Shades of Orange
Shades of Orange by Kelvin Boyes was at the Old Museum Arts Centre, Belfast in July, 1995.
Review by Neil Dodds
Kelvin Boyes' exhibition at the Old Museum Arts Centre in July opted for an anthropological examination of the Orange Order. Given unparalleled access to certain lodges, to the extent of being allowed to photograph previously secret rituals, he had the opportunity to concentrate less on the potentially explosive confrontations between marchers and police that have marked recent Twelfth Demonstrations, and more on the idea of the Orange Order: What is it? What does it do? How do its members perceive themselves? What do they do for the rest of the year?
The first two questions are answered by some of the less interesting prints on display: stock footage of a parade reaching the crest of a hill, their gaudy uniforms in 'Prod Baroque' contrasting with the miserable clouds which provide a backdrop; the members of the Mullaghboy Lodge grimly singing hymns before their banner; a pair of flautists accompanying the burning of 'Lundy the Traitor' against an infernal sky. It's the usual stuff, really, showing how Lodge membership and parading affirm political and religious identity while bringing a festive splash of colour to otherwise dull Irish summers. Boyes, however, could have delved deeper into the workings and the hierarchy of the Orange Order, perhaps by investigating issues such as its membership in the Republic's border counties, or its Grand Master, Rev. Martin Smyth MP, demonstrating the Order's seamless blend of religion and power politics. Or perhaps by exploring further into the exhibition's 'scoop', the previously unphotographed Orange ceremony. This print shows the members of Ferniskey Lodge, Antrim, on the opening of an 'Orange Ball'- a group of Orangemen, including a bizarrely robed Master of Ceremonies, encircle an elder as he places what appears to be nothing more sinister than a birthday cake in the middle of the floor. So, no burning crosses, sacrificed goats and ceremonial flayings; despite its cultist trappings, mysteries and cabalistic symbolism, the Orange Order appears as a harmless but dotty social club that provides its members with not only a shared identity but a sense of importance that transcends social class.
The influence of its leaders, however, runs much deeper than that. Anticipating a confrontation during the recent parades on the Ormeau Road, Belfast's First Citizen Eric Smyth made it known that he would be attending the demonstrations, "if his Orange superiors required it of him". If the Lord Mayor was willing to put loyalty to his lodge above his civic duties, then we must assume that the Orange Orders's leaders must wield considerable power in Northern Ireland, a power readily relinquished to them by its members, who are happy to see their children marching before they can walk.
Which leads us to the latter questions, of how Boyes depicts the role played by the Order in its members' lives. Without their sashes, the young members of Antrim Junior District Number 1 would look like an average bunch of pre-teens, and the members of St. Johnston Women's Lodge would appear to be congregating for a tea and ham sandwich parish meeting. However, with their sashes on, their identity is withdrawn or deferred - the viewer cannot help but identify them as proud lodge members first, children from Crumlin and women from Donegal a poor second. Ordinary people in ordinary (albeit peculiarly 'Orange') environments like frugally panelled parish halls and sober white bungalows are transformed into mindless Klansmen in the eyes of some, recognised compatriots to others. In Ontario a group of Native Americans in full Mohawk regalia unfurl their lodge banner. In Toronto, two Orangemen pose incongruously in front of the futuristic skyline: perceived as allies, perhaps, to Lodge members in Ulster, but anecdotal evidence of Orangeism's often proclaimed universality, and lacking the political clout of their deadly rivals, the Irish Americans.
It is this entropic smalltown cosiness that Boyes captures in his most successful images, a society that survives in spite of the modern world that would, in fact, prefer not to have to deal with it at all. Boyes resists the urge to portray a sub-David Lynch community of Diane Arbus freaks, and his most memorable photographs sum up the Order member's pride, sense of community, stubbornness and claustrophobia. It's a full time job.