Behind the Scenes at the Museum

with

Madeleine jordan

In this series, our Monthly Segment Editor Madeleine Jordan will peek behind the curtain to uncover the hidden workings of museums, galleries and theatres through conversations with artists, curators, staff and theorists. 

In Dreams Begin: In Conversation with NowCuration

05 March 2022

Installation shot of Substitutes for Bread (2021) Kelly Ballet, Image courtesy of NowCuration

‘…dragging me through the lobby of the theatre into the light, and I woke up into the bleak winter morning of my 21st birthday, the windowsill shining its lip of snow, and the morning already begun.’ 

-Delmore Schwartz, In Dreams Begin Responsibilities, 1937

 

 

In Dreams Begin, staged at The Fitzrovia Gallery from 8th to 13th February 2022, is an assemblage of five artist’s work centred around symbiotic relationships, the natural world, and a collective responsibility to engage with material both embodied and psychological. It is framed as a site of personal and cultural renewal. The show was curated by NowCuration, a two-person team run by Thea Jessamyn Voyles and Sieun Lee who are both Courtauld 2021 alumni. The following conversation took place on opening night.




Madeleine:      Where did your ideas begin when making this show? 

 

Thea:               I was interested in alternative medicine and different kinds of relationships to the Earth and more Earth-centric spiritualities. I think with Corona everybody became disillusioned with this idea that there are very specific ways you need to live, engage with the environment, and the planet. So, for me it grew out of that. 

The title of the exhibition comes from the Delmore Schwartz short story. I'm American, I grew up with this American literature. It’s a story about growing up and a moment of maturing. It's a weird short story because he watches his parents get together in this dream shown in a movie theatre and when he wakes up he's 21 and he has all these responsibilities. It's kind of any story, which is not explicitly said, but it is about negotiating your relationship to the past, and your relationship to the future. When we knew we had the opportunity to have a space we wanted to deal with those issues. We started to find and talk to artists who had interests that were related to that theme. It’s not something that we would ever do unless we were already looking at artists that had something to do with the theme because it just wouldn't work. It must always be both of those things and learning at the same time. 

 

Madeleine:      Can you tell me about this work by the entrance?

Installation shot of H, Araceli Gómez Castro (2022) and work by Javier Iniesta (2022)

Thea:               This is Araceli Gómez Castro’s work which is going to change tonight. Her performance is going to be activating the materials that are inside the cloth and the soil that she's brought. That's a lot of what she does, she's very interested in the different properties all these materials have; some of those will be spiritual, some of those will be decolonial, just talking about the origin of these materials and how they're produced. Everything in her practice has important significance. How it was made, who made it, what the history of that object is. The most important thing for all the artists in the exhibition is the physical sensation, and your visceral experience of whatever's happening.

 

Madeleine:      It is the first work we saw when we entered the gallery from the street. In terms of installation, how did you choose to stage this work? 

 

Thea:               I think the first thing is that it's a performance. So, Araceli is going to be coming in from the outside. There are obviously practical considerations, you must think about where people are going to stand, if people are able to see and if you can film it. As we go through the gallery, you'll notice that we have some limitations in the architecture, and this is the fourth time we've been in this gallery space. Through that you get a feeling of what spaces are suited to what kind of work.

Installation shot of H, Araceli Gómez Castro (2022) Image courtesy of NowCuration

Installation shot of H, Araceli Gómez Castro (2022) Image courtesy of NowCuration Instagram

Installation shot of H, Araceli Gómez Castro (2022) Image courtesy of NowCuration Instagram

Installation shot of H, Araceli Gómez Castro (2022) Image courtesy of NowCuration Instagram

Madeleine:      How do the other works come together in the space? What are the disciplines and principles you are drawing together?

Installation of Becky Lyon Leaf Hearing Blue, Moss Tickling Soil and work by Javier Iniesta

Thea:               There are five different artists. This is by Becky Lyon. On Instagram, she's @elastic_fiction and is doing a workshop called Creaturely Twilight Tuning in the space tomorrow. She's interested in art and ecology; specifically, she looks a lot at how we dissent, human experience, and how we think about other ways of experiencing the environment. Lyon produces these prints via a digital process that allows you to imagine the way another species would experience the world. They are also scented to emphasise an embodied experience rather than focusing on what we can see. It’s very human in a way and not always reliable. If you take photos, they look really trippy on camera, and I think that's a big part of it. We developed all this technology to be able to image things, but the image of things is not necessarily true to our experience. I like to think they're sort of trying to escape the gallery. 

