The 11-strong Array collective on winning the Turner prize: ‘We’ll have to have a meeting about this!’

It’s the morning after the night before, the night in which the 11-strong, Belfast-based Array Collective, along with two babes-in-arms and one tiny golden-haired child, stepped on to the podium at Coventry Cathedral in their sparkling finery to receive the Turner prize. Three of them – Emma Campbell, Sighle Bhreathnach-Cashell and Stephen Millar – have volunteered to brave hangovers and speak for this group of friends. Each has their own artistic practice, but they won the prize in their guise as a collective, through which they campaign on such issues as women’s rights, language rights and LGBT rights, with wild costumes, clever banners and a great deal of dark humour.

When you enter their section of the Turner prize exhibition, at the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum in Coventry, you are enfolded into the dark, cosy and faintly anarchic arms of a lovingly recreated síbín, or illicit bar, where every detail – from the banners hanging from the ceiling to the ashtrays painted with Ulster’s red hand – has some story, some significance in their history of campaigning, on often difficult and painful issues such as abortion.

“Our síbín,” says Bhreathnach-Cashell, “is almost like a self-portrait of Northern Ireland. When tourists come to Northern Ireland, even English tourists, people always say how friendly the place is, sitting alongside the conflict. The irony of that is not lost on us. But we were also consciously thinking, ‘Let’s make [our part of the show] a comfortable place, so that people can sit there and absorb it and take time with it.’”

The warmth of the space is a way of defusing the tensions and traumas inherent in Northern Ireland’s past and present – and inviting visitors not to move on, to sit and think about them in a context that doesn’t feel too worthy or didactic. As Millar puts it: “Where would you rather be, the pub or a gallery?”

The previous evening, asked what they planned to do with the £25,000 prize as they stood on the platform, mention was made of doing something about the perilous state of the studios they share. This morning, the reality of being part of a collective is more judiciously taken into account: “Well, of course, we’ll have to have a meeting about it,” says Campbell. She had tried, before the prize ceremony, to get everyone to think about what they’d do if they won, but no one wanted to jinx their chances. (Making decisions as a group is, they hint, just as difficult as you might expect. It’s even hard to find time for meetings, as everyone has a paying job to support their art. “There are no trustafarians in Array,” says Campbell.)

The writing on the wall … the decorated bar.
The writing on the wall … the decorated bar. Photograph: John Robertson/The Guardian

After they had been nominated for the Turner prize, news came that the building they occupy in Belfast had been sold and they needed to be out in 18 months. It’s not just the old story of gentrification following in the wake of artists, says Bhreathnach-Cashell, but “terrible town-planning and capitalism gone mad”. There are loads of buildings pointlessly standing empty in the city centre, they say, but the rents have gone crazy. They’d like to stay central: that way anyone can drop in quickly and make, or pick up, a banner if there’s a march.

It’s an intriguing year for the Turner prize, the judges having made the decision to solely shortlist collectives. That was partly pragmatic, in the face of cancellation of many of the exhibitions that would normally have been considered (officially the prize recognises an artist’s shows in the year prior to nomination). But it was also a political gesture, to foreground communal, social action during the pandemic. Some found it a quixotic decision – a continuation of an odd period for the prize, since last year it was commuted into a series of bursaries; and the year before, the shortlisted artists refused to be set against each other, claiming the prize jointly.

“The explosive, neoliberal individualism of the Young British Artists has given way to the notion of art serving a social purpose,” Jake Chapman, who was nominated with his brother Dinos in 2003, told the New York Times. “I’m just wondering at what point will it merge with Social Services.” Some will not mourn that “explosive neoliberalism”, though. Nevertheless, the result is that the first Northern Irish artists to win the prize are not superstars Willie Doherty or Cathy Wilkes, but a group of ordinary, non-starry artists for work that some might say stretches the definition of art to breaking point.

Array shrug off this criticism. After all, says Campbell, “all art is political, even if the artist doesn’t think it is.” That is, all cultural production is bound up in its political context, not least in how it is funded. On the other hand, there is plenty of artistry in the way Array draw attention to the causes they espouse. On show in their síbín in Coventry is a film of an event they held in Belfast this year, the Druithaib’s Ball, which involved a phantasmagoria of performances, stories and wild costumes bringing a carnivalesque lightness to an often dark, difficult and divided political backdrop. Not all those there were from the collective – the event was a wider celebration of art in Belfast and beyond, marking “in our own way” Northern Ireland’s centenary. Gay rights campaigner Richard O’Leary, for example, told a moving (and true) story about the “fairies” of Northern Ireland, deliberately fusing the implications of the word to give his tale a mythical undertow.

What are you having? The Array collective get comfortable in their winning entry.
What are you having? The Array collective get comfortable in their winning entry. Photograph: John Robertson/The Guardian

Members of Array, which includes both Catholics and Protestants, also use the language of pre-Christian Irish folklore to burrow beneath a more recent history: that of the legacy of British colonialism, and the sectarian divide, that otherwise besets them at every turn. “We want to show an alternative voice to the sectarian green or orange,” says Bhreathnach-Cashell. “But at the same time, it infuses everything. It’s within us from living there.”

The image of the Sheela-na-Gig – an ancient feminine symbol who holds open her vulva – has accompanied them on marches for reproductive rights, which are still in a parlous state in Northern Ireland as Westminster and Stormont tussle over abortion laws. And then there’s the Morrígan, a shapeshifting character from Irish folklore who, says Campbell, was a “very good representation of the ‘virgin, mother, crone’ idea; this very restricted idea of womanhood, especially from the likes of the DUP, who restrict what women can be.”

The Morrígan (AKA Campbell) took herself off to Westminster recently “to beg for reproductive rights”. Millar has devised his own character, the Long Shadow, the shadow being the unresolved trauma of conflict that no one ever properly sees, which continues to have serious repercussions on suicide rates and mental health in the region. As he says: “There was a civil war here. And nobody ever talks about it.”

Sometimes, the mood is airier and more mischievous. One banner in the síbín reads: “Prepared for peas, ready for sausage war” – a reference to perhaps the most notorious of Belfast’s paramilitary murals which, accompanied by a sinister image of armed, hooded men, reads: “Prepared for peace, ready for war.” Array’s rewording is a dig at the “sausage war” and the DUP’s concern earlier this year that British bangers would struggle to find their way to Northern Ireland owing to Brexit. It’s a typical move from Array – to disarm, in all senses, the violent symbols of the region’s past. “Sometimes the culture here just hands you a joke on a plate,” says Campbell.

Whatever you think of the Turner prize, and the direction it has taken this year, it’s hard not to be uplifted by the collective’s sense of hope, their passion for change and their hard won humour – a flicker of light in the dark.

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