15 minute read


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.

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 Joshua Reynolds, Elisabeth, Sarah, and Edward, Edward Holden Cruttenden’s Children, circa 1763. Museu de Arte de São Paulo MASP. 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.

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 “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

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 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?

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

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.

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.

Marta Marsicka is a cultural worker and an art historian based in the Midlands

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

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 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.