BRITISH ART NEWS
THE NEWSLETTER OF THE BRITISH ART NETWORK April 2022 1
The British Art Network (BAN) promotes curatorial research, practice and theory in the field of British art. Our members include curators, academics, artist-researchers, conservators, producers and programmers at all stages of their professional lives. All are actively engaged in caring for, developing and presenting British art, whether in museums, galleries, heritage settings or art spaces, in published form, online or in educational settings, across the UK and beyond.
CONTENTS CONVENOR’S INTRODUCTION ………………………………………………………………... 3 CO-ORDINATOR’S INTRODUCTION…………………………………………………………… 6 EXHIBITING BRITISH ART ABROAD……………..…………………………………………….. 8 BRITISH ART AND THE GLOBAL: PERSPECTIVES FROM BAN MEMBERS……. 16 ABOUT THE COVER IMAGE……………………………………………………………………….28
The British Art Network is supported by Tate and the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, with additional public funding provided by the National Lottery through Arts Council England.
CONVENOR’S INTRODUCTION This issue of our regular BAN Newsletter tackles the theme of the global and international in relation to British art. The various Members’ contributions included here provide an array of perspectives on the issues and questions involved – about the histories associated with British art, who qualifies as ‘British’ (whether in history, in art, or in contemporary society and working life), and whether ‘British art’ holds up as a category. They bring a wealth of experiences, from their working lives as exhibition organisers and researchers, and in many cases as people who have relocated globally themselves. Some pieces are clearly celebratory, others are more sharply political. Several reflect on how porous the category of ‘British art’ already is – but also see this as an unfinished project. There is common ground across a few the pieces here in reflecting on Brexit as a negative force in recent times, causing division and unease. With contributors invited earlier in the year, but writing in March and April, the topic of the terrible war in Ukraine surfaces at several points, understandably. The legacies of colonialism and empire are apparent here as well – although not in a way that reactionary commentators often seem to assume, as an absolute and inevitable block on engaging positively and creatively with British art, art histories, and history. No single vision or version of British art emerges here. There is common ground – in experiences of migration (historical and more recent), in the readiness to see British art as a porous or mutable category, one which is always open to being re-examined, and in seeing the role of curating in contributing to that rethinking. Exhibitions, displays and art projects are shown here to be catalysts or forums for making connections, drawing parallels and marking differences, gaining knowledge and asking questions. And cutting across all these contributions is an expansive, diversified sense of curatorial practice. That diversity, combined with the common ground which is not simply consensus nor, quite certainly, based on any denial of conflict, trauma and complex histories, reminds me again of the philosopher Bernard Yack’s reflections on ‘Community’ as involving ‘awareness of difference as well as commonality’. Community is in this definition not a simple given – a birth right – nor merely artificial or contrived, but produced by a collective effort involving mutual acknowledgement. The principle of allowing difference to abide within or along with community is finding expression of sorts in the online collection produced by BAN Members, the British Art UnCanon. This now includes 30 articles, ranging from Tudor 3
painting to contemporary video art. With the selection driven entirely by the Members’ individual choices, not by art-historical conventions or the multiple commercial, institutional, and practical pressures that come into play with realworld exhibition projects, the UnCanon embodies a multiple and various ‘British art history’. What is emerging is far from ‘balanced’ or ‘coherent’, judged by existing art historical narratives or the many mainstream museum presentations which seek to achieve a measured representation of art history through supposedly proportionate display of certain kinds or periods of art. There are, by those standards, ‘too many’ women artists in the UnCanon, ‘too much’ contemporary art, ‘not enough’ historic painting by familiar names or works by Turner-prize winning contemporary artists. What the UnCanon offers instead is multiplicity, and, despite its unpromisingly rigid-looking grid-like layout, scope for some ‘rhizomatic’ connections across time and space and cultural contexts. Re-reading Deleuze and Guatarri – the thinkers who influentially utilised the term to initiate or provoke non-linear and multiple ways of thinking (the rhizome being a continuously growing, non-linear underground root network) – I was struck by a passage that confronts the idea of a norm or standard in language, but which might equally be applied to art history: 'There is no language in itself, nor are there any linguistic universals, only a throng of dialects, patois, slangs, and specialized languages ... There is no mother tongue, only a power takeover by a dominant language within a political multiplicity'. The risks of imagining that rhizomatic ‘free for alls’ can be realised by mere formal means – as a style or design – has been pointed out by architectural critic Douglas Spencer, referring to the proliferation of such pseudo-liberatory motifs in commercial and corporate buildings. He makes salient points about how such performative freedoms may compound and mask inequalities and injustice. But taken in the context of BAN’s working practices and expansive programme of seminars and workshops, the UnCanon is hopefully one way that the Network is helping foster spaces and moments where the ‘mother tongue’ of institutionalised art history is displaced (if only temporarily) by a throng of curatorial and creative dialects, patois, slangs and specialized languages. Certainly, the collective work of BAN’s Research Groups, Emerging Curators Group, and the new Seminars and YCBA/BAN Curatorial Forum, noted by Lizzy Harris below, promises to generate a productively crowded and various programme in the coming months, engaging with British art curating in an expanded sense, activating global perspectives and encouraging multiplicity rather than unity and openness rather than fixity. Martin Myrone BAN Convenor 4
View of the home page of the British Art UnCanon, April 2022, featuring articles on the iconic ‘Cholmondeley Ladies’, on eighteenth century silver, Maria Cosway, public sculptures and photography of suffragettes, David Hockney, Paul Neagu and Jo Spence, and much else.