 

Madeleine:      They seem to have an anthropomorphic quality.

 

Thea:                Yes, I think a lot of the pieces in the show have a creature-like quality, they feel very alive and some of them are alive.

Installation of work by Javier Iniesta, (2022). Image courtesy of NowCuration

Thea:               This work is by Javier Iniesta, a Spanish artist. We found him via Instagram. He works basically every single day and produces up to 30 different works. The watercolours and these intricate drawings have this incredible capacity to create emotional experiences. This is the first time that he’s been exhibited. 

 

Madeleine:      Because Iniesta must have a huge body of work, what was your selection process like?

 

Thea:               I think whenever I’m curating, I have a theme in mind and there is material which resonates with the subject. With all the artists there was an intuitive draw to the work.

Installation shot of Substitutes for Bread (2021) & Substitutes (2022), Kelly Ballet

Thea:               The loaves on the floor are by Kelly Ballet. She's been working on similar projects since last year. There are two series, Substitutes for Bread (2021), and then Substitutes (2022), which she made for this exhibition. They are made from salt dough which is a process of making bread with a very high salt content so that it doesn’t rot. 

 

 

Madeleine:      My Grandmother used to make Christmas ornaments out of salt dough, they were in the shape of gingerbread men, but they were salty so we couldn’t eat them. What was the decision behind placing the works on the floor rather than raising them? 

 

 

Thea:               Ballet always imagined the two works being on the floor. The motifs are used in a way to disarm people and the wheat sheaf is associated with power and dominion. I think today we have the more feminist association with bounty. She imagined the work on the floor because that is part of the process of mistreating them. Burning the loaves, letting them be beaten up. Actual fascia would be treated like this rather than the symbol of fascia. I think they fit in with the rest of the show because it is about getting closer to the ground. They feel to me like little creatures, like little babies, or slugs.

Installation shot of Substitutes for Bread (2021) & Substitutes (2022), Kelly Ballet

Thea:               A lot of Ballet’s work is about picking out decorative elements which I call marginalia. They are like mental details which appear in mass media and cultural signifiers. Ballet is particularly interested in suburban English architecture and how it is communicated through emotional and subconscious signifiers. 

Installation shot of work by The Last Cochineal, 2022. Image courtesy of NowCuration

Thea:               The Last Cochineal is a collaboration between Holly English and Olivia Mossuto. They work a lot on symbiotic relationships. We were attracted to their practice because of their focus on humanity’s extractive mentality towards the environment. They are invested in friendship. In the past few days, the work has sprouted. The jelly does not nurture the grass, but it does have sugar and moisture in it. 

 

Madeleine:      It seems like science is becoming more about care and nurture. The work seems so interdisciplinary, it shows where our history is leaning.

Installation shot Space food (ego) and You are leaving for the Sun, 2022 by The Last Cochineal, Image courtesy of NowCuration

Thea:               Yes and being less anthropocentric. Their work is about the death of the ego and the philosophy of care. It is an intense personal ego made up of the snacks and the playlists that you need to take care of yourself to make a journey. You are leaving for the Sun is about not just the journey towards the Sun but also about fighting against space colonialism. These themes of symbiosis are connecting and nurturing.

You are leaving for the Sun, 2022 by The Last Cochineal, Image courtesy of NowCuration

Madeleine:      These works are positioned in response to one another, did you envisage certain dialogues when staging the exhibition? 

 

Thea:               Most of the work in the show is completely new, it hasn’t been shown before. Perhaps made or baked in the past few weeks! That meant we didn’t know how it was going to sit in the space. That’s what we planned for; I think your role as a curator is always to bring different things out in the work. 

 

Madeleine:      You’ve mentioned Instagram in relation to a couple of these artists, is that the main way you have built the network between yourselves?

 

Thea:               Yes, it is the main way we found people. We saw Ballet’s work at an in-person show but we’ve always used Instagram. We’re working with either students or recent graduates and Instagram can give you a broad scope rather than seeing people who are already showing or in the country.

