Martin Forker

Visual Arts

Martin Forker

Dr. Martin Forker was born in Belfast in 1951. In 1990, he was awarded the Royal Ulster Academy (Invitation Award). In 2002, he was awarded a doctorate from Queens University Belfast. His doctorate is entitled “A Diagnostic Profile of Art Understandings and Social Attributions based on Written Responses to Conflict Imagery”. Presently, he is Professor in the Applied English Department of Shih Chien University, Kaohsiung Campus in Taiwan.

Research Interests:

His research interests include: conflict imagery, symbolism, Irish political cartoons, Northern Ireland murals, visual literacy, art assessment in education, art history, and the use of imagery in second language acquisition. He has published academic papers related to the Northern Ireland conflict, art education, and art history in various journals in America, Japan, England and Taiwan.


Solo Exhibition: Queen’s University of Belfast Fringe Festival, 1975

Tom Caldwell Gallery, Springfield Group Exhibition, Northern Ireland, 1976

Octagon Gallery, Belfast, 1977

Monaghan Museum Annual Group Exhibition,1977-1985

Belfast Workers’ Festival Touring Exhibition, 1985

Royal Ulster Academy Exhibition, Belfast, 1990

Cavehill Gallery, Summer Group Exhibition, Belfast, 1990

Chishan Art Association Group Exhibition, Taiwan, 2005

Chishan Art Association Group Exhibition, Taiwan, 2006

Chishan Group Art Association Exhibition, Taiwan, 2007

Solo Exhibition: Chih-Mei Gallery, Cultural Centre, Kaohsiung, Taiwan, 2007

Art Collections:

Allied Irish Bank Art Collection, Republic of Ireland

Monaghan Museum, Republic of Ireland

Private Collections: Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland

Critical Appraisal of Martin Forker’s Artwork:

Professor Tony Gallagher, Pro-Vice Chancellor of Queen’s University of Belfast, states “For over a quarter century Belfast was a cauldron within which a heady brew of hurt and hatred mixed, and spawned generations who believed that violence was the cure of all their ills. The momentum of hate eventually spluttered and stopped, and a peace process of hope began. The ten years since have seen a peace that is both fragile and incomplete, but it has been a decade of some hope. Remarkably, even though a striking feature of popular politics was the widespread use of wall murals, as markers of territory and ideas, the arts establishment more often than not avoided the subject, perhaps afraid of being drawn into a Manichean struggle. Absent a detailed repository on which we might reflect, there is perhaps a danger of a reconstruction of memory, of an imagined golden age in which the brutal and brutalizing effects of violence are washed away by a heady romanticism. These works by Martin Forker will serve as an antidote to such re-imaginings. There is a stark simplicity to many of these images, in which haunted figures wear on their faces, and in their eyes, the terrible sights they have seen. There is no romanticism here, no golden age, no heroes or heroines. Rather there are victims, lives destroyed, pain endured. And yet, his later images are more complex, more ambivalent. The wider cast of characters suggests a context of change, even though the direction and outcome remains unclear, with the past crashing into the present, and shaping the future in ways we cannot yet predict. He captures a moment of uncertainty, but perhaps one in which new possibilities exists, if we can seize the moment. In the rush to peace there are some, perhaps too many, feel that the best way to deal with a difficult past is to pretend it never existed, but like the proverbial ‘elephant in the corner’, the memory of those years will live on, even if only in the quiet place of bitter and painful remembering. So until the legacy of violence is addressed we will need constant reminders that it remains unaddressed, and art and artists have their role to play, to confront us with the uncomfortable past and ask the awkward questions we should not avoid. Martin Forker’s collection confronts us with these stark realities, it reminds us of what we would rather forget, but cannot. His images challenge us to deal with the pain we must confront before there is any hope of cure”

A Collection of Paintings and Drawings by Martin Forker, 2007, p.4.