COORDINATOR’S INTRODUCTION I am delighted to join the BAN team and look after the role of Coordinator whilst Jessica Juckes is on maternity leave. In my previous role as Administration Manager at Tate Modern as I led a team of Exhibition Assistants in delivering projects across the Tate Modern programme as well as supporting the operational planning of the gallery. I have been at Tate for 7 years and bring a wealth of experience in project planning and delivery across all areas of the galleries including Visitor Experience, Development, Legal & Finance and Curatorial. It was a pleasure to meet members from this year’s cohort of emerging curators in person at the recent workshop in York on 17 March. We were joined by previous ECG member Becky Gee, Curator of Fine Art at York Museums who shared her experience and lead the group on a tour of Beyond Bloomsbury: Life, Love & Legacy and Reyhan King, Chief Executive Officer for York Museums Trust for a Meet the Director session. The day-long workshop was a chance to meet in person with some lively discussions and ideas generated. The group continue to meet online and we are planning another inperson session in the summer.
Members of the Emerging Curators Group in the exhibition Beyond Bloomsbury: Life, Love and Legacy, York Art Gallery, during a gallery tour by Curator and former Early Career Curators Group member, Becky Gee (in profile, to the left)
We were delighted to receive so many applications for the Seminar Support Bursary and the BAN/YCBA Curatorial Forum The latter is a residential weeklong forum to take place in New Haven, Connecticut, the week of 17 October 2022. It will bring together a select group of up to 12 participants from a range of backgrounds, working contexts, and career stages, drawn from the UK, US and beyond. We hope this will develop into a dynamic peer group that examine and discuss British art together beyond this initial week together. We would also like to highlight our most recent opportunity for anyone who is a current or past member of BAN’s Emerging Curators Group or the Early Career Curator’s Group. You are able to apply for a small research support bursary, envisioned as support towards research travel in the UK to visit an exhibition, library/archive/collection, artist, curator or collector, or to attend a conference or event, in support of your research into British art and curatorial practice and theory. It is great to see our Research Groups begin to share their programme of events. Queer British Art collaborated with artist Jez Dolan to present: STORMY WEATHER – A day of debate, defiance & celebration. Using the current exhibition Derek Jarman at Manchester Art Gallery as a leaping-off point for discussion, debate and interventions. The symposium welcomed artists, academics, curators, students, writers and those with a general interest in Jarman’s life, works and legacy. I look forward to working with and meeting more of the Research Groups and members of the British Art Network in delivering an engaging and relevant programme this year. Please do get in touch with me directly with any questions or ideas you may have, it would be wonderful to hear from you. Lizzy Harris BAN Coordinator
EXHIBITING BRITISH ART ABROAD We invited three BAN Members to reflect on their experience of exhibition projects taking British art abroad – their responses ask us to think about art’s role in generating global links and understanding, and how our sense of British art itself might be changed and expanded in the process.
Mark Bills on exhibiting Gainsborough in Germany, the Netherlands and Russia British national galleries are far more used to international collaborations than their regional counterparts, something which is just as true for galleries internationally. It appears that regional museums are missing a real opportunity to give visitors the prospect of directly experiencing a bigger picture of the art and art history and to share British art with the world. At Gainsborough’s House, the international dimension has always been part of our wider ambition. Until we closed for redevelopment we took Gainsborough into Europe, but now with new galleries of a much larger scale we can also receive reciprocal exhibitions. Working with galleries in Holland, Germany, and Russia, we loaned our own Gainsborough paintings and drawings to form the basis of exhibitions, supplemented with loans from European collections and national Gainsborough’s Mr and Mrs Andrews on the side of a bus in collections in Britain. In Hamburg (photo: Mark Bills) 2016, Gainsborough in his own words opened at the Rijksmuseum Twenthe in Enschede, in 2018, Thomas Gainsborough, The Modern Landscape was shown at the Hamburger Kunsthalle and from 20192020 Thomas Gainsborough was the great draw in winter at the Pushkin State 8
Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow. The response surpassed our expectation, and the huge interest clearly demonstrated the appetite for British art, particularly in Moscow where 158,000 people saw Gainsborough in three months. There was a positive sense, real or imagined, of Britishness that managed to rise above any of the ill-feeling created by Brexit. Whilst our paintings were in Holland, we filled a room at Gainsborough’s House with Dutch 17th century landscapes, so influential on the young Gainsborough, as part of a reciprocal loan. For any larger scale collaborations, we are having to wait until the £10 million capital project at Gainsborough’s House is completed and opens in late summer this year.
