COVENTRY, England — Array Collective, a group of 11 artists who attend political protests in Northern Ireland, wearing carnivalesque costumes and holding funny, provocative banners, has won the Turner Prize, the biggest award in British art.
The announcement was made on Wednesday night during a ceremony at Coventry Cathedral in this English city, where an exhibition of works by artists nominated for this year’s prize is also being held.
Alex Farquharson, the director of Tate Britain and the chair of the Turner jury, said in an interview that Array won for street interventions and artwork that “brings a sense of light and hope and humor” to protests about abortion and gay rights. Their work “suggests a way out or forward in a very serious context,” he added, referencing Northern Ireland’s long history of sectarianism.
“Live art and performance has quite an august, avant-garde heritage to it,” he said. “The way they’re doing it is new and different.”
At recent abortion-rights rallies in Northern Ireland, Array turned up with lighthearted banners featuring the ancient — and rather graphic — figure of sheela na gig. They have also attended other rallies dressed as cakes. At Coventry’s Herbert Art Gallery and Museum, Array built a pub inside one of the galleries, papering its ceiling with political protest banners.
Array is the first collective to win the prize since 2015, when Assemble, an architecture and design group, triumphed. The Belfast-based group beat four other collectives, including Black Obsidian Sound System, a group of Black queer, trans and nonbinary people who stage club nights, and Cooking Sections, whose art highlights the problems of salmon farming. The other nominees were Gentle/Radical, a Wales-based group that includes faith ministers and youth workers who aim to bring art to poor households, and Project Art Works, a community of neurodiverse artists.
Array will receive 25,000 pounds (around $33,000), while the other shortlisted artists will each be awarded 10,000 pounds (about $13,000).
The Turner Prize, first awarded in 1984, helped turn some of its recipients, like Damien Hirst and Steve McQueen, into household names in Britain. But it has also long stirred controversy here, with newspapers regularly criticizing the prize’s nominees as too conceptual or out of touch with mainstream tastes.
This year was no different, with some art critics complaining about the choice of five collectives, rather than individual artists, especially since their works often seemed to be more about political activism than art.
In a review of the nominees’ work, Rachel Campbell-Johnston, a critic for The Times of London, commended the artist collectives for being committed to political change. “The problem is,” she added, “their art is terrible.”
Some artists also took issue. Jake Chapman, one half of the Chapman Brothers who were nominated for the prize in 2003, told The New York Times last month that the prize was now serving a “very defined and performative sense of social responsibility,” which was limiting its ability to showcase experimental and more open-ended art.
Farquharson said that collectives were chosen partly because the pandemic meant few exhibitions of individual artists occurred in Britain in the past year. It was natural to look for artists working in their communities, he said, adding that Array’s victory “proved the benefit” of that decision.