Asbestos Boxing Club in Belfast

One of my favorite artists, Asbestos, had a show that opened last week in Belfast. It sounds like a really great show. Here’s some info on the show from Asbestos plus photos. I’ll post the video once it’s online. If you haven’t already read it, check out this profile/interview I did with Asbestos.

Everybody still talks about ‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland. But as I approached the Ligoniel Amateur Boxing Club in North Belfast on a cold November evening, I was at an advantage because I had no preconceived ideas as to whether the boxers were Protestant, Catholic or Hindu for that matter. I hadn’t even thought about asking before that night, and as my visit wore on, I started to assume from their names that they were catholic (Sean, Joe, Paddy). You see, there’s been so much conflict in Belfast over the last thirty or so years, that both communities have become isolated in their own suburbs. So for me, this boxing club in the suburbs in North Belfast and the men who give their time for free intrigued me.

I was introduced to this boxing club by the guys who run the Safehouse Gallery and on my way to Belfast on the train that day, the usual images and preconceptions of ‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland came to mind. But I wasn’t interested in adding to a landscape of film, painting and literature that couldn’t escape the images of violence and division from the past. It was my intention to create a body of work focusing on people who’re making a difference in their community despite all the shit that goes on around them.

I photographed the boxers training and sparring in Ligoniel Amateur Boxing Club (it’s been on the go since 1971 and has been funded by the boxers and the community around Ligoniel) late one Wednesday evening. Upon arriving I was welcomed in by Eddie, who stood in the doorway eclipsed in the stark boxing hall light, his hand, decked out in gold rings reached out to greet me and welcome me into a club he’s been volunteering in for over thirty years.

I got to know the guys from the club, each had a story, each had a reason to be drawn to boxing and the small club that was a home and a safe family. I came away from that club with a head full of stories and a meaningful idea for an exhibition in Belfast. My initial fear was that these guys would treat me with suspicion, but each was open and honest, happy to talk while I photographed.

The following day, I scoured the streets in different parts of Belfast for the signature yellow Ace Bates skips (he’s the king of the Belfast skip world). I hoped that they might contain the detritus of the city; wood, metal and any other objects that told the cities history for me to paint on. I pulled pieces from skips in the Holy Land, the Shankill Road, the Lisburn Road and the Falls,  then I hauled them home to the studio in Dublin to paint.

Back in Belfast on the night of the show, it was a very humbling experience for me to see each boxer come to see his portrait. It was singularly, the most rewarding and emotional moment in my entire art career. One boxer told me that it’s usually “generals or dead politicians that get their portraits painted, not amateur boxers from north Belfast”;. But to me, these guys are the heroes of the community, they’re the guys who keep the kids off the steets, training three nights a week, they’re the guys who get screamed at by their wives “for volunteering more time at the club than at home”. It was a privilege for me to spend time with and paint the portraits of these contemporary heroes.

Photos after the jump…

More photos on Asbestos’ flickr.