 

Madeleine:      This is your fourth show at the Fitzrovia Gallery. In continuing the thought of symbiotic relationships, how does the relationship between you as curators, the art and the gallery work from your perspective? 

 

Thea:               For a lot of practical reasons, it is a good space, but we also have a good relationship with the gallery as well. The white cube makes the work really ‘pop’ out though there are a lot of issues with the cube historically. Coming from the Courtauld, Sieun and I focussed a lot on architecture in our undergrads and it is something we are aware of. There are different peculiarities of the space and some of the places feel more domestic in terms of scale. 

 

 

The evening culminated in Araceli Gómez Castro’s H performance, a work which integrated the interior gallery space with the outside world both materially and literally. Passers-by were shocked and outspoken about the seemingly flying rock the artist hurled from Fitzrovia Gallery’s door. Documented by the audience members and shared on Instagram after the show, the emotional and sensory residue, as intended by the curators, leached out of the artworks and conversations between audiences and into the wider world. 

Staging Audiences as Performers

27 January 2022

Lubaina Himid, Installation view Tate Modern, 2021.

Lubaina Himid’s titular show is a scenically realised seven-act display of work that encourages us to question power relationships we encounter in our daily lives. Lubaina Himid, staged in the Blavatnik building in Tate Modern from 25th November 2021 through 3rd July 2022, draws on Himid’s background as a theatre designer to create encounters which centre the audience as players and makers within the exhibition space and outside world.

 

 

What is my plan  
What will I learn about myself here  
What would I do in this situation  
How is my life the same as this one

 Extract from Poem: Audience as Performers, Lubaina Himid, 2021.

 

 

Himid is a Zanzibari born Black British artist, activist, professor, historian, and curator, whose multi-disciplinary practice champions the presence of Black creativity across the Black and African Diaspora. Himid uses material techniques such as ‘over painting’, collage, cut-outs, collaboration, and sound installation to recentre the fragments which survive acts of invisibilising violence. Himid’s retrospective at Tate Modern comes four years after she was awarded the Turner Prize in 2017 and is a show where the artist grapples with the interrelating power dynamics of internal and external, public and private spaces. This exhibition uses curatorial strategies familiar with a retrospective but critically interlinks cross-career works and practices which Himid has been developing since the 1980s. Her contemporary work reanimates and reinterprets her historically significant artwork to ask fresh questions of her audience.

 

This month’s article will explore the poetic, painterly, personal, and political, Tate Modern exhibition Lubaina Himid through the artist’s insights given at the exhibition talk ‘Lubaina Himid in Conversation’ at Tate Modern on 6th December 2021. Joining Lubaina Himid in conversation was Dorothy Price, Professor of Modern and Contemporary Art at The Courtauld and Editor of the journal Art History, and Christine Eyene, Research Fellow in Contemporary Art at the University of Central Lancashire.

 

Quoted passages in the following article are from Lubaina Himid unless otherwise stated.

 

 

What does this setting offer me today  
Which questions am I asking  
How fast do I want to go  
Who do I want to be
  

Extract from Poem: Audiences as Performers, Lubaina Himid 2021.



 

Lubaina Himid, from the series Our Kisses are Petals, Installation view Tate Modern, 2021.

Throughout this exhibition there is a deliberate effort to create an internal and external space where something different is possible. These spaces are created through staging physical artworks, using sound to populate the area, and prompting questions in the form of text and poetry to engage the audience. Before you enter the exhibition several of Himid’s painted Kangas from her series Our Kisses are Petals, 2018 hang soberly overhead. Kangas are traditionally detailed clothes worn by East African women as shawls, scarfs, baby carriers or skirts. Himid’s work references patterns, colours, and symbolism in traditional Kanga, but uses contemporary motifs and text such as ‘How do you spell change?’, quoting Audre Lorde, to create her own material dialogue. The Kanga consists of three layers: the pindo (border), the miji (central motif) and the jina (message or ‘name’) which could be a riddle or proverb.

 

“It is a story my mother told me about my father, when my grandmother was invited to weddings, she would go to the wedding with six or seven of her friends, eight or nine, or fifteen different friends. They would all want to wear the same thing to signify they were all together and so she made my father go and buy fifteen Kangas for them.”

