Art is political. It can be provocative and challenging. It can help us understand society as much as reading the newspaper or reading a book … or a blog post. But do the public take it seriously?

Second Collective are running a series of exhibitions, workshops and events across the week of Imagine! Festival. Alan Meban recently spoke to its cofounders, Cathy Scullion and Sinead O’Neill Nicholl.

Graduating as mature students, they set up Second Collective in 2017. Today it’s based in Vault Artist Studios (the old Belfast MET site on Tower Street at the bottom of the Newtownards Road). Cathy takes up the story.

(Cathy) “When we both left [college] we were really lucky to get that space in Vault because the community there was so supportive [after] leaving the supportive community of university”.

She noticed other mature, female artists that they’d studied with, who without a support network were falling away from the art world because “they had life to deal with”. That’s what spurred Cathy and Sinead on to set up Second Collective as a community and a network.

(Cathy) “There are barriers and we wanted to help people overcome those. And we wanted to make sure that female artists get paid fairly for the work they do, that their work is valued, and that they get an opportunity to showcase their work.”

(Sinead) “We’d consider ourselves to be on the less commercial side of art. We try to support people who maybe aren’t represented by a gallery, or make work that isn’t really for sale, which is quite unusual … Those people find it hard. You’re dependent on getting an opportunity to exhibit work to get a fee.

“Most artists are supporting their work through other [employment] outside of the arts. It’s important to us to make people aware that there are opportunities to make art and get paid for it in these niche areas [that are] not as mainstream.”

Second Collective are behind a number of events in this year’s Imagine! programme.

She/Her/They/Them/We will exhibit five different artists – Martina Hynan, Sarah Louise Lordan, Michaela Nash, Nina Oltarzewska and Eimear Nic Roibeaird – and it’s all connected by the idea of representation of the female body. You can call into Arcade Studios (35 Donegall Street) anytime between 11am and 6pm on Friday 25th and Saturday 26th.

(Sinead) “They are predominantly younger artists – although [normally] we are focusing on mature artists, this year we decided that we wanted to branch out and collaborate with other people. So we opened our calls to everyone, and wanted to hear from artists who would resonate with that title and the theme of what it means to be a woman, and what that means in 2022?

“We’ll have an installation work; a very theory-based video from one of our artists; there will be painting, a lovely series of photographs; and we’ll have some sculpture as well.”

On Friday evening (25th) at 6pm, Emma Campbell and Clodagh Lavelle will be running Amaz-zine, a zine-making workshop in Vault Artist Studios.

Sinead’s “absolutely thrilled” that these two artists from Array Collective (which was recently the first Northern Irish winner of the Turner Prize) are running the workshop which promises to be “madness and mayhem”.

On Saturday 26th, outside Vault Artist Studios, Rachel Macmanus will be performing Pack Unpack over three hours. The intense performance watches Rachel slow pack and unpack a large suitcase, raising questions of who is doing the packing, who normally packs in local families, what it’s like to be packing to flee your country, or to be constantly rehoused in a society when you get moved from pillar to post.

While planned for quite some time, the performance will also resonate with the images we see daily of people leaving Ukraine to find safety away from the invasion.

(Sinead) “Rachel is a brilliant performer … she loves these durational performances … She’s thinking about all of the ideas around packing and unpacking … predominantly about people coming into this country from elsewhere and how they’re made to feel welcome or not welcome and what that means to take your whole life with you in the suitcase. And it’s going to happen outside, regardless of weather conditions. She has informed us that she would like it to rain!”

And finally, TAGGED at noon on 26th March in Vault Artist Studios. The workshop explores self-perception, self-image and reimagines words that are often used as tools for social control.

Elida Maiques will invite the often othered to recall adjectives assigned to them, and to reclaim or reject them, ultimately shaking them off. The adjectives will be transcribed onto luggage tags which will in turn be fashioned into a costume.

Cathy adds that “the participants [can then] wear the garment and basically dance and shake those tags off: the whole process will be quite cathartic” before the tagged creation is symbolically buried in the Vault’s allotment.

Why choose to plant these events in Imagine! festival? Belfast has a lot of festivals to choose from …

(Sinead) “We were part of Imagine! festival last year. They were great supporters [and] encouraged us to think big in terms of what we wanted to do and achieve. They … helped us as a young organisation to feel valued and that this work is important and that people do recognise that.

“I’m not sure we would connect in with any other festival as well as this one.”

Asked whether the public take art seriously, Cathy reflects that the festival can help.

“[We are] introducing people who maybe wouldn’t be interested in the arts, that happened to come across something that we’re doing through Imagine!’s schedule of events, and hopefully that will bridge that gap.”

(Sinead) “Even for us, as mature women who have had a life before art, a lot of our friends and family are not in the art world. So they’re coming to see things that we’ve been part of and it is quite surprising the positive reaction you get from people. People will be open to it if they get the chance.”

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