Exterior of the new development at Gainsborough’s House, architect: ZMMA
The opening exhibition was to be French Nineteenth Century Landscapes from the exceptional collection at the Pushkin in Moscow. The war in Ukraine has ended this possibility and we had immediately to look again at what we might exhibit in its place. Not wishing to curb our international aspirations we are instead looking to show an exhibition of Flemish Art 1880-1930 loaned from 9
Antwerp. This will give a British audience the opportunity to see a fascinating period of art as it was manifest across the channel. It seems to me that there are huge opportunities for fruitful collaboration internationally and that it is possible for regional collections to collaborate on exhibitions that takes British art outwards. It has enormous possibilities for increasing the interest in British art worldwide and widening our understanding and context of its creation. Mark Bills is Director, Gainsborough’s House, Sudbury.
Jenny Gaschke on the Bristol School in Bourdeaux - Une saison britannique au temps du Brexit Presenting and promoting British art in continental Europe is neither new or unusual – at least for national museums and organisations like the British Council. Touring exhibitions naturally reflect developing academic thinking around what British art is and communicate this to audiences across the Channel. But what about exhibitions initiated and curated in the EU; what influence, if any, do they have on the narrative of British art? In November 2021 Muriel Adrian, Lecturer for visual arts of the Englishspeaking world at the University of Toulouse, published her review of the recent exhibition in Bourdeaux: Absolutely bizarre! Les drôles d’histoires de l’École de Bristol (1800-1840). Her article was aptly titled ‘une saison britannique au temps du Brexit’. As a contributor to this exhibition my experience of seeing British art presented from a French perspective – with the additional twist of being a German curator of British art in the UK – certainly had Brexit-political as well as art historical dimensions. Furthermore, at the time I was Curator of Art at Bristol Museum & Art Gallery and the majority of loans came from Bristol’s collection; it is therefore fair to say that on multiple levels a regional element also played its part in this international project. My collaboration on Absolutely bizarre! with Sophie Barthélémy and Sandra Buratti-Hassan from Bordeaux, as well as the Louvre’s senior curator Guillaume Faroult, was at least partly a reaction to the 2016 Brexit referendum. Focussing on over 80 works by a group of 19th century Bristol-based artists frequently 10
overlooked by canonical, cosmopolitan stories of British art, the show publicly communicated a longstanding commitment to cross-channel partnership – with Bordeaux and Bristol twinned as cities for over 70 years. And once the exhibition had opened, the newly appointed British ambassador to France, Menna Rawlings, by officially visiting our display together with Bordeaux’s mayor Pierre Hurmic and the Louvre’s director Laurence des Cars, identified non-metropolitan cultural exchange as one of a diminishing number of softpower tools in the British diplomatic box. Admittedly, Bordeaux is one of France’s main repositories of British art outside Paris. The Musée des Beaux-Arts’ collection includes works by Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Lawrence and John Martin. Audiences in Bordeaux are to a degree primed to view British art and identify its connections and differences with French painting, yet probably less affected by the hierarchical distinction between London and the regions often made within British art history. Under the academic leadership of Guillaume Faroult, the exhibition in Bordeaux certainly treated the ‘Bristol school’ not as a derivative of the art produced by painters like Turner, Constable and others in London and the South East, but as their equal. The French critical reception proved this approach right: Le Monde included the display in its listing of the top exhibitions to see in the summer of 2021.