Lubaina Himid, ‘Lubaina Himid in Conversation’, 6th December, 2021

 

Here we can see the dual purpose of the Kanga in Himid’s practice emerging, and this duality encapsulates the tone for the rest of her exhibition. Through layering and swapping the messages and poems, the Kangas create a living garment which can communicate a “secret language that I think that women are speaking to each other”. Himid’s mother was a textile designer and Himid speaks often in her work to the interconnected nature of material, community, and capital. The Kangas work therefore as an introduction, like banners, as signifiers of an experience of physical encounter, relations, and power yet to come.

Lubaina Himid, from the series Our Kisses are Petals, Installation view Baltic Gallery, 2018.

Admittedly, as Himid mentioned in her talk, if entering from the lifts, as I did, their theatrical impact was somewhat lessened. When staged at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in 2018, the Kangas were highly interactive; hung on pulley ropes that could rearrange the texts to make new poems. Himid recalled fondly, “if you were a small person, you could be eating some sticky thing five minutes before and put your fingers on the canvas material and just play”. The Kangas were at our height, occupying the same space and we could wrap ourselves up in them. Instead, at Tate, “if you’re a very naughty boy teenager, you can jump, even if no one else can reach them”.

 

Instead of literal envelopment the Kangas mark the entry to a space which will envelop the audience in layers of history and poetry, playfulness, and loss. Himid likens the Kanga’s display at Tate to regimental flags which have hung from the ceilings of Cathedrals across Britain for hundreds of years. The loss of the audience’s physical interaction with the pieces is developed into a new artistic layer to the Kangas. They take the place of the ripped and torn legacies of battles and conjure memories of small boys dying on the field. The Kangas mark that you are in the right place for a meaningful and layered encounter. It is a powerful reimagining of the act of wrapping.

 

 

What can I hear  
What do I want to say  
Who could I work with  
What would a sharing of space mean  
Can we do this together 

Extract from Poem: Audiences as Performers, Lubaina Himid 2021. 

Lubaina Himid, Installation view of room text, Tate Modern, 2021.

In the first room, Himid asks us to consider where we fit in relation to spaces intended to fit us. This room is about consultation, or the lack of consultation with women about how we move in the world. Himid made a comical comment about the convention of the kitchen sink looking out over the garden so we can watch our children play. Himid said in jest, as if to the imaginary architect who designed kitchen sinks, “thank you very much!”.

Lubaina Himid, Metal Handkerchief – Saw/Flag, 2019.

Gendered disempowerment is compounded by colonial and racial discrimination in her series Metal Handkerchiefs, 2019. This series of painted metal handkerchiefs are an aesthetic extension of the Kangas hanging outside in the main hall. Flattened and compressed into neat and unyielding rectangles they lack the material flexibility of the Kangas, and their health and safety guide quotations dictate rather than invite action. Himid explained that instructions and rules were a highly effective way that the British managed the world during their imperial rule. Himid stressed that “their power greatly depended on pointing out how dangerous the world was and how efficient they were at making it safe”. The Carry-On- like humour in these metal handkerchiefs is an introduction to how Himid plays with tonal duality in her work. These pieces seriously link together sexual, bodily control and imperial control. 

Lubaina Himid, Metal Handkerchiefs, 2019, Installation view Tate Modern, 2021.

In amongst the first space is a sound work by Magda Stawarska-Beavan. In Reduce the Time Spent Holding Himid recites from health and safety guides whilst machines and tools whir and clang in the background. The piece was originally designed for the New Museum in New York to be played in a small niche in the modern staircase which overlooks dilapidated old factory buildings. The tension in this piece between art museum and manufacturing centre is perhaps not so explicit as when in the New Museum but remains in the restaging at Tate. The Tate Modern building started its life as a power station and has since become a space for a new type of production. The action of making, the subject matter of Himid’s painted works, comes out of the staged sets and audibly into the exhibition space. We as an audience are then a part of the making process through our conversations and internal dialogues.

 

What makes me happy  
What am I frightened of  
How much power can I have and what will I do with it  
Where shall we go together  

Extract from Poem: Audiences as Performers, Lubaina Himid 2021.

Lubaina Himid, Three Architects, 2019.

