The Herbert Art Gallery and Museum looks across Priory Street at the ruins of Coventry Cathedral. Originally built in 1095, the building was destroyed in 1539 during the dissolution of the monasteries and again by the Luftwaffe 81 years ago this week. 

Rebuilt amid the ruins of its predecessors, the cathedral has since become an international symbol of restoration and reconciliation, and therefore in a world that sometimes seems broken almost beyond repair, Coventry makes an apt choice for this year’s UK City of Culture – and host for the British art world’s most prestigious prize, the Turner.

Entering The Long Gallery at the top of the Herbert’s main staircase, visitors are confronted with a hallway hung with white paper tablecloths, sparsely screen printed with Welsh language text. 

The National Wales: The Cardiff-based art collective, Gentle/Radical, have entered the Turner PrizeThe Cardiff-based art collective, Gentle/Radical, have entered the Turner Prize

These are the words of an eighteenth century Gorsedd prayer, reproduced by Cardiff-based Gentle/Radical as part of the collective’s entry to the Turner Prize. Along with Array Collective, Black Obsidian Sound System, Cooking Sections and Project Artworks, Gentle/Radical are one of five groups of artists nominated for this year’s prize.

Even hung along this nondescript corridor like washing on a line, leading visitors deeper into the gallery, the words effortlessly assume the mythic power their author Iolo Morgannwg was perhaps hoping for.

Its English translation reads: ‘and in protection, strength; and in strength, understanding; and in understanding, knowledge; and in knowledge, the knowledge of justice; and in the knowledge of justice, the love of it; and in that love, the love of all existences.’ 

Like prayer itself, perhaps, it is an understated yet powerful human gesture. Rendered in Cymraeg here in the heart of the English Midlands, it is also profoundly moving.

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To a visitor from Wales, and perhaps especially so for those who know our capital city – where Gentle/Radical are based in the inner-city district of Riverside – the sights and sounds of this exhibition are at once familiar and strange. 

Where gallery visitors from across the remainder of the British Isles and beyond might view the streets of Riverside as being alike to those in any other inner city, for those who know Cardiff intimately, there is something in the granular details of the split-screen video installation that is suggestive of home: telephone numbers on estate agents’ signs begin with 02920; there is a dragon rampant on the forest green wheelie bins; street names are spelled out in that distinctive Cardiff street-sign font.

And yet the letters of personal address that we hear, read out slowly and carefully by members of the collective to each other  – unfurling like poems among intimate scenes set up against fences and train tracks, basketball courts and community centres, amid wild flowers on the Taff Embankment – immediately conjure other places.

A woman talks about Riverside as a ‘community of smaller communities’. Another about Colombia. Another about Trinidad and what it means to raise children in Wales, away from home. A man recounts memories of rural Palestine and rituals his grandmother had. Someone else speaks of recent loss and accompanying grief.

The National Wales: The Cardiff-based art collective, Gentle/Radical, have entered the Turner PrizeThe Cardiff-based art collective, Gentle/Radical, have entered the Turner Prize

The letters oscillate between the mundane and the profound. ‘What did you eat today? How is your IBS? How are the olive trees?’ And then: ‘How do we even begin to be where we are?’

Attention to the microscopic details of human life as lived in this particular place seems to be the heart of Gentle/Radical’s artistic exploration of community. Founder Rabab Ghazoul cites the work of writer and healing justice activist Adrienne Maree Brown – particularly her book Emergent Strategy (2017) – as influential in developing an ‘inch wide, mile deep’ hyperlocal approach to innovative practice that cuts across activism, culture and spirituality.

As the video letters sprawl across almost two hours, interspersed with interludes of a second audio-visual work that documents the process of putting together a sung version of the Gorsedd Prayer, they seem to build a unique – and useful – twenty first century version of Raymond Williams’ Keywords, touching on and returning to important concepts like ‘home’ and ‘belonging’. 

Foremost among these is diaspora. Many of the artists associated with Gentle/Radical share experiences of being part of diasporic communities, and through their artistic practice seem consciously to be reflecting on how to be where they are. The installation shows us how the usual rhythms of everyday life in Riverside are marked also with memories, dreams and traumas of elsewhere. 

On one wall of the gallery space a complicated looking diagram sets out the work-in-progress notes of one member of the collective, Isabel Calvette, who attempts to describe in the form of a flow chart the way Gentle/Radical work.  

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But despite its committed attempt to explain – through convoluted arrows and boxes and buzzwords of social and cultural theory – the processes that underpin the work, for sheer communicative power it does not touch the simplicity of the tablecloths. 

Prior to their unexpected Turner nomination, Gentle/Radical had not exhibited together as a group before. Paper tablecloths were chosen as the material on which to print the words of the Gorsedd Prayer because ‘breaking bread’ at Gentle/Radical’s events is so central to the activity of the collective. Many group members hail from and work among cultures for whom the preparation and consumption of food is essential to social and cultural encounter.

And despite the reputation of the antiquarian Iolo Morgannwg as a ‘forger’, the founder of the Gorsedd – who reinvented eisteddfodau for the modern age – was instrumental in constructing new ideas about Wales. What it was and might have been, against a context of coloniality.

Remixing his words, Gentle/Radical are quite literally restitching them into the fabric of a new and radically different Welsh culture, one that holds global diasporic visions as core to building community locally, but still holds love above all else. 

And it is this love, of justice and ‘of all existences’, that cuts through the cult of the individual artist that has dominated the art world – making it inaccessible to many – and ushered what the collective have called ‘doorstep revolution’, a neighbourliness that is also a slow and deliberate reckoning, a recalibration of societal power dynamics that is indeed gentle, but unquestionably radical.

Looking out over the roofless cathedral of Coventry seems the perfect place to contemplate such things.

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