Gallery talk at Absolutely bizarre!, Musée des Beaux Arts, Bourdeaux. Photo: TS-mairie de bordeaux 11
From the beginning, Bordeaux’s curatorial team hoped the exhibition would also impact on the perception of the Bristol School back in the UK. Typically for the COVID-19 era, this happened through online engagement rather than travel: Bristol’s annual Festival of Ideas (https://www.bristolideas.co.uk/) and the British Art Network’s Landscape Research Group hosted live conversations and tours of the display with Sandra Buratti-Hassan. Both highlighted to British audiences the French repositioning of the Bristol School within the wider context of 19th century art, in genre, portrait, landscape and even history painting. Most Bristol School artists enjoyed national success in their lifetime, but until recently these artists were seen as a regional responsibility. Ironically it has taken a French perspective on British art to achieve the (alleged) Brexit agenda of levelling up the (artistic) regions, and an EU-initiated show to rewrite the narrative. Jenny Gaschke is Senior Curator, Paintings & Drawings at Victoria and Albert Museum, and was formerly Fine Art Curator at Bristol Museum and Art Gallery
Sophia Yadong Hao - Curating the Untimely: Reflections on CURRENT|不合时宜: Contemporary Art from Scotland Between 2015 and 2021, CURRENT|不合时宜: Contemporary Art from Scotland was a four-phase contemporary art exhibition and event programme, which showcased for the first time in China the distinctiveness of contemporary art made in Scotland. Foregrounding the grass-roots spirit of contemporary art made in Scotland and specifically its social and political dimension, CURRENT opened a conversation on the experience of 'the contemporary' in two very different locales and provided a distinctive take on the recent histories, current conditions and importantly the experimental and collaborative ethos that underpins contemporary art practices in Scotland.
Delivering six solo and group exhibitions, three Artists and Writers’ Residencies, two screening programmes and international forums in Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen and Wuhan, CURRENT featured over 40 artists’ works. Included in the programme were internationally esteemed artists and Turner Prize nominees Bruce McLean, Rosalind Nashashibi, Hardeep Pandhal, Ross Sinclair, Lucy Skaer, Corin Sworn, Poster Club (an artists’ collective initiated by artists including Ciara Phillips and Nicolas Party) alongside early and mid-career artists. Initiated in 2014 with Wang Nanming, then Head of Programme at the Shanghai Himalayas Art Museum, CURRENT was curated and realised by the team I led at Cooper Gallery (Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design, University of Dundee). Over seven years in collaboration with leading contemporary art organisations in four Chinese cities and organised in partnership with the British Council, CURRENT was a strategic investigation of the critical and pragmatic issues at stake in ‘touring’ contemporary art. The unprecedented challenges brought upon the programme by the pandemic of 2020 also tested the remarkable resilience and solidarity developed and sustained through the projects genuinely collaborative way of working between individuals and organisations
>>FFWD: Artist’s Moving Image from Scotland, exhibition installation, CURRENT Phase Two, Shanghai Minsheng Art Museum, 2016. Works featured (L to R): Lyndsay Mann, An Order of the Outside (2016), Tom Varley, Violence. Silence. (2013), Adam Lewis Jacob, Can’t See the trees for the wood (2015) and Corin Sworn, Faktura (2008). Photo: Shanghai Minsheng Art Museum.
Navigating, negotiating and traversing transnational space immediately raised a question of method. Not solely of logistics, but more substantially it was a matter of ethics, of how to critically engage with the structures; economic, legal and state based, that underscore any transnational cultural project.
Bruce McLean, I Want My Crown, 2013, film installation with audience interaction, CURRENT Phase Three, Shanghai Himalayas Museum, 2017. Photo: Wang Lin.
To provide a productive model for cultural collaborations between China and Scotland, it was decided at an early stage that CURRENT had to be a long-term undertaking if it was to be capable of building and sustaining networks and opportunities for artists, curators and organisations. In retrospect the longevity of CURRENT also enabled the development of an extended audience, which meaningfully expanded the impact of the project. CURRENT drew its conceptual coordinates from Roland Barthes’ succinct aphorism which stated that “The contemporary is the untimely”. Indeed the Chinese title of the programme is ‘untimely’, which expanded into an intense debate amongst audiences and curators in China immediately after the opening of the first phase of the programme. 14
Understanding Barthes’ unsettling statement to indicate that this moment, ‘the contemporary’, is fundamentally out of sync with the plurality of pasts and futures that form its horizons, CURRENT took issue with the fictions, politics and gestures that desire to characterise and thus place limits on how ‘the contemporary’ is made visible and more importantly legible. Programme link: https://www.dundee.ac.uk/cooper-gallery/internationalprojects
Sophia Yadong Hao is Director & Principal Curator of Cooper Gallery, DJCAD, University of Dundee and a member of the British Art Network Steering Group
BRITISH ART AND THE GLOBAL: PERSPECTIVES FROM BAN MEMBERS The short pieces below are all written by BAN Members in response to an invitation reflect on their research and curatorial practice, their thoughts about the category of ‘British art’, and how this might be informed by their diverse transnational/migratory/global experiences.
