With Richard Hamilton’s depiction of a prisoner’s ‘no wash’ protest on display at Tate Modern, the exhibition’s curator invites Dr Laurence McKeown, a former hunger striker at the same prison, to share his reflections
Richard Hamilton’s painting The citizen is a crucial component of the current retrospective and a central work in Tate’s collection. It is the first in a triptych which also includes The subject and The state. The three works are recognised widely as one of the most important cycles of ‘history paintings’ in the late 20th Century, on a par with Gerhard Richter’s Baader Meinhof series 18 Oktober 1977. Hamilton made the painting after seeing the first televised World in Action and Newsnight films showing IRA prisoners on the ‘no wash’ protest. The citizen is based on a figure seen in Robin Denselow’s Newsnight film named Hugh Rooney.
While Hamilton was making the painting, other prisoners started a hunger strike and many died, including Bobby Sands, later the subject of Steve McQueen’s first feature film, Hunger. Hamilton showed the painting at the Orchard Gallery in Derry/Londonderry in 1983 and wrote a text to introduce the work. He wrote that he could ‘not condone the methods employed’ by the IRA, but that he felt moved by the ‘human dignity’ of the prisoners when he had seen the TV film. He compared the ‘wall paintings’ made by the prisoners to ‘the megalithic spirals of New Grange’ and the ‘Gaelic convolutions of the book of Kells’. In other words, he identified with the prisoners as an artist – and this identification is what probably drove him to make his painting. In Episode 1 of the Channel 4 TV series Looking into Paintings, first broadcast in 1985, you can see Hamilton talking about The citizen in his studio shortly after he finished the work.
Some weeks ago, I invited Robin Denselow to talk about his film and Hamilton’s work at an event connected to the exhibition. In the audience that night was Laurence McKeown, a former hunger striker; he had come to see Hamilton’s painting and to hear Robin speak. He spoke movingly about what the painting meant to him, as someone who had been in cells like the one depicted, and he has kindly shared some more of his reflections with us here.
Dr Laurence McKeown on The citizen
When a friend told me that an exhibition of Richard Hamilton’s work was to open at Tate Modern, I decided that I would have to travel over from Ireland to see it. It wasn’t because I’m a big fan of Richards’ work or know a lot about what influenced him – I actually know very little about the artist – but because I was very knowledgeable about the subject of one of his paintings, The citizen.
Like the person depicted in the painting, Hugh Rooney, I too was in the H-Blocks of Maze Prison in Northern Ireland between 1976 and 1992. The official name of the prison camp was Long Kesh, and it was originally opened in 1971 to hold those (initially only Irish nationalists and republicans) who were interned without trial. It was at an ‘Anti-internment’ protest in Derry several months later that 13 people were shot dead by British paratroopers in what became known as ‘Bloody Sunday’.
In December 1975, internment without trial was phased out, the prison camp was renamed ‘HMP Maze’ and the infamous H-Blocks constructed within the prison, and in March of the following year, a new law called ‘criminalistion’ was introduced. It was part of a much more extensive counter-insurgency strategy devised by the British Intelligence, Military and political leaders – but what it meant in effect for republican prisoners was that after 1 March 1976, any new prisoners would no longer be regarded as political prisoners, and would instead be required to wear prison uniform and do prison work. When the first prisoner, Kieran Nugent, was sentenced in September of that year under the new law, he refused to wear the prison uniform and do prison work. He was stripped naked and put in a cell where he had only a blanket to cover himself. Thus began what became known as the ‘blanket protest’ and which at one stage had about 400 prisoners on it. In March 1978, it escalated into a ‘no wash’ protest by the prisoners, which in essence meant they refused to wash and smeared their cells with excrement. The ‘no wash protest’ lasted 3 years, ending on 2 March 1981, the day after Bobby Sands began his hunger strike.
I was aware of the film footage that had been taken inside the H-Blocks by the ‘World in Action’ documentary producers around this time, but it was only years later, after my release from prison, that I actually got to see it. And it was probably around the same time that I first heard of Richard’s painting, which was prompted by his viewing of the documentary when it was televised just prior to the first hunger strike in the prison in 1980.
That hunger strike failed to achieve our demands, namely the right not to wear a prison uniform and not to do prison work, the right of free association with other prisoners and to organise educational and recreational pursuits, the right to one visit, one letter and one parcel per week, and full restoration of remission lost through the protest. Another hunger strike quickly followed in March 1981 on which 10 men died. I participated on that hunger strike, for 70 days, and survived. So The citizen, and the fact that it is exhibited at Tate Modern, means much more to me than merely being yet another ‘interesting’ painting.
It truthfully depicts that era and conditions for me – the H-Blocks and protest and ‘blanketman’ with long hair and beard, barefoot, in a cell smeared with excrement. It is painted in a sympathetic way, or at least not meant, in my view, to depict a threatening presence. Despite the propaganda that would have been in the media at the time, Hamilton shows Hugh with blanket open at the chest, as if the prisoner is open to engage in conversation, inquisitive, not shut off as his world of a concrete cell might imply. I understand that Hamilton said the excrement, or the way it was ‘painted’ on the wall, reminded him of ancient Irish art; I can’t really comment on that, other than to say that as prisoners we found various artistic ways to escape from the harshness of the conditions through song, poetry, discussion and other ingenious ways to overcome our isolation from the outside world.
I travelled over to the exhibition with my wife, Michelle, on 27 February, as I also wanted to attend the discussion of Richard’s work that evening, Richard Hamilton, Politics and Art in the 1980s. Robin Denselow, whose film footage it was which appeared on television screens in 1980 and which inspired Richard Hamilton to paint The citizen, was going to be one of the speakers along with artist Jeremy Deller and, Professor at the Courtauld, Mignon Nixon.
The panel discussion that evening was very enjoyable and Michelle and I participated in the Q & A that followed. What intrigued me were the parallels between Richard Hamilton’s work on The citizen (and related works, The Subject and The State) and Jeremy Deller’s artwork dealing with the Miners’ Strike of 1984. As I stated on the evening, the connection between the two events, the protest and hunger strike in Ireland, and how the state tackled and eventually crushed the Miners’ Strike and mining community inEngland, are stark. Legislation, police tactics, use of MI5, black propaganda against the two groupsand so forth are so similar, but then it has often been the case that legislation introduced to ostensibly ‘fight terrorism in Ireland’ has eventually been used against Britain’s own citizens.
And two other items in the exhibition struck a particular chord with me: Hamilton’s depiction of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair as a gunslinger is so different from the image that Blair would want to portray and the one we are so used to of the smiling, welcoming, political leader. Blair will, rightfully, be remembered as the British political leader who took the question of Anglo-Irish relations seriously and devoted so much time and effort to construct an inclusive and fairly successful peace process. It is ironic, therefore, that he is also now seen as the ‘gun for hire’ who supported the US and George Bush in the invasion of Iraq and is so well depicted by Hamilton. The Kent State photos, of the US students shot down by the National Guard in 1968 as they protested against the Vietnam War, seemed almost prophetic to me given what happened to the Civil Rights demonstrators in Ireland’s Derry city just 4 years later.
When I left Tate Modern to catch my flight back to Ireland I took many pleasant memories with me; memories of being in the company of friends, of being engaged in stimulating discussion about art and its role in raising important social issues that the world of politics would often prefer to ignore or deny, of viewing one person’s life collection of work that prompts so many thoughts. And I wondered, and still do, just how different my life experiences, and that of the mining communities in Britain, might have been if artists rather than politicians had a more predominant and influential position within society.
Richard Hamilton is on display at Tate Modern until 26 May 2014