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Waving Flags, Tandragee, silver gelatin print, toner and gouache, 58cms x 58cms, 1986
With the series called Drumming the artist quarried larger themes. The initial subject matter is still Orangeism and its celebratory rites, as displayed during the Twelfth of July parades, but this subject matter is now related to the current political context in that the 1986 Parades took place at a time of heightened tension caused by the Anglo-Irish agreement, an agreement which large sections of the Protestant/Orange population regarded with marked suspicion. The numerous references to ‘Ulster Says No’ refer to the various campaigns run by groupings as varied as local councils or Orange Lodges, all of which aimed for the elimination of the Agreement, an agreement which acknowledged the interests of the Republic of Ireland in the Northern Ireland situation. The message of the campaigns was blunt: the Protestant Ascendancy will be maintained in the North! The artist is still dealing with images of the marching season as a baseline. “I followed them from about six a.m. in the morning until they went home that night. Individual Orange Lodges, in the small towns would be up at six and come in by coach from the country to the town, looking their best in clean gloves, sashes and so on.”
This notion is implicit in the paradox of the title: Drumming. On one level the drums are usually perceived as providing the beat, the rhythm, the basic time signature for a tune. However, the word ‘drum’ resonates in other ways. As the artist himself notes it can refer to wardrums, to the Orange tradition of drumming (territoriality), and to the notion of drumming something into somebody’s head - a vernacular expression which can be taken in both a positive and a negative sense. Thus it is both celebration and warcry, both assertion of identity in the positive sense, and imposition of identity in the negative sense; both harmony and disharmony; both continuation of tradition in the manner of a richly endowed culture (the benign aspect) and the ossification of tradition in the manner of the stubborn grip of outmoded concepts. Tribal energies have been scraked to the surface, revealing the dark underbelly, the Janus face. In Carrying the Crown a small girl carries a replica of the Queen’s crown, symbolising the loyalty of the Unionists to the English parliament, a loyalty which contrives to ignore the disloyalty of the ‘Ulster Says No’ campaign.
In Holding the Rope, a similar girl exists in a bubble or tear in the swirling fabric of space; a quiet oasis. But she is branded by a zigzag of black which rhymes with the other dominant figures in the image, that of the three policemen in flak jackets; black figures who represent the world she will grow into. As Gerry Burns aptly remarked, the cracked paint “like layers on an old wall… (is) an image in itself of the various cultural layers which have merged to form many of the North’s current political ideas.”
These are deeply pessimistic works which demonstrate that the artist is totally in control of his medium. They are also ‘more aware’ than earlier images in that Sloan was consciously considering the possibilities of each intervention. If the Walk, the Platform and the Field was an instinctive leap into the dark, then the present series represents the ‘caught’ subject matter, refined and controlled, and extended conceptually, by means of a focused technique.
As with a zoom lens in a movie, we are taken right into a crowd scene. Most of the people are facing away from us except for a woman mid right, and three sashed and bowlered Orangemen top left. This work is very close to the Moving Windows series in terms of rich subtle colouring of yellows, pinks and blue-greens. It’s an impressionistic crowd scene, visually regaling the eye with colour and movement. The use of markings, gouache and watercolours shift the image decisively towards abstraction. This is reinforced by the interlace of zigzag markings which overlay the composition.
Some of the figures are insubstantial and ghostlike; cancelled out as well by the scraking calligraphy, as if the Orangemen were literally reducing themselves to cutouts; as if they were losing their identity or were disorientated amidst a fog.
Extracts from Marking the North - the Work of Victor Sloan, by Brian McAvera, published by Open Air, Dublin and Impressions, York, England
Beating the Drum, silver gelatin print, toner and gouache, 58cms x 58cms, 1986
Crossing the Bridge, Portadown, silver gelatin print, toner and gouache, 58cms x 58cms, 1986
Entering the Field, Armagh, silver gelatin print, toner and gouache, 58cms x 58cms, 1986
Drumming (1986), continued with the same interests and met with both critical and popular acclaim. As the series title now suggested Sloan ‘drummed’ this annual occurrence beyond myth: the gestural marks now froze the still photograph into a silence that echoed beyond the day’s event. The nervous energy these works unloaded could embrace innocence, but above all, ensnare tensions. They cut new ground.
Extract from Thinking Long: Contemporary Art in the North of