The Arts Council Northern Ireland has released its annual review for 2021-22, highlighting an exciting year for Northern Irish art after galleries reopened after the pandemic and official Covid restrictions came to an end in March 2022.
The Belfast Golden Thread Gallery hosted the Portrait of Northern Ireland Centenary Exhibition at the end of 2021, which featured more than 100 artists from the 1920s to present day, including established Northern Irish artists such as Paul Henry and William Scott, as well as past Turner Prize nominees and recent graduates from the Belfast School of Art. The exhibition was curated by the director of the Naughton Gallery at Queen’s University, Shan McKenna.
The Turner Prize 2021 broke new ground in a number of ways. For the first time, all of those shortlisted were artist collectives and the winner, Array Collective, was the first Northern Irish victor in the history of the prize. The Belfast-based collective create art in “response to sociopolitical issues affecting Northern Ireland”.
The winning work, titled The Druthaib’s Ball, loosely translated as the fool’s ball, is an immersive work staged to look like an illicit Irish pub (or sibín) but with numerous elements intended to satirise and critique aspects of Northern Irish life, such as discarded packets of Tayto crisps and banners used by the collective during Galway Pride. The work was moved from its original location at the Herbert Art Gallery & Museum in Coventry and exhibited at Galway Arts Centre until August 2022.
Also mentioned in the annual review was the Youtube series Gallery Days. Produced by Arts Council NI, the series of short films saw its host, the BBC NI broadcaster Joe Lindsay, travelling to galleries and museums around Northern Ireland and discussing their experiences of the pandemic and the aftermath of reopening.
Featured in the series were Derry’s Void Gallery and Centre for Contemporary Arts (CCA), Belfast Exposed and the R-Space Gallery in Lisburn, among others. The CCA was also shortlisted for the 2021 Art Fund Museum of the Year prize.
Void Gallery director Mary Cremin told Museums Journal that 2021 had been "a very exciting year". After reopening post Covid in a new, more accessible location, the gallery has exhibited work by sculptor Eva Rothschild, who created "a sculptural and immersive environment", as well as pieces by the visual artist Aleana Egan that were commissioned by the gallery.
In 2022, Void worked with female artists from the Middle East “highlighting the impact of war on women and the inherited trauma that creates". The gallery is currently showing work by Irish artist Isabel Nolan, focusing on "modes of human organisation, the shifting status of artefacts and images over long periods of time".
“The publication of our Annual Review for 2021-22 this week is a chance to pause and reflect upon what was both a hugely exciting year for the arts community here, filled with so many defining moments and achievements, but also one fraught with many challenges," said Suzanne Lyle, head of visual arts at the Arts Council NI.
"Our galleries were amongst the first of our cultural institutions to reopen safely to the public, restoring inspiration and creativity where it had been most sorely missed. This was also a year when the eyes of the world turned to Northern Ireland and celebrated our wonderful and vibrant arts community. The success of the Array Collective, as the first Northern Ireland winners of the Turner Prize, distinguished silversmith Cara Murphy’s creation of the Grand National Trophy and the shortlisting of the Centre for Contemporary Art in Derry for the 2021 Art Fund Museum of the Year prize, are just a few of the many highlights.
"As we enter 2023, amidst all of the uncertainty that envelops the world, the Arts Council will continue to champion, support and encourage our artists, galleries and cultural institutions to not just survive but to innovate and showcase the best of Northern Ireland to global audiences.”
The annual review also listed the year’s funding programmes, including the Annual Funding Programme and Lottery project funding as well as the Individual Artists Digital Evolution Awards scheme and the Organisations Digital Evolution Awards, the Minority Ethnic Artists Mentoring and Residency Programme, the Creative Individuals Recovery Programme and the Covid Recovery Programme for Arts Organisations. The full list of funds can be found in the review.