Rita Duffy is an Irish artist who has charged her work with political and social tensions on many levels. The subject matter of her paintings, sculpture, and installations is Belfast city life as she addresses issues of poverty, police presence, and civil strife.
Born and raised in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Duffy experienced first-hand the gender, civil, and religious divisions that existed in the “Troubles” of Belfast and Northern Ireland/Ulster. Duffy received her B.A.in Fine Art at Ulster Polytechnic in Belfast, Ireland and her M.A. in Fine Art at the University of Ulster. She is an Honorary Member of the Royal Society of Ulster Architects. She was awarded the Gold Medal, Royal Ulster Academy of Arts in 2006.
For more than four decades, her work has dealt with subject matter such as the Troubles in Ireland, the political and religious situation in Northern Ireland, civil strife, and the role of women. Her early works such as her Siege paintings depict Ulster’s divided society. Her “Drawing the Blinds” portrays life in the Belfast housing complex Divis Flats, which served as a stronghold for the I.R.A. in its battle against the British Army, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, and loyalist paramilitary groups.
For an exhibition in Dublin’s Kilmainham Gaol, Duffy painted “Emerging from the Shamrock” an oil triptych of Mother Ireland that borders on the grotesque. The larger middle piece shows a middle-aged woman in underwear and bridal veil, carrying a bucket in each hand, as she walks independently and confidently down an aisle. The three ages of life are indicated reading from right to left.
Her paintings from the early 1980s are highly structured and reflect the sectarian organizations in Northern Ireland. Her paintings focus on the deep divide between Catholic and Protestant communities. In 1989, she painted two similar works: “Segregation” and “Mother Ireland.” Both are explicit narratives characteristic of her work with her distorted figures revealing life’s imperfections. Her figures derive emotional power from their expressionistic exaggerations and distortions to become a kind of satire. In “Segregation” there are two opposing groups – Catholics and Protestants – who are separated by an androgynous, non-denominational figure. Her “Mother Ireland” shows a homely mother figure with a clothing iron on her head like a helmet, holding four writhing male toddlers, the “four strong sons” or the four provinces of Ireland referred to in the nationalist ballad “Four Green Fields.” The mother here is is the focal figure while the Catholic bishop is in the background.
In her 1996 “Territory” there are fifteen rectangular panels, arranged horizontally in three parallel rows of five. Each panel carries a pencil drawing of sections of the peace-lines in Belfast. Superimposed on each panel are excerpts of verse taken from the poem, “The Act of Union,” written by Seamus Heaney, the Northern Irish Catholic poet.
Duffy’s 2000 installation, “Veil,” is composed of 6 heavy prison doors taken from the women’s prison in Armagh and assembled in the form of a hexagon, reminiscent perhaps of the six counties of Northern Ireland. Several peepholes in the door show a shower of glass tears, hanging suspended in a garish red light. Outside are traces of salt scattered around the base of the doors as a representation of suffering.
A more recent exhibition, “The Essential Gesture,” features small paintings of icebergs alongside head portraits of her family members. This juxtaposition of heads with icebergs suggests that what we see on the surface is only part of the story. Just as the iceberg contains a vast amount of ice not seen in the dark or murky waters, so too does the inside of a person’s head contain the unseen trauma caused by living during the Troubles.
Duffy’s “Anatomy of Hope” looks at the current Corona Virus pandemic in an animated video of drawings made during the Covid lockdown in 2020. Her work resides in several public collections, including the Irish Museum of Modern Art, London’s Imperial War Museum, Arts Council of Northern Ireland, Belfast’s Ulster Museum, New York’s The Drawing Museum, and the Office of Public Works in Dublin.