If you want to get the best out of the 2012 Féile an Phobail visual arts programme – most of which is currently on display in St Mary's University College on the Falls Road – it really is imperative that you turn your attention elsewhere. This review will do you no good.
Why? Because it features images taken from the various exhibits, and critiques of those exhibits, and it is necessary that you arrive at St Mary's without any prior knowledge of the artists or the artworks on show there. The element of surprise is essential. You should experience this joint exhibition as I did: expecting very little.
But for those who aren't able to make it to St Mary's before Féile an Phobail wraps up on Sunday, August 12, then perhaps my thoughts on one of the most varied, engaging and unpredictable art exhibitions seen anywhere in Northern Ireland during 2012 will be of interest.
While there are other exhibitions showing in west Belfast during the Féile – in the Gerard Dillon Gallery, for example, or outdoors in Falls Park, where local school children have produced their own version of Picasso's 'Guernica' – I happened to visit St Mary's by chance.
Before leaving the office, I let the Féile programme fall open of its own accord, closed my eyes, and stuck a pin into the paper: the blurb for SP Flanigan's exhibit, The Road: Portrait of a Community, described how the artist had focussed on subjects from the upper Falls Road in his eight paintings. It sounded promising. I closed the programme and left.
Inside St Mary's, arrows point the way towards the art. I lose my way here, recover the trail there, find myself staring, point blank, into the eyes of an elderly janitor who has just come charging through a set of double doors. Two German tourists empathise with my plight: we bump into each other for a second time as I double back to start the tour all over again. It's a disorientating experience, and great fun. You can't get lost in a white cube.
I wander into a corridor painted brown, with grey floor tiles, only to be confronted by a series of wonderfully warm, affectionate watercolours by local artist, Jim Reilly. They provide the perfect counterpoint to the drab interior of the college: they show Belfast in summer, topped by blue skies.
Each painting is of a building in the westside that is, presumably, close to Reilly's heart. It's fascinating to follow in his footsteps, from the Fàilte Restaurant to the Rock Bar via the Sinn Fein office. Reilly's is a west Belfast where people drink coffee outdoors and window shop at their leisure; it is the very antithesis of Stephen Shaw's vision of west Belfast, which reveals itself as I enter yet another badly-lit corridor.
The Death and Life of the Shankill is also a collection of watercolours, but the subject here is a grim, rundown urban landscape where derelict buildings attract plastic bags caught on the breeze and peace walls still separate Catholic from Protestant.
Shaw's work is photorealistic yet strangely cartoonish. So the peeling paint of closed down pubs, the weeds sprouting from cornices, the rusty steel gratings and red brick terraces are all remarkably detailed, but somehow the overall effect is not grim enough. Many of these images feel more like backdrops for a modern version of Postman Pat.
My favourite of Shaw's works, however, is a painting entitled 'Another Bollard', which in it's simplicity is somehow hilarious. The bollard here has inevitably been painted red, white and blue. It sums up the preposterousness of the tribalism that exists across Northern Ireland: I imagine grown men marking their territories like so many dogs urinating on lamposts.
Another arrow... The next windowless hallway is given over to an exhibition organised by the West Belfast Taxi Association's Taxi Trax tour guides. It includes hundreds of photographs of murals, plaques and other memorials dedicated to the republican cause in west Belfast.
Gaelic games, hunger strikers, reproductions of Jim Fitzpatrick paintings feature heavily. Loaded words jump out at the viewer: collusion, sectarianism, Gaza, Mandela. My two German friends, who have elsewhere been extremely chatty, are silenced and enthralled by it all.
This particular exhibition is an invaluable resource, an archive to treasure. It should be added to and made available in a neutral location, where all of the cards are laid out on the table and young and old can learn from the past.
Next up is a stunning exhibition by self-taught Vietnamese artist, Phu, who, according to the blurb, paints 'political and revolutionary symbols and icons'. They're all here, from Michael Collins to Chairman Mao, and by now my German friends are beginning to understand why west Belfast has a thing for Che Guevara.
But there's more to these incredibly vibrant and colourful artworks than simple hero worship. There is also an originality of vision that is best realised in those portraits that Phu is perhaps most familiar with, the Gandhis and the Castros of this world. His de Valera and Pádraig Pearse, by comparison, are weak.
Another set of double doors, another corridor, and SP Flanigan's The Road: Portrait of a Community is an immediate letdown (that's what you get for having high hopes). I was expecting faithful portraits of local characters in tweed caps and luminous tracksuits, but this figurative mish mash is not to my taste at all.
Each of the paintings was designed with a particular individual in mind – someone advocated by their friends or family for the work they have done, or the impact they have had on, the local community – such as the playwright, Brenda Murphy.
But there is really nothing appreciative of their legacies in these works, which are unflinchingly dark and dismal. The slogans, the symbolism, the strange juxtaposition of images – such as your average Celtic chieftain alongside the cartoon character Charlie Brown – leave me vexed. This is a disjointed and unpalatable exhibit.
I stop off briefly in the next room to see Prophecy, by four artists from the Belfast Photo Factory – Gordon Ashbridge, Paddy Kelly, Tony O'Prey and Jim McKeever – and marvel at the ability of some photographers to capture an image in the most unlikely of places that resonates and touches the heart. A chocolate bar wrapper has never looked so beautiful.
I bypass another photography exhibition by freelancer Guy Smallman – who travelled to Afghanistan to investigate the country's rising problems with heroin addiction – to get to the final part of this sprawling exhibition.
Recounting the tragic story of the 11 unarmed civilians who were killed by members of the Parachute Regiment during two days of civil unrest from August 9 - 11, 1971, the Ballymurphy Exhibition features panels dedicated to each of the deceased. A documentary is also shown, including interviews with relatives and scenes from Brenda Murphy's play, Ballymurphy: The Aftermath.
I confess to not having known much about the massacre beforehand, but am enlightened and saddened by this exhibit, which is, perhaps, less an artwork and more a feature of a broader campaign for justice.
Slightly overwhelmed by my journey through St Mary's, and by the sheer amount of art on show here, I miss the arrow pointing to the nearest exit and find myself retracing my steps once again. This time I know what's coming, but I still see paintings and other full exhibits – such as Brendan Ellis's series of sketches, A Year in the Black Taxis – that passed me by first time around.