Robert Wilkes Since September 2021, I have been teaching undergraduate classes on nineteenth-century British art at the Universidade Estadual de Campinas near São Paulo. The first module (online) offered a general overview of the subject; the second, currently underway – and, happily, in-person – focuses on PreRaphaelite art and design. For many students, this is the first time that they have examined British art in any significant detail. Generally, the subject is obscure in Brazil, where France historically had more of an influence; nineteenth-century Brazilian artists typically went to Paris, not London.
Joshua Reynolds, Elisabeth, Sarah, and Edward, Edward Holden Cruttenden’s Children, circa 1763. Museu de Arte de São Paulo MASP.
This in turn is reflected in Brazil’s ‘national gallery’, the excellent Museu de Arte de São Paulo (MASP), whose European collection includes fine works by Reynolds, Gainsborough, Lawrence, Constable and Turner, but is 16
predominantly French. Most British works in Brazilian collections are by professional and amateur artists who travelled here during the nineteenth century – which, incidentally, is the subject of my current postdoctoral research, funded by the São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP). However, the students cannot go and see a Frith panorama, a Cameron photograph or a Morris tapestry in person. Therefore, online resources have been invaluable. The Internet Archive has made numerous books available which cannot be sourced in Brazil as physical copies, together with original nineteenth-century texts. The PMC’s ‘Chronicle 250’ project has been useful for teaching about the Royal Academy, while filmed talks by the National Gallery have helped students writing essays about Constable or Turner. I have also provided what books I can from my own small collection. Language is another potential challenge – most of these texts are in English, not Portuguese. Nevertheless, the students have been finding ways around this, and their essays demonstrate that artists from Fuseli to Millais and Joanna Boyce Wells to J.M.W. Waterhouse are finding their places in Brazil. Robert Wilkes is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Campinas, São Paulo, Brazil, funded by the São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP)
John Constable, Salisbury Cathedral Seen from the Bishop’s Grounds, 1821-22. Museu de Arte de São Paulo MASP.
Nela Milic What is British art? Is it art about Britain? Is it art that resides in Britain? Is it created in Britain? What exactly would be “made in the UK” anyway - the artist, the artefact, the exhibition space or? The UK prides itself on a diverse population. Upon witnessing the customs officers at the airport, employees of the public transport, shop, café and other public service attendants or NHS staff, one would assume that we are an inclusive nation. However, the visibility of various cultures is not representative of those in positions of power where a monocultural, privileged few influence government policies, provide access to employment and regulate social life. As arts enters and spills over all these areas, it is also affected by their constellation - an arts practitioner has to respect their rules in order to survive or thrive in the society. Those norms can be acceptable, understandable and accessible to many who are born and bred in the UK, but for us who are migrants, asylum seekers and refugees, they can be a challenge. Even the sheer context of the arts industry often deters us from joining and participating in it. Extensive art market, largely reliant on capitalism is very different to some of us who worked in the political milieu unlike British democracy. However much I appreciate paintings of the English landscape, it is foreign to me, so the beauty of Constable’s countryside or Turner’s seashore does not easily translate into my own geographical register. I feel similarly about portraiture as I have no idea who might these English people be. Even if they are as important as kings and queens, I didn’t go to school in the UK and did not choose to study history to know them. Furthermore, I grew up in socialism that despised monarchies like the one reflected in the British arts tradition. We were not religious, did not go to church or read the Bible even though one might think that as white Europeans, we are Christian with old colonial aspirations. Instead, we were colonised by Ottoman and Habsburg empires for five centuries and so, find affinity with communities that have an experience of slavery. Those experiences of oppression are not the same and we must not equate human tragedies, but these mutual circumstances place us together on the opposing side of the UK’s imperialism. Those on its side still hold the political power and dictate how our artistic production is positioned within that history. In the report published by Centrala, the authors Sara Jones and Jakub Ceglarz concluded that Arts Council England (ACE) diversity measures 18
“fail to capture Central and East European artists as cultural and ethnic minorities and exclude them from opportunities created for ‘diverse communities’.” (http://centrala-space.org.uk/research) This dynamic between the CEE artists and arts institutions is entangled in the East and West relationship, which often sees CEE communities as menial workers whose heritage still inhabits Western imaginary - Slavs were empires’ slaves.
