MAC International Returns

The biannual exhibition centered around Ireland's richest arts prize is back in Belfast, with Slovenia's Jasmina Cibic its newly-named winner

Newly announced winner Jasmina Cibic

It’s a very busy Hugh Mulholland that I flag down for a quick chat about this year’s MAC International Ulster Bank Prize. All through our conversation, in an extremely noisy booth at the MAC, he is a-flutter with nervous energy. I find out why when he very kindly gives me a guided tour of the galleries. There is feverish activity: heads are scratched, holes are drilled, spaces are appraised; all is flux and mutability!

The MAC International Ulster Bank Prize is, at £20,000, the largest art prize in Ireland and one of the few major art prizes in the UK. Alongside Mulholland, the Senior Curator at the MAC, the international jury for the prize, now in its second year (its biannual – the first was in 2014) are Marta Dziewanska, a curator and writer based in Warsaw and Katerina Gregos, an art historian and writer based in Brussels. There are 18 artists in contention this year, shortlisted from close to a thousand applicants.

I ask Hugh, his voice barely a whisper over the infernal clanging of the MAC’s coffee machines, what his hopes are for the prize. What does it actually mean?

'I really wanted to implant in artists’ minds the idea of the MAC as a venue for progressive, contemporary, recurrent visual arts practice,' he says, 'we wanted people to know about the MAC and we wanted to attract an international audience as quickly as possible, so having an international open, with really important curators having access to the artist’s work is really attractive to the artists. And there’s also the attraction of showing in an exhibition that’s as considered as the MAC’s is. I mean, I have always thought that it’s as important to be a part of the exhibition as it is to win £20,000!'

You might be alone in that thinking, Hugh, I say. Just under a thousand people have applied this year. How does that compare to the initial competition?

'Just over a thousand applied in the first year. A lot of people applied in that first year but that was without any understanding of what level we were expecting artists to be working at. And when I say that I mean another nice thing about the prize is that it both attracts younger emerging artists as well as artists who are already exhibiting quite widely. There’s no age limit. The nature of open exhibitions is that you’re not asking someone to present a body of work, so a younger artist may be able to present a really strong piece of work, which I think is really exciting.

'MAC International does a particular job: it doesn’t exclude the possibility of an established artist producing a work, but many established artists will feel that that’s something they did when they were younger and they don’t feel that they want to have their work judged in that way.'


Jasmina Cibic (centre) with Anne McReynolds, MAC chief executive and host Charlotte Church

What have you noticed about the entries for this year’s competition? Have any themes emerged at all?

'When you receive nearly a thousand submissions from artists from forty countries there’s obviously a lot of variation in approaches, but equally there’s often a collective consciousness, a coming together of what the artists think needs addressing. Much of the work looks at ideas of territory, of borders, the displacement of people or objects, and unsettled psychological states. It seems appropriate too - the MAC International is that sort of exhibition.'

Well it’s inherent in the title, isn’t it? I say a trifle obviously. I’m rewarded with a wan smile as Hugh continues, warming to this theme:

'Obviously it’s not a curated exhibition in the sense that we’re going to explore the plight of displaced people in Europe, but we have to give voice to that if it is prevalent in the submissions we receive. There’s also very strong personal narrative within the work, with some direct autobiographical works. You’re responsible, as well, for putting together an exhibition where people are going to find different points of entry. There’s the balance trying to create an aesthetic experience as well as an enlightened political experience.'

And the winner of the 2016 MAC International Ulster Bank Prize is Jasmina Cibic, with her film 'Tear Down and Rebuild', an original conversation comprised of quotes, political speeches, debates and proclamations, and divided between four modern archetypes.

It is an examination of national and ideological representation – what the environment that we construct around us means and the impact of the destruction of these edifices has on our sense of identity both personally and nationally. It is a rich, complex and timely work and a very deserving winner of this year’s prize.

The 2016 MAC International exhibition is open from October 28 and runs until February 19, 2017. For further details on the exhibiting artists, opening times and more visit