“We were born in a bubble of tragedy, where the murals on the walls kept us in. Our friends were going to Australia but were we were too scared so we put on our faces and went out.“

Those were the powerful words that opened Oona Doherty 'Fly the Flag' performance and discussion at The Mac recently. She remarked on how powerful the women were where she grew up. Their presence and forbearance was phenomenal, she said.

Dancers Oona Doherty and Janie Doherty (mover, maker, baker) recalled what it was like for them to be young women when all the “chemicals and liquids” started to kick in.
Oona Doherty, a past pupil of Saint Louise's is among a number of artists who have been leading a large-scale dance engagement with young women across the UK. Oona has received numerous national and international awards and was a previous associate artist of Belfast International Festival. She is a real inspiration in the dance world.

'Fly The Flag' is a unique collaboration between arts organisations and human rights charities which celebrates and reminds us of the human rights we should enjoy. Launched in 2018 on the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it focuses on Article 19, the right to freedom of opinion and expression. Activities will culminate in a celebration of the work on 10 December.

This initiative builds on Oona’s previous work where she developed a sugar army, a small group of young women within the community who she taught to perform. At the Mac she was asked where did the idea of the sugar army come? She said it was her experience of going to Saint Louise’s with “all those wee girls altogether that could be quite scary”. She said for a lot of this age group life could be quite two dimensional, particularly online as they look at Kim Kardashian and pose for selfies. She wanted to make them sweat and move and receive the benefit of it.  

SWEAT EQUITY: Dancers taking part in the Fly The Flag initiative

SWEAT EQUITY: Dancers taking part in the Fly The Flag initiative


All of the young women who participated in the local group performed at the Mac. They talked about their awareness of human rights and you could see the glow of achievement and awe among them from being able to participate.

Portrait photographs of them in their Belfast neighbourhoods were flashed up screen. How small they all looked and how little nature they had around them were my first thoughts. I asked, “this is all very nice for the young women but what would it take to keep the excitement of dance alive for them to support their journey?”  

“It would not take much" was Oona's answer. "A room to meet once a week and someone to work with them." The Mac and Belfast International Festival jumped up to say they would sort something out. I hope they have.

The parents were talking of how happy their daughters seemed from engaging in the process, that they felt like they belonged to something interesting and exciting. When Oona spoke of them being the next generation dance stars, the two young women sitting in front of me made a little jump and squealed. 
With Covid, the process has morphed and developed, shifted and shaped. One idea was to bring all the young women to perform at Sadlers Wells, London. But with the erratic and unpredictable health environment, they ended up filming the process instead. The documentary will show the young participants using movement to explore freedom of expression and creating a new work.

At the Mac we also met a young women who had been in the original sugar army and who is now studying contemporary dance in Manchester. Her experience before had been of hip-hop dancing. Now she has a new career trajectory, it’s wonderful what can happen when young people get involved in the arts. 2021 has also seen Oona Doherty’s first collaboration with (La) Horde, the collective at the helm for Ballet National de Marseille in France. Her star will keep on rising, if supported.
In  the visual arts we are moving into a big group exhibition season where you can catch a glimpse of some of the work that is happening on a continual basis. It's tremendous to see Belfast Exposed set up a photo sale. The exhibition runs to 23 December. I once went to a night market in Conway Mill which was brilliant, could this not be revived?  The Belfast Potter Market has moved to the Golden Thread Gallery on Saturday 11 December.

"BRÓDÚIL AS BÉAL FEIRSTE": The fabulous Array Collective

"BRÓDÚIL AS BÉAL FEIRSTE": The fabulous Array Collective

Finally, congrats to the Array Collective for carrying off the Turner Prize this week. I travelled to Coventry to view their work and am delighted at their success - worth noting that artist Stephen Millar gave his acceptance remarks in Irish. Their not-so-traditional Irish pub was a hard-hitting commentary on the Northern Ireland centenary AKA '100 Years of Solitude'. You can see the announcement at 35:50 in the BBC live show from Coventry including Stephen's inspiring words which included "táimid bródúil as Béal Feirste" which he translated, after a nudge from the presenter to, "we are proud to be from Belfast and to be of Belfast."