“An even darker, more nightmarish Belfast Expressionism was exhibited in 1977 by Martin Forker… Forker presented an uncompromisingly cruel view of local society and organized religion. Like James Ensor and Emile Nolde, Forker peoples his world with grinning, cackling masks and even the artist’s own heroes move through his paintings like holy innocents, have mask-like faces. While these paintings are not representations of specific events in the Troubles they express some of its root causes and effects. This was particularly true of one painting in which Chaplin, as the policeman in Easy Street, is confronted by ghetto violence. Would the clown succeed in quietening the situation here when orthodox law enforcement officers have failed? There was humor in some of Forker’s works but it is was a grim gallows humour”

Mike Catto, Art in Ulster 2, 1977, p.133.

“The same expressionist handling of Belfast women’s day-to-day lives can be found in Martin Forker’s series of drawings…while he was living in Turf Lodge, one of Belfast’s most depressing post-war Catholic housing estates. Forker was witness to many of the intolerable strains imposed on local women…Rosie Nolan…separated from her husband, mother of a mentally handicapped child, living in an appallingly sub-standard flat, she eventually hanged herself. Forker’s drawings of her fate and of the situation of other local women are heavily influenced by German Expressionism.”

Mother Ireland and the Troubles: Artist, Model and Reality. Belinda Loftus, Circa Art Journal, November/December 1981.

“Käthe Kollwitz evokes a somewhat one-dimensional image of a socialist artist depicting the afflictions of working-class women in a strongly expressionist style…and it is the socialist, feminist, and expressionist elements in her output which are most frequently reworked by present-day artists. Thus in Northern Ireland context they have been heavily influenced the socially committed, strongly graphic depictions of working class women in West Belfast by Patricia McComish and Martin Forker.”

Belinda Loftus, Circa Art Journal, Number 11, 1983, p.23.

“What struck me immediately was that Martin’s art was “engaged”, not cut off from a sense of ‘place’ and ‘people’ as so much ‘disconnected’ art is. Much of his imagery came from communities he had lived in, passed through or had connections with, such as Turf Lodge and the Ardoyne district. My overall Impression of the work was of humanity and hope. In a world of artifice, the work and the concerns felt authentic.”

Alistair MacLennan, Professor of Fine Art, University of Ulster. Cromla Art Magazine, Belfast, November 1988.

Artist’s Statement:

“In order that human beings bring about the most radiant conditions for themselves to inhabit, it is essential that the vision of reality which poetry offers be transformative, more than just a printout of the given circumstance of its time and place”

Seamus Heaney, Joy or Night.

The power of art, as Heaney suggests, is in its power to transform. Hopefully, my imagery transforms by giving a vision of reality of the conflict in Northern Ireland – not just a printout of the given circumstance of its time and place. Much of the symbols employed by both imagined communities in Northern Ireland tend to evolve through a process of sanctification or demonization. Many of my images reflect such concepts. Conflicts come to be seen as “holy wars’ where one side is upholding the ‘forces of light’ against the ‘forces of darkness’ - they give rise to fantasies of suffering and unspeakable horror. Symbols, arts, rituals, sacred texts and myths of all religions are full of violence: sometimes that violence is a violence suffered, other times it is a violence delivered. Some of my imagery depicts Belfast people living in poor housing conditions in the 1970s, the distressing nature of urban deprivation, a “cruel view” of local society and organized religion, and a local mythology immersed in political and religious conflict. Belfast Stigmata (1976) highlights the issue of Catholic girls falling pregnant to British soldiers at the beginning of the conflict and the social stigma they suffered from their nationalist neighbours.

Kristalnacht (Night of Broken Glass) was a pogrom against Jews throughout Nazi Germany and Austria on 9-10 November 1938, carried out by SA paramilitary forces and non-Jewish civilians. The name Kristalnacht comes from the shards of broken glass that littered the streets after Jewish-owned stores, buildings, and synagogues had their windows smashed. In my drawing, Belfast Kristalnacht (1977), a ghetto baby sits in a pram in a filthy West Belfast street surrounded with broken milk bottle forms. Above the baby’s head, a broken bottle ‘martyr’s crown’ motif symbolizes the notion of ‘holy innocents’. Such motifs are also evident in Ghetto Madonna (1977), Ghetto Coal Girl (1976), Ghetto Baby (1976), and High-School Arsonist (1976). Belfast Stigmata (1977) depicts a young Catholic girl who became pregnant to a British soldier. Consequently, she was tarred and feathered by some of her neighbours.

