Colin Davidson captures the suffering and loss that marked the lives of ordinary people and their families during the period known as the Troubles in his Native Northern Ireland.
Colin Davidson, 55, is known for his striking large-scale portraits of celebrities such as Brad Pitt (which hangs in the Smithsonian), Tom Moran (which is on display in Queens University, Belfast), George Mitchell, Liam Neeson, and other well-known figures, including Irish writers Brian Friel and Seamus Heaney.
His portrait of German leader Angela Merkel, was commissioned by TIME and ran on the magazine’s Person of the Year cover in December 2015.
But it is the artist’s work exploring the difficult topic of the human toll on individuals who live together with conflict, prejudice, and separation, that has won him wide acclaim. His interest in the topic began in 2012 when the son of a Holocaust survivor, Oliver Sears, who has a gallery in Dublin, commissioned a series on people living in Jerusalem. That experience, he has said, led in a big way to him reflecting on his experiences growing up in Northern Ireland.
The resulting work titled “Silent Testimony,” features large-scale portraits of 18 people who are connected by their individual experiences of loss and suffering caused by the Troubles, that 30-year period of Irish history in which 3,600 people were killed and many more were injured.
The exhibition showed at the Ulster Museum over several months through January 17, 2016, and drew people from across the country in Ireland, who were moved by the emotion Davidson captured in his series. The exhibition later moved to Paris, where it was displayed at the Centre Culturel Irlandais, and most recently it was shown at the Irish Arts Center in New York City.
Born in Belfast in 1968, at the very start of the conflict, Davidson began working on the portraits over a three-year period. “It never started as a theme,” he said in a recent interview, but he recalled thinking, when he first heard of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, “what about all those who suffered losses during the conflict?”
He wanted to do something for “the people who hadn’t had a voice for the story they had to tell. Who had no escape from the grief – or no potential for justice.”
Davidson, who graduated from the University of Ulster in 1991 with a first-class honors degree in design, chose to document the stories of his subjects, whom he met through Wave Trauma Centre, a support group for people traumatized as a result of the Troubles, without commenting on their religion.
“It’s human loss. It’s not Protestant loss or Catholic loss. It’s bereavement, full stop,” he said.
Prior to painting their portraits, none of the victims were known to the artists. The first time he met with them was on the day of the sitting. He described how he wanted that first meeting to be “raw.” “Everything I learned about the person I took back to the studio, and my release was to paint and express the horror that their stories brought forth,” he said. “Often it is the silences – the moments between the words, that are the most affecting.”
He added: “They are people who have suffered loss, and who are, in a sense, paying for our peace.”
Joan Moran with Gerry Adams at the unveiling of Colin Davidson’s portrait of Tom at Queens University Belfast, April 18, 2023.
Portrait of Senator George Mithcell unveiled on October 3, 2023, at the Irish Arts Center.
Colin Davidson will be one of three honorees at the 33rd Annual Flax Trust luncheon on Wednesday, October 11, 2023 at the Links in New York City.