Peacebuilding and the arts: a mirror held up to reality — art collectives
by Jack FARRAR
23 September 2023
This is the third in a series of articles about peacebuilding and the arts, exploring how creative practices help us revisit our past and reimagine our futures.
Modern art galleries can be joyless places. If the pristine, colourless walls don’t scare you off, the low whispers and gentle nods of knowing patrons might have more luck. We are fortunate that conventional and uninspiring white space galleries take up very little real estate in Northern Ireland. The MAC, for example, is a beautifully curated multipurpose building, refreshingly uncluttered and unpretentious. Or consider Artcetera Studio in the heart of Belfast city centre; stepping inside you’ll stumble upon Olivier, the manager and curator, emerging from his delightfully eclectic reception room to greet you as an old friend. Despite this, it remains easy to feel insecure about art galleries and the aloof culture of the contemporary art world. This insecurity is regulated by class, and it is troubling to note the stark attendance gap among people from different socioeconomic backgrounds in Northern Ireland, with 38% of people from the most deprived areas visiting galleries compared to 62% in the least deprived areas. Art may be potent in its perspective-altering potential, but is this not significantly impaired if the audience is limited to people from a certain milieu?
Herein lies the importance of art collectives. The artistic ecosystem of Northern Ireland is indebted to several DIY collectives that jettison this space of privilege to promote community-driven arts projects and collaborative, participatory practice across multiple disciplines and sectarian boundaries.
Vault Artist Studios is a not-for-profit arts charity comprised of visual artists, musicians, puppeteers, photographers, film-makers, bee-keepers and writers. They began in late 2016 after being approached to take over an old Ulster Bank building in East Belfast. Since then, they have built a community of artists and enriched the locality through workshops, open studios, and live entertainment. Nurturing a culture of skill sharing and collaboration, they have become a focal point for locals and placed arts at the heart of the community. Hundreds of vacant commercial buildings are still decaying across Belfast, and Vault Artist Studios is a paradigm of the untapped potential behind each of these sites. Formed in 1993, Catalyst Arts has a longer relationship with the cultural identity of Belfast. Also a voluntary artist-led collective, Catalyst Arts aims to promote the arts to a diverse audience in Northern Ireland with an annual programme that includes outreach and off-site projects, in addition to gallery-based exhibitions and an internationally renowned biennial of live art. Other artist-led groups include the Shore Collective, based close to the waters of Lough Neagh, and Paragon Studios, which encourage the general public to see, enjoy and participate in art through workshops, participatory events, and long-term projects in Peas Park, North Belfast and Ballykinler, County Down.
Finally, we must consider the Array Collective. In 2021, this Belfast-based collective of multidisciplinary artists and activists became the first winners from the region of arguably the UK’s most prestigious contemporary art award: the Turner Prize. The group have repeatedly taken their art to the streets in collaborative responses to socio-political issues affecting Northern Ireland: LGBTQ+ rights, reproductive justice, language, social housing, and the legacy of conflict.
The well-known adage that “Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it” is widely attributed to German poet and playwright, Bertolt Brecht. These artists, each equipped with Brechtian hammers, are simultaneously responding to, and shaping, the complexities and discourses of modern Northern Irish society with a wit and absurdism that is curiously in keeping with the tradition of great Irish art. Array Collective’s Turner Prize-winning artwork, The Druthaib’s Ball (2021), invites us into a space where trauma, memory, humour, tension, and release coexist.
The Druthaib’s Ball is an immersive installation of an imagined síbín, “a pub without permission”, explains the collective. On one wall of the síbín, a film documents an event held in Belfast in July 2020 described as “an evening of performances and craic to mourn and mark the centenary [of Ireland’s partition]”. The remaining walls are brimming with ephemera and artworks parodying the traditional decor of such spaces whilst chronicling Array’s involvement in social justice campaigns. The more than 80 artworks cladding the síbín include banners from recent protest rallies and a quilt made in 1990 for the Irish Names Project in remembrance of loved ones who died from AIDS and HIV-related illnesses in Ireland. The community impetus of the síbín is further energised by an ongoing programme of talks, workshops, and live performances. This is socially engaged art at its best; collective practice responding to the needs of the community it was made for.
Many in the local arts scene have celebrated Array Collective’s Turner Prize victory and Peter Mutschler, director of Paragon Studios, reflected, “It has opened new perspectives, how we make and validate art… trembles should also be felt by the funders, adopting a long-term, ground-up funding strategy for the arts.”
Lamentably, this praise has not been shared by much of the UK media’s reporting on Array’s win. Ciara Hickey and Jane Morrow recount several negative reviews, regretting their lack of comprehension of Northern Ireland’s political climate and the artists responding to it:
“Tell us again that it’s ‘fun’ to create a pub mop bucket in the shape of the ferry which takes our pregnant people to Scotland for healthcare that is still illegal in Northern Ireland. Array’s description: ‘Soaked in shame by a country that loves to export our discomfort’. Tell us that a T-shirt bearing the slogan ‘Eire Says Relax’ (a paraphrase of the banned 1983 Frankie Goes to Hollywood song), referencing both the subjugation of women and of LGBTQ+ communities in Northern Ireland, is ‘weak’.”
There are countless examples of UK media either failing to critically engage with Array’s installation or dismissing it entirely. “Perhaps you had to be there, so to speak, to have any idea of the ultimate value — social, let alone humorous — of Array’s activities” dismissively speculates Laura Cumming of The Guardian newspaper. But this may be precisely the point. Of course critics in London don’t appreciate Array’s work, nor care much about this region and our political intricacies. In that case, this art isn’t for them. The true value of this work is found in its relationship with the people of Northern Ireland; it offers a fresh way of seeing, feeling, and thinking about the culture to which we belong. With a mirror in one hand and a hammer in the other, The Druthaib’s Ball asks questions about our traditions and the trauma embedded within. It asks how things are and how they might otherwise be. Eugen Koh maintains that, in disturbed societies like Northern Ireland, this questioning quality of art is vital to collective healing, repairing, and adapting to future challenges. It is akin to pruning and cultivating a withering garden, so that new healthy flowers can grow.
Championing collaborative practice, skill sharing, and public participatory arts, artist-led community spaces are essential to the cultural identity of Northern Ireland. They continue to enrich the neighbourhoods in which they reside, asking questions of our past, imagining our future, and encouraging us all to join them in the process.
Eugen Koh: “Art, Healing and Northern Ireland”
Image “The Druthaib’s Ball (2021) Array Collective” courtesy of National Museums NI Collection: Ulster Museum BELUM.U2022.1
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