Reading time: 5 minutes
We would kind of, if someone had an idea, you would share it with the group and then everyone would come together to make it happen. Then that’s when sort of local activist groups would start to approach us and ask us to give them a hand with visuals. […] we are very much part of that community, so we’re not working for people. […] for about two years, there was a real push for political causes that we felt very strongly about. So, the two main ones would have been the abortion law and marriage equality. And we didn’t really see that as an artistic practice. That was more us out campaigning for our human rights, really. But again, they were all campaigns that were quite personal to us. So, we always felt like we were part of the communities that we’re working with and for
These are the words the members of Array Collective decided to present themselves with to the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum after their nominee for the Turner Prize 2021.
The Belfast-based collective saw its birth in the nineties and developed into Array Studio in the noughties, naturally turning into a collective due to the political climate at the time, and the streets of Northern Ireland turned into the battlefield for Abortion Law and marriage equality.
At the core of their work are their activist approaches: they are all about protests, rallies, street interventions, banner-making symposia, creating community and solidarity online. They do not only collaborate with but are part of the disenfranchised groups present on the territory and started doing what they do for the very reason they were nominated for the Turner Prize, shedding light on the many injustices, and fighting for human rights, adding to the mix a very special ingredient: humour, or as they like to call it, craic. Northern Ireland is the background, the scene, and the recipient of their work: in a place where religio-ethnic identity is regarded above all other identities, the eleven artists of Array challenge and resist the manipulative and dominant narratives to create a new mythology for those who do not see themselves represented or seen, by those in power.
This was their attempt when during 2018 International Women’s Day, they marched with depictions of Sheela Na Gigs, a type of (usually) stone architectural figure of uncertain significance, representing a naked woman gesturing to or otherwise flagrantly displaying exaggerated genitalia, broadly attested in Ireland. On this occasion, Array used this figure as a symbol of resistance and freedom, expressing the right to choose. As Array member Emma Campbell states: “It was cheeky, it was received joyously and yet it spoke so directly to the British power which was still held over our bodies”.
In 2019 for Jerwood Collaborate! Array put together an installation called As Other See Us developing three costumes for three original characters inspired by the pre-Christian folklore of Ancient Ireland hybridising these with Northern Ireland’s contemporary anxiety. The Sacred Cow showcased the difficult relationship between body and land in a place like Northern Ireland where people of the lgbtqia+ community are constantly exposed to unwelcoming narratives and oppressive language. The second character, the Long Shadow, mirrored the journey of Irish people in search of work and carried the weight of these stories of loneliness, racism, and violence also bringing up the issue of the increasing number of suicides. The last one of these, the Morrigan, the Irish triune goddess because of her shapeshifting nature was used by Array to represent the virgin, the mother, and the hag, and to reflect the experience of pregnant people in pain. When marching through the streets of Belfast in 2019 for the Pride Parade these characters were acclaimed by an enthusiastic crowd, but when they took them to London there was little to no reaction. This only confirms the lack of knowledge and awareness of social and human rights issues in Northern Ireland.
For the Turner Prize, Array is presenting a work called The Druithaib’s Ball, they used, as they did in previous works, folklore and pre-Christian characters to represent different identities in the North of Ireland by changing the typical narratives. They organised a ball to celebrate the centenary of Ireland inviting all of their friends with the request of showing up in costume. The location was a traditional Irish pub. What can today be seen in Coventry is their interpretation of what Northern Ireland represents, or what it does not represent, a work that speaks about and gives a voice to queer identities and ex-pats.
The idea to celebrate the partition of Ireland with a queer ball perfectly illustrates in what sense we can describe them as chameleonic artists: constantly changing their work to adapt it to new times, issues, and messages that must be heard; standing on a line between being activists and artists, in a world where the two go hand in hand.
They fall in line with the many ancient and medieval traditions that were meant to temporarily break social hierarchies through satire and chaos, such as the French Medieval Feast of the Ass that Array members themselves mention using the words of Pablo Helguera:
The Feast of the Ass is not only an inversion of social roles but of meanings and interpretations within a discipline, conflating them, at times letting them cancel each other out, and at times joining them in progressive ways, constructing models of interactions that other disciplines are too shy or reluctant to try. What art-making has to offer is not accurate representation but rather the complication of readings so that we can discover new questions. It is when we position ourselves in those tentative locations, and when we persist in making them into concrete experiences, that interstices become locations of meaning
Array manages, through its art, to handle this chaotic experience beautifully, the result is fun and perfectly mirrors the reality in Belfast, where because and besides all the struggles, the members of the arts community come together to share, in a non-hierarchical way, their experience, their sensitivity, their skill to create something politically meaningful, but also to have fun. Craic does not only help in reaching people and in starting a conversation on heavy topics playfully, without trivialising the discourse, in a society that is stereotypically close and reluctant to speak about issues, it’s also a way for the member of Array, who are part of marginalised communities to enjoy and to express their visceral need for social change. Art and artistic practice are the tools through which they give life to their political mouth and the results of the urge to speak up. Array’s work does not come from a desire to produce something that can be defined as art, it comes from human needs, survival, representation, the necessity of rights: to choose, to occupy space, to exist, to be loud, and be heard.
Array through their work as activists first and artists built a community in Belfast open to everyone, a safe place to have a craic. And after all, these are their rules:
- Welcome, host and treat others in a friendly supporting way.
- Get out and campaign with your local activist groups
- Have a Geg (Belfast equivalent of Lol – Have a laugh)
di Elena Colombo
 Herbert Art Gallery & Museum, “Turner Prize 2021 Nominee | Array Collective | Herbert Art Gallery & Museum”, 11.10.2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XLU1P23s2HI&t=120s
 Array Collective, “Artists Make Change: Array Collective”, 26.05.2020, http://www.arraystudiosbelfast.com/array-collective.html
 Helguera, Pablo. Socially engaged art. New York, NY: Jorge Pinto Books, 2011, pp. 70-71.