It all started with a children’s story. Or more specifically, a series of children’s stories, read aloud by drag artists to kids in east Belfast.
The event, called Drag Queen Story Time, had been running happily at a local library until former DUP culture, arts and leisure minister Nelson McCausland got wind of it and tried to incite a boycott of the gallery.
“Direct action was the only possible option,” says Dawn Richardson, who helped organise the event. And so the 343 was born, a feminist-led, LGBTQ+ art space that stands proud as a rejection of Northern Ireland’s more backward political leanings.
Based on the ground floor of an old Ulster Bank building, halfway up the winding Newtownards Road, the 343 was launched in November and already feels like one of the most vital art spaces in Northern Ireland. It takes its name from Simone de Beauvoir’s landmark 1971 abortion petition, The Manifesto of the 343, and boasts a rolling programme of exhibitions and live performances: it has hosted Queer As Spoke, a night “intended as a safe space for Queers to practise the radical art of existing”, the Gash collective, an Irish collective focused on providing a platform for female identifying and LGBTQ+ DJs and producers, and Scottish dream-pop artist Bell Lungs. Any idea will be considered as long as it’s based in queer or feminist arts and performance.
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Alongside local independent art hubs such as Catalyst, Platform and Golden Thread, the 343 is a fervently inclusive space in a city whose famous mettle has recently been strained by everything from the DUP and flag protests to farcical rows over gay marriage cakes. And situating itself in the east of the city – an area whose rich cultural history and community spirit is at odds with its deep-seated association with loyalist paramilitaries – only serves to underscore its forward-moving mentality. “By being in an area that gets such poor publicity, we really can do important work,” says Richardson. “We are a country in the throes of PTSD. Growing up in a war zone affects a nation. You can only address these things when you do something about it. It isn’t enough any more to do nothing, and I think the people will succeed where the government has failed us.”
Electra is a leading Northern Irish drag artist who sits on the board of The 343 and was embroiled in the McCausland saga last July. For her, the importance of the space for creatives and clientele who need it the most can’t be overstated. “The UK government is happy to cosy up to the DUP, a party that has restricted the rights of women and LGBTQ+ people for years,” she says. “The need for safe spaces for queer people and women is necessary in an environment that is so hostile towards its most vulnerable, especially when it comes from what’s left of our failed government.”
“There are brilliant queer art festivals here such as Outburst, nights like Queertopia and Ponyhawke, and wonderful activist groups such as Alliance for Choice, The Rainbow Project and Belfast Feminist Network,” adds Richardson. “But there’s nowhere for queer or female-identifying artists to call home, conquer their craft and feel that they really belong. We’re not creating this space to further isolate ourselves. We’re creating it to show people that we’re here, we’re proud and that change will happen.”
As Northern Ireland continues to confront spectres of its recent past, the 343 could have a huge impact on the country. “We must find laughter, make art and stick together through what is a pretty bleak period,” says Electra. “The liberation movement is growing, the voices are getting louder and there is hope for change again.”
“We are at a very interesting time in Northern Ireland,” adds Richardson. “We have no government to speak of [Northern Ireland has just taken the unenviable world record for the longest time without a sitting government] and we are surrounded by countries who are overtaking us in equality laws and women’s health issues. We have little control over this, but can create a space that is there for people who are truly suffering. We can make that space as joyous and vibrant as possible, and we can empower ourselves and each other. In that, I hope that we can heal.”