My Homeless Men series portrays the plight of destitute men who found solace in a St. Vincent De Paul hostel on the Falls Road in Belfast during the early 1970s. In one drawing, some of the same old men are depicted as puppet masters who control and encourage the conflict. The imagery in Belfast Street Games 1 (1980) and Belfast Street Games 2 (1980) is an antithesis to William Conor’s romantic imagery of early 20th century Belfast street games - they are macabre images, more akin to Macbeth’s witches. My Belfast Man series attempts to show the tension and misery of working-class men living in a conflicted society.

Images of women throughout the history of Ireland have engaged viewers and served as inspiration and propaganda. Female political per¬sonifications such as Mother Ireland, and female religious icons such as the Virgin Mary and the Protestant martyr Margaret Wilson, have potent political resonance, serving both to unite and divide the social, religious, and political domains. Irish female political symbols can be submissive, aggressive, fertile, or sterile. Mother Ireland and her entourage are two-faced, beau¬tiful and horrific, subservient and manipulative. Mother Ireland (1975) is the first of a series of my Mother Ireland imagery – a mother lamenting the fate of her suffering child (Ulster). Maggie Moon (Mother Ireland) depicts Mother Ireland as a destitute mother, incapable of love drinking the sacrificial blood of her martyred children. Just like Morrigan the Irish moon goddess, Maggie Moon represents the moon as a ‘polluted’ mother and crone seen in the phases of the full moon, and the waning moon.

Rose with a Thorn (1985) depicts the Belfast woman, Rosie Nolan, who was separated from her husband and a mother of a mentally handicapped child. She lived in appallingly conditions in Turf Lodge flat and ultimately hanged herself. Rose with a Thorn echoes Ring O’Roses, a nursery rhyme interpreted as reference to the Black Plague which killed over twenty-five million people in 14th century Europe. In this inter¬pretation, the name ‘Rosie’ referred to the flowers used to adorn the corpses and the Ring referred to the round, red rash, the first symptom of the disease. The ringed shapes of the electric light bulb and the noose in Rose with a Thorn underscore the sheer horror of Rosie Nolan’s tragic suicide. Other female personifications such as Sunday Morning Banshee are based on the Irish mythology of banshees influenced by stories told to me by my grandmother during my childhood. Female personifications such as Sunday Morning Banshee are based on the Irish mythology of banshees influenced by stories told to me by my grandmother during my childhood. According to Irish mythology, banshees were death messengers to ancient Irish families. Annie Montgomery: The Old Woman of Belfast is based on Padriac Pearse’s poem Mise Eire: I am Ireland, I am older than the Old Woman of Beare. Accord¬ing to Irish legend, the Old Woman of Beare had seven recurring periods of youth; so that every man who had lived with her came to die of old age. Ultimately, her grandsons and great-grandsons evolved into the various tribes and races of Ireland.

On Friday, 17 May 1974, three no-warning car bombs ripped through the heart of Dublin at 5.30 pm. Twenty-six people and an unborn baby lost their lives. In Monaghan town seven people died. This has been the greatest loss of life in a single day of the Troubles, including even the Omagh atrocity of 15 August 1998. An Irish Good Friday 2 (1988) depicts a small County Monaghan pub in the Republic of Ireland. An Irish banshee materializes from the fiddler’s magical violin. After the bomb attack, the people of Monaghan became very suspicious of strangers. Superficially, they were friendly to outsiders who they called ‘Northerners’ or ‘Drop Ins’ but they remained deeply distrustful of them. The figures who gaze directly at the viewer, on the bottom-left and the bottom right of the composition, attempt to depict the Monaghan community’s fears.