Jobeda, Wedding Bellas project @Nela Milic
The labour around breaking down of such conditioning drives my curatorship, artistic and scholarly practice. I engage with artworks and artists that are not interested in promoting their folk, national and cultural traditions by presenting them as expected by the Western agents, auction houses and gallerists. I am more interested in pushing the West back from the mighty of the East provided by its mainly female artists – Vlatka Horvat, Goshka Macuga, Jasmina Cibic, Lina Lapalyte, Larisa Blazic and curators like Ana Sladojevic or Marta Marsicka, Ewelina Warner, Vija Skangale who I have the privilege to supervise in their doctoral endeavour. I am coming across many more as the Co-Chair of Arts and Memory Working Group at Memory Studies Association (MSA): Dimitra Gkitsa, Margaret Tali, Irena Rehorova, Mia David, Irina Troconis, Assel Kadyrkhanova, Magda Schmukalla, Adela Goldbard, Jana Dolecki, Branislava Kuburovic, Tijana Miskovic, Maria Zirra… The work of these women 19
is one of the reasons why Eastern European artists are on the rise at UK auctions – they make small advances, but there are many and they work together… Living in Britain allows me to encounter such rich work and I am grateful for it. Still, the UK has some length to go to recognise artists and their utputs beyond nationalities we were born into. Nela Milic is an artist and Senior Lecturer at LCC, UAL. She has delivered projects for ROH, Barbican, ACE, John Lewis, Al Jazeera, Oxo Tower, LIFT, London Film Festival etc. Wedding Bellas opens at Belgrade Cultural Centre on 15 July 2022
Shreya Sharma My practice stems from the question, what really constitutes British Art? Being an oral historian, my research focuses on the Partition of 1947, which carved up British India roughly on religious and political lines and uprooted more than ten Million people. My curatorial practice reflects these lived experiences and translates to narratives that mirror them in the cultural spaces. In my opinion, these lived individual experiences are more than just voices, they have the power to decolonize and offer cultural justice. I have worked with various cultural institutions and organisations, joining them in their journey of being more inclusive and bringing forward narratives and experiences that were probably dismissed or unheard. I try to incorporate my lens of decolonization and diversity in my work. One question I always encountered was how such traumatic events were interpreted in British Art? Although we find many examples of art from Asian Artists that tried to visually exhibit the trauma, we never find such works being included in the category of “British Art”. What is the criteria to constitute British Art? Does a traumatic and life-altering phenomena propagated by the British Empire that changed the lives of millions of people not qualify to be a part of the story of British Art? We rarely find British artists trying to set their work around such events. Maybe these life-altering events were not important enough for artists to portray in their work? 20
For me, British Art should also include portrayal of agony and lived experience of people that were directly or indirectly affected by the British Empire. Cultural institutions and curatorial narratives must start being more inclusive, humanising the quantitative data and representing multiple unique, individual experiences.
The artwork reflects my opinion that British art should be more inclusive and incorporate the lived experiences of people who suffered due to the British Empire. Here, I take inspiration from the Indian Independence Act, 1947 that divided India into India and Pakistan, leading to mass migration and riots. The first part of the text is a direct copy from the document, while the second part is a snippet from a partition survivor. I wanted to capture how people in office did not think about the reality on the ground and its repercussions. There are millions of such stories out there where people were affected by this one piece of paper giving India “Independence”. It illustrates my point about needing to humanise the quantitative data to understand the people and the stories behind the numbers and figures.
Shreya Sharma works as a restorer and archivist at Devi Art Foundation. She is an oral historian who documents experiences of partition survivors of 1947.
Francesca Zappia My family story is linked to the nineteenth century’s Italian diaspora in Argentina, and to the Italian occupation of Istria between the world wars – my maternal grandfather was born in Buenos Aires, my paternal grandmother was Slovene-Croatian. My surname’s origin can be traced to a village of same name in Greece. It is also one of the most globally widespread Italian surnames. Caught in the flow of movements and migrations, it became quite natural for me to move out of Italy. Firstly to France, then to Scotland. As I move, my self creolises, my thinking relies at times on one language, at times on another. My self grows as I become multiple – I am past, present and future, I am history and story. My curatorial practice stands in the middle of this flow, explores cultural crosspollination, is inspired by artistic research when it digs up minor histories, when it shakes the foundations of History and the tight compartments of knowledge, in the name of multiplicity, in the name of being and existing between times and spaces. Evolving from a first project and curatorial platform called “past forward” my work reflects on the transmission of memory and the fabrication of fresh knowledge, often creating anachronistic narrations where past and present enter into dialogue. As I work as a freelance curator in Glasgow, I have come to notice how, in recent years, art institutions in Britain have acknowledged a diversity of artistic voices. Through these voices, the edges of British art are becoming more porous. Official narrations erode, while art and culture expand by embracing multiple traditions, mythologies, and self-mythologies. Two beautiful art projects can serve as an example of the expanding territories of British art today. Both projects reflect, in their own way, on the multiplicity of the diasporic self. In Rae-Yen Song’s exhibition “▷▥◉▻” presented at DCA Dundee early 2022, the imagined futuristic mythology of the Song family becomes a way to link past, present and future. Within her over-sized inflatable structure, a nod to Louise Bourgeois’ spider, the artist welcomes us in the shelter of her selfmythology and invites us to reimagine a future reflecting the essential hybridity of the British society.
