments board' carried postcards, left by visitors to the show, which were almost universally positive. A number noted how the exhibition made them proud to live in a Glasgow whose local authority had invested in such an art show of solidarity. Which brings me back to Belfast… 

Take the censorious views among some on Belfast Council (for evidence, see the Vacuum affair), alongside the not-altogether-broadminded outlook held by NI's Minister for Arts and Culture Gregory Campbell (neither a friend of Dido nor God-questioning bus adverts), and it is difficult to see any significant public arts institution in Northern Ireland having the courage to tackle such a theme as contentious as gay rights in NI. 

The success and current scale of Belfast Pride owes much to the courage and growing confidence of Northern Ireland's gay community and little to leadership by political representatives or public authorities.  Yet, the turn-out of local politicians from most parties at last year's Belfast Pride – in direct response to the homophobic comments of Iris Robinson MP – shows that where people will lead, the politicians will follow. 

Give it another ten years and the Ulster Museum too will follow the people of Northern Ireland – who, for the most part, have already moved on – and we shall see our own version of sh[OUT].

While you're waiting, you can cross the Irish Sea and visit the GOMA exhibition until November 1st.

Comments invited, whether you are in NI, Scotland or elsewhere…

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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