On a Mission from God (1995) depicts the notions of sanctification and demonization. Under a purplish moonlit sky, an ethereal Cavehill Mountain is presented. In the background, Christ is depicted entering Belfast on a donkey. Gerry Adams is presented as a sanctified Christ-like figure (Sacred Heart) robed in an Irish tricolor holding a Gerry Adam toy figurine with a shamrock on its head. Behind Adams, an Irish simian Frankenstein figure holds a bloodied dagger. Irish historical figures such as James Connolly and Henry Joy McCracken stand next to a St Patrick figure that looks down upon a Black Adder Ian Paisley with a Union Jack. Symbolizing the two ancient brotherhoods of Ireland, the Blues Brothers are depicted wearing traditional Orange Order and Ancient Order of Hibernians sashes. A shadowy gunman stands above a reclining Superman figure, a symbol of the heroic dead, under a green Belfast gas lamp. A Chaplinesque figure dressed as a soldier signifies the soldiers of the 36th (Ulster) Division who fought in the Battle of the Somme in World War 1. A mural of the hunger striker, Bobby Sands is shown on the left of the composition while a mural depicting King William of Orange on his white horse at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.

Ulster Protestants had been given, occupied, and defended an ‘alien land’. In Alien Crucifixion (2004), an alien Christ-like figure hangs from an old Belfast gas lamp. Under a purplish moonlit sky, an eerie Cavehill Mountain is shown. A Belfast boy runs way staring accusingly at the viewer. A deceased Superman, a symbol for the heroic dead, is depicted on top of a Union Jack and an Irish tricolor. Vincent van Gogh and Buster Keaton represent innocent victimhood. A smirking Yoda Star Wars character plays an Orange Order drum lamenting the death of the Christ-like alien on a Belfast lamppost. Another alien-like creature, wearing an Ancient Order of the Hibernians sash, is depicted holding a spear traditionally used by Roman soldiers at Christ’s Crucifixion. An iconic image of Loyalist identity “To the Cross I Cling” is depicted as a Belfast mural next to a Belfast elegiac mother and child and a smirking George Best (a symbol of a Belfast hero). An Irish Republican mural commemorating the 1916 Irish Rebellion is depicted on a gable wall. Lamenting figures of women are also shown. An ET figure points his mystical, luminous finger upwards and a Harry Potter figure raises his magical wand - both are powerless to end the suffering and the violence - all walk on the street of mourning.

In Ecce Homo 2, (2004) a scourged Christ with a UFF motif carved on his chest is shown on a red-blood Belfast apocalyptic street. The Shankill Butchers sometimes carved inscriptions onto their victims flesh. In the background, Cavehill Mountain creates a sense of impending doom. Ian Paisley once described the Northern Ireland conflict as one between the Lamb of God and the Whore of Babylon. A roaring Ian Paisley garbed with an Orange Order sash dominates the composition as he holds a Bible and a grotesquely smiling figurine of himself with the Red Hand of Ulster on its head. Paisley was renowned for yelling his slogan “Ulster Says No!” A Rocky-type figure holds a St. Veronica/Holy Shroud of Turin image while an ET figure points his radiant finger at a Shankill Butcher skeletal figure holding a bloodied cleaver above Christ’s head. Irish simian figures are depicted on the left and the right of the composition. In the 1860s, Irishmen increasingly were represented, especially after the rise of the Fenian Movement, as apelike monsters menacing law, order, and British middle-class values. The Irish were depicted as being monstrous, inhuman and heartless in 19th century periodicals. Belfast street murals of the Virgin Mary and a chilling death-like figure clutches a Union Jack are also depicted. Other figures include a Chaplinesque Lambeg drummer, Laurel and Hardy, Vincent van Gogh, and Wizard of Oz characters (all symbols of innocent victimhood), Superman (a symbol for the heroic dead), the Lone Ranger (a symbol for law and order), the Blues Brothers (symbols of the two ancient brotherhoods in Ireland), a member of an Orange Order band playing a flute, an intimidating gunman, and several mournful women. Some are heroes, some are victims - all walk on the red-blood Belfast apocalyptic street of bigotry, sectarianism, and death.

The Pied Piper of Belfast (2005) with the spirit of an Irish banshee materializing from his enchanted flute reflects the notion of a musical mythomoteur. Loyalists and Irish Republicans have a combination of myths and beliefs which inform each group’s mythomoteur that endows their ideology with shape and direction. Both groups employ music to achieve their agendas. In short, the image attempts to portray how Belfast children are affected by Loyalist and Irish Republican beliefs through the power of traditional music. Belfast children learn in the School of Sorrow where lessons of bigotry, sectarianism, and tribal affiliations are taught.