Sekai Machache, Deep Divine Sky 2 (2021). Photography credit: Antanas Budvytis © Sekai Machache
“Profound Divine Sky” (2021) is a film by Sekai Machache shot at Forsinard Flows. While performing in the Scottish landscape, in peatlands, wearing a dress with a wave-like pattern, the artist ties together African and Celtic / Gaelic traditions and cosmologies. Through this film, we are reminded that culture is always moving, and the traditions of Britain are not only its historic ones. Rather, they encompass traditions and cosmologies of all ethnic groups that gather, on a same ground, in a shared multiplicity. Francesca Zappia is a freelance contemporary art curator based in Glasgow.
Marta Marsicka Vlatka Horvat’s By Hand, on Foot exhibition at PEER gallery is the first British solo show of the Croatia-born, London-based artist. Her practice is a post-dada exploration of meanings and limitations of everyday objects, which become a fragile medium of temporality.
Vlatka Horvat: What Is on the Ground and What Is in the Sky, 2022, Installation (detail) Courtesy the artist.
One of the pieces in the show is an installation made of common and found materials such as thin wood wedges, door stoppers, or cardboard. The materials are assembled in a hazardous way, balancing on top of each other, generating an unstable atmosphere in the gallery space. Wooden rods connect the floor to the ceiling, bending slightly and dividing the space, mirroring the shadows of gallery visitors. Vlatka’s exhibition has encouraged me to think of borders as ambiguous entities, which force us to consider the limitations of space and regulate the dynamics between objects and people. On one hand, borders can be porous
and transparent, on the other - they constitute a limitation, a barrier, a division. The borders of what ‘British art’ is, and how it’s understood in international contexts, could not be more visible after the UK departed from the European Union. Many local emerging creatives dream of their practice in a global or international context. The cruel reality of Brexit has closed this door for them, especially for those from unprivileged socio-economic backgrounds, who no longer have access to EU-funded exchange and mobility programs such as Erasmus. Brexit also heavily influenced those who sell their works abroad, as the costs of shipping have skyrocketed. Whilst established artists will continue exhibiting and selling in Paris, Sydney, or Dubai, many economically vulnerable creatives will have to juggle working on local commissions, art education, or community engagement. The porosity of ‘British art’ borders is very selective. As an emerging Polish curator, I am still trying to understand what ‘British art’ is. And working with emerging and mid-career artists in the Midlands is not making this task any easier. What does it take to be considered a ‘British artist’? Having a British passport? Speaking without a foreign accent? Having completed a degree in a British university? Renting a studio in the UK? Having those questions in mind, I have an idea of what ‘British art’ could be. It could be a catalyst of critical discussions about national imaginaries, privilege, and power structures. It could be a term which reinvents itself constantly and questions the normative beliefs in what Britishness is. It could be more porous, rather than impermeable. Speaking of global issues in March 2022, it’s impossible to avoid the topic of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Find support for Ukrainian refugees and artists here: WAR in UKRAINE: Emergency resources for artists and cultural workers Disasters Emergency Committee Art for Ukraine Human Rights Foundation Vogue’s list of art fundraisers to help Ukraine
Marta Marsicka is a cultural worker and an art historian based in the Midlands 25
Sylwia Serafinowicz Civic engagement of the British artists is something that has always resonated with me strongly. Having grown up in Poland, where art remains at the frontline of political resistance, I always had tremendous respect for artists, such as Keith Piper, kennardphillipps, and Franko B, just to mention a few of the wonderful people I have had the pleasure to work with.
