We met at Proper Tea in Manchester, somewhere Samantha Conlon tells me has been one of her favourite spots to visit while living in the city. Samantha is the founder of feminist art group, The Bunny Collective, who are currently taking part in an artist residency with Alexandra Arts as part of their annual Pankhurst in the Park event. The last few years have kept her busy with moving around Europe, graduating from her fine art course in Ireland, alongside setting up the collective.
The offer of the residency was a surprising opportunity for The Bunny Collective. Samantha tells me about the day she received the email from Alexandra Arts. “What happened actually was that it was a really quick process: Alexandra Arts just emailed us, ‘Come to Manchester. Do you want to come?’ And we told them within a day, ‘Yeah, of course.’ And then we were there two weeks later.”
With members of the collective based all over the world, attending a residency in one UK city seems problematic, but Samantha assures me that the responsibilities are very much shared throughout, “Whoever can do what just does it.” Communication is obviously an important aspect to pin down, but in the digital age this is much easier to facilitate, linking the members across countries and time zones while they send their contributions in for the residency.
Organising this side of things seems to be one of Samantha’s main responsibilities as founder of the collective, something which is not the easiest of tasks. “You have to be so cohesive and on the ball when you’re emailing… it’s so easy when you’re talking to someone to just go over something properly. But when it’s an email the slightest thing being left out can make the whole thing harder than it’s supposed to be.”
Attending an arts residency has expanded this as it is not only the collective who are involved, but also the Alexandra Arts team and the community as a whole. A large part of their time in the North West has involved working with the Hideaway Youth Project, in particular their Tuesday night Girl Talk workshops. Becoming involved with the community was important to the collective from the beginning of planning the residency. “Before we came here, we knew we wanted to involve ourselves in some kind of groups in the area. So we were researching into it and we found [Hideaway Youth].”
As a photographer, Samantha has been able to teach workshops on basic photography skills. Demonstrating how the girls could use their phones and instagram to achieve certain effects. Alongside this, she tells me, artist Cherry Styles also did a zine making workshop one of the weeks. I ask if this is an important goal to The Bunny Collective, showing young women that they too can create artwork and set up their own collectives? “That’s the main thing. We’ve even talked about coming back and working with Hideaway. Because we’d love to talk to [the girls] about how we set it up. Just show them that it really is so easy to get together and work like that.”
The collective seem to already be doing an excellent job of reinforcing this idea as Samantha goes on to tell me the photography produced as part of her workshop will be exhibited alongside that of the collective during their final show, The Spring Showdown with Bunny Collective, on May 7th at Alexandra Park. As Samantha states: “that theme of collaboration is really important to us.” This is also evidenced by the involvement of students from the Manchester School of Architecture, who will be creating small on-site installations in response to the collective’s work, all of which will be displayed within Alexandra Park.
Samantha becomes very animated when describing their plans for The Spring Showdown, telling me about the display- “there’s going to be a lot of things hanging from trees, I think!”- as well as the different mediums which have been explored. It’s clear how involved the collective has managed to become in Manchester’s history when she says, “a lot of it is going to be textile based art, quite a few of the artists are making actual garments.
Everyone involved seems to have been very considerate of the communities around while planning the show. I ask if The Bunny Collective have explored the history of women’s suffrage in the area through the residency? “We were going to but then we were also a bit wary because some things can come off as quite racist now. So we took the most basic aspect of the suffragette movement, which was women coming together, and applied that to the residency. But we didn’t want to really go into their history and heritage because it seems so problematic now. Especially as the park the residency is based in is in a really diverse place in Manchester, so there’s a huge mix of culture there.”
While looking at the event page I had noticed the artwork was labelled as “family-friendly”, I ask Samantha if she had felt she had to censor her work for the residency? “Actually because this one has been about working with communities in Manchester, and a lot of it has been working with young girls; it’s like a slice of our collective. So that’s one part of it that’s quite natural, in that not all of our work is about sexuality, especially as there’s 18 of us.”
Again drawing on that idea of involvement, Samantha goes on to say, “I think it’s good to work in events like this, when you’re showing outdoors or in a gallery space. It’s nice to think about the audience and those around you like the families and the communities out there…it’s like a big collaboration, that’s how I see it.”
The whole experience thus far seems to have been an excellent one for Samantha and the collective. When I ask if she feels supported in her artwork here she says, “Honestly, it’s my first residency and it’s literally been such a good experience. It’s amazing.” I feel like I already know the answer, but still ask if she would think about returning to Manchester in the future. “I definitely think I’ll be coming back to Manchester a lot. It’s so nice, it feels like home.”
The work with Hideaway Youth certainly doesn’t seem to be over. “I definitely want to come back and work with them. Do a portrait series and try and make it into a book. And then we’re also going to try and work with Hideaway because they really want to redesign their logo so we’re going to come back and help them re-brand.”
It is clear why the team at Alexandra Arts would be so supportive of the collective. With such a community-driven ethos and enthusiasm for the art they are creating, it is an exciting process to get a glimpse of. And it is especially comforting to know that they are sustaining this by passing on their skills and knowledge to a new generation of young girls, continuing the power of art and the wonder that comes from women working together.