A group of artists from across the sectarian divide in Northern Ireland has won the 2021 Turner prize, the highlight of the contemporary art calendar.
The Array Collective is a group of 11 Belfast-based artists who have been collaborating since 2016 on projects in response to issues such as access to abortion, gay rights, mental health, gentrification and social welfare.
Alex Farquharson, the director of Tate Britain and chair of the judges, said the Array artists “make their work in a difficult, divided sectarian context. They deal with very important issues but bring a sense of humour, pleasure, joy, hope and hospitality – often through absurdism, camp, theatre, to an otherwise very tense situation. They bring a sense of release and a post-sectarian way of thinking.”
The prestigious £25,000 prize was awarded at a ceremony at Coventry Cathedral on Wednesday evening. This year’s shortlist was made up for the first time entirely of collectives, all with an emphasis on social engagement.
The Array Collective said the award was “surreal” and they were “so proud to be from Belfast and of Belfast”. The prize money would go towards a secure studio space, they said.
The group’s nominated work for the prize, The Druithaib’s Ball, is an installation centred on an imagined shebeen – an illicit drinking den – with a floating roof made from banners created for protests and demonstrations. Approached through a circle of flag poles referencing ancient Irish ceremonial sites and contemporary structures, it is described as “a place to gather outside the sectarian divides”.
Farquharson said: “The jury was really impressed by Array’s exhibition … They totally embodied the spirit of what they do, what they’re about, in a gallery space a long way from home.”
This year’s focus on collectives rather than individuals was “absolutely linked to the collectives’ social commitments and community engagement. In some cases, you could call that activism. In other cases, maybe activism is not quite the right word. But in each case, social engagement is,” he said.
He acknowledged that the shortlist of collectives was controversial in some quarters. But their work related to a “genealogy of performance art within the visual arts. That’s an artistic medium. It’s just that this year the artistic medium is not the object – the painting or the photograph or the sculpture – but making life into art and art into life.”
He added: “Multiple authorship is more rare in the visual arts, but it’s certainly not rare in other art forms, like film or theatre.”
The other collectives on the shortlist were Black Obsidian Sound System (B.O.S.S), Cooking Sections, Gentle/Radical and Project Art Works.
B.O.S.S is a London-based collective formed in 2018 by and for queer, trans and intersex black and people of colour. They challenge dominant norms of sound-system culture across the African diaspora through club nights, art installations, technical workshops and creative commissions.
The London-based Cooking Sections uses food as a lens and tool to observe landscapes in transformation. The duo’s recent work highlighting the conditions of farmed salmon prompted Tate to remove it from menus at all its sites.
Gentle/Radical, established in the community of Riverside in Cardiff in 2016, describes itself as “an artists-and-others-run project” with an ethos that “the marginal is our mainstream”. It advocates art as a tool for social change.
Project Art Works is a collective of neurodiverse artists based in Hastings, East Sussex, creating art through collaborative practice.
The £25,000 prize was presented by Pauline Black, the lead singer of the 2 Tone pioneers the Selecter. A further £10,000 was awarded to each of the other nominees.
The Turner prize judging panel consisted of the actor Russell Tovey; Aaron Cezar, the director of the Delfina Foundation in London; Kim McAleese, a programme director of Grand Union in Birmingham; and Zoé Whitley, the director of the Chisenhale Gallery in London.
An exhibition featuring the work of the shortlisted collectives is at the Herbert art gallery and museum in Coventry until 12 January as part of its 2021 city of culture events.
Last year’s Turner prize was suspended because of the Covid pandemic. In 2019, the prize was unprecedentedly awarded to all four artists on the shortlist.