Keith Piper, The Perfect City, 2007, video still, courtesy of the artist
I center my work around human rights and equality. My own experience, as a Polish person in the UK, and later a white British national, gave me some insight into the complex experience of migration and assimilation into a new country. It also made me more perceptive of language used to define British values, a subject that I have discussed, shortly after the Brexit vote, with the artists Sonia Boyce, Nina Edge and Adham Faramawy at the Bluecoat in 2016 (Talk Bilocation). I value the moments of global solidarity against racism and violence. In 2020, in the words of artist Keith Piper, ‘young people across the world decided that racism is a greater pandemic’ and took to the streets to protest the murder of George Floyd. In November, I invited Piper and Drillminister, a musician and activist, to talk about their thoughts on the policing of protests, during a talk, titled Ghost Town, accompanying the exhibition We Protect You From Yourselves at Biennale Warszawa. Amongst the works by Piper that I 26
responded to was The Perfect City, 2007, a video looking at the mechanisms of control, correction, and contamination embedded in ‘every cityscape.’ Whenever I embark on a project, I ask myself whether it will be socially useful. When working on Finnegans Woke exhibition at Rua Red in Dublin in 2019, kennardphillipps turned one of the two rooms of the gallery into the War on War Workshop. The space, equipped like the artists’ studio, encouraged visitors to create their propaganda pieces that subsequently formed a patchwork sail of a raft, positioned at the centre of the main room. The workshop space became a platform of meetings and communication for those who experienced isolation, were destitute, or arrived in Dublin recently and had no other outlet to tell their stories or meet their neighbours. As the social and political landscape continues to complicate with the war in Ukraine, Britain’s post-Brexit isolation and growing economic inequalities, the arts and curation will play a crucial role in addressing the human implications of the ongoing changes. I hope that we will continue to provide platforms, such as the Rua Red show, to forge solidarity across the divides. Sylwia Serafinowicz is Chief Curator at a/political, public speaker and writer.
ABOUT THE COVER IMAGE
David Roberts, The Temple of Dendera, Upper Egypt, 1841. Bristol Museum & Art Gallery
If you were to visit Egypt in the 19th century, you would have seen Egypt as experienced by the Scottish artist David Roberts (1796-1864). His watercolour paintings were extensively reproduced in the 20th century in many forms, particularly in Egypt in the form of post cards and calendars, so you could enjoy his representations of ancient Egyptian temples and tombs and 19th century Cairo continually throughout the year. These images invoked what I believe can be described as nostalgia in the modern Egyptian population, particularly Egyptian Egyptologists like myself - we loved them! These images answered a desire to see how these historical sites looked before archaeological excavations took place. In Roberts’ paintings the sand is still covering some of the architectural features. The first such designs that I would have seen were the black and white prints that accompanied the text of Description de l'Égypte (1809-1829) which aimed to comprehensively catalogue all known aspects of ancient and 28
modern Egypt as well as its natural history. These were made by the savants, the scientists and scholars who accompanied Napoleon Bonaparte's expedition to Egypt in 1798 to 1801. In contrast to the prints from the Description, Roberts presented especially the rich, colourful views of Egypt and its ancient monuments. After I became familiar with his work, personally, I started to imagine ancient Egypt in full colour, not black and white anymore. I was not satisfied with just the calendar, so I bought a book of his art (my first modern art book as a student).
Robert Scott Lauder, David Roberts, Artist, in Arab Dress, 1840. National Galleries of Scotland
The views of contemporary Cairo in the 19th century were of huge interest and inspired me during my undergraduate conservation courses at Cairo University, which included the conservation of oil paintings and watercolours. Roberts’s attention to detail in the representation of old houses, mosques and other medieval and post-medieval buildings was superb and it was possible for me, as I was living in Cairo at the time, to go out and try to find the exact spot where he stood to draw. I enjoyed comparing the state of preservation and condition of the architectural elements in his historical images to the current state of preservation of these buildings at the present time.
Roberts also depicted the hustle and bustle of the streets and markets in old Cairo, including the Egyptians who were present at these places. Looking at these images, I am not sure myself how Roberts viewed the contemporary Egyptian people and if this was through a colonial perspective or not. On this point, Roberts’s portrait painted by Robert Scott Lauder is a suggestive image, showing him wearing traditional contemporary Egyptian dress.
While earlier Egyptian artists might have depicted similar views to Roberts, these did not survive. The engagement of earlier Arab scholars in Ancient Egypt was not widely known until the publication of Egyptology: The Missing Millennium: Ancient Egypt in Medieval Arabic Writings by Okasha El Daly. David Roberts produced a wealth of paintings of Cairo and Egypt in general. He was among the first independent, professional British artists to travel extensively in Egypt (between 1838 and 1839) and the first artist to be granted permission to sketch inside mosques. He brought back 272 sketches, a panorama of Cairo, and three full sketchbooks. Having originally been interested in Roberts’s images of Egypt, I have now also become aware of his drawings and paintings of buildings and streets in Scotland and Europe. So, when I visited Elgin Cathedral I had his painting of the cathedral in mind. I plan to do the same every time I visit a site that Roberts painted, using his images as a source of information and point of comparison just as I did when visiting sites in Egypt. Abeer Eladany is a Curatorial Assistant at University of Aberdeen responsible since 2018 for the Art Collection.
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