Her work Three Architects, 2019 places the three women architects within a staged set of a design studio. Himid is asking the question: does the world work for us? The themes of negotiation and worldbuilding run throughout the exhibition and much like a play we see different actors try to solve these riddles in their scenes. The rules are not liberating us, so we need to find agency. The three architects teeter precariously on slender high-heels, little footstalls, and a cracked floor. Himid asks herself, “Can you distinguish between safety and danger?”. The sea, a motif repeated throughout Himid’s paintings, looms monstrously high in the window and yet these women calmly plan. In Himid’s talk she emphasised how the process of making can be a way of changing your reality: it can “help you feel that it’s possible to change something from one state to another”. The action of making can be healing as a means of working through trauma. It can be a way to go from precarity to stability. These women strategize, much like other figures throughout Himid’s paintings, on how they can build something from nothing.

 

 

“The audience member is in the paintings … The experience should be similar to entering a room and deciding what you’re going to do, how you will react and interact.”

Lubaina Himid, Tate exhibition guide, 2021.

Lubaina Himid, Six Tailors, 2019.

What does love sound like  
What do I really want  
Is this enough  
How much time do I need  
What difference can I make  
What can an understanding of language do  

Extract from Poem: Audiences as Performers, Lubaina Himid 2021.

Lubaina Himid with Magda Stawarska-Beavan, Installation view of Blue Grid Test Tate Modern, 2021.

Blue Grid Test is in its own defined space. As a reimagination of a project not able to be completed with music students in Belgium because of Covid, the piece weaves together global memories of the colour blue. Himid has used found objects from her personal belongings and her studio as the material on which to paint sixty-four patterns in a thin stave-like formation ribboning the room. The materials vary from a mandolin, carrier bags, maps, parts of a piano and strips of wood to form a wavelength form. Himid’s voice can be heard in many languages and at different volumes speaking, repeating, the word for ‘blue’.  

Lubaina Himid, Old Boat, New Money, 2019, British Fish (Feast Wagon), 2015 and Freedom and Change, 1984 Installation view at Tate, 2021.

The sound of blue, of waves, and sea are audible as you leave the Blue Grid Test room. Again, Himid and Stawarska-Beavan remind us of the tension between safety and danger, history and presence, solemnity and play with the washing shores accompanying Old Boat, New Money, 2019. As the tranquillity of sound and seductive flow of the painted wooden panels draws you into the larger space, the destructive history of colonialism and ongoing white-supremacist violence crash fiercely into the space.

Lubaina Himid, Installation view of A Fashionable Marriage Tate, 2021.

Opposite the non-representational sculpture Old Boat, New Money are the grotesquely representational figures of A Fashionable Marriage, 1986. Perhaps A Fashionable Marriage is the piece that most encapsulates Himid’s theatrical background. Himid sets the scene of debauchery with cut-out caricatures of conservative political elites, greedy art-world snobs, and a Black woman whose decorum draws attention to the scene’s moral depravity. Long concerned in the matter of who writes and is included in history Himid undermines the whitewashing of art history within her subversion of the ruling elite. Placed in centre stage is a reimagining of Hogarth’s enslaved servant from Marriage a la Mode, 1745. She sceptically looks at the characters of the vile white leaders, and looks out to the audience –  in distaste, in commiseration? Sounds of baroque and taarab music play intermittently creating an uncertain tableau.

Lubaina Himid, Installation view of A Fashionable Marriage Tate, 2021.

As Himid has written, on the subject of Black women artists, “we are signifiers of white corporate wealth, expensive to keep, but oh so decorative and useful for dealing with awkward situations and people. Black women are still useful spice for a bland post-feminist dish.” The fight against the racist fantasy that art history is as white as the gallery walls on which it hangs is made only more combative when considering the replication of power dynamics created in this environment between institution, artist, and object. The backstage view then, provided in the small enclave where the lift brings up work from the store, reveals the insecurity of dominant power structures. Propped up by spindly footstalls, creaky drawers, using the same material lexicon as in Blue Grid Test, Himid shows us from behind the fragility of elitism. With the interlinking sounds of Old Boat, New Money playing in the same space it is as if these cut-outs could be washed away.

 

 

Is this really what I want to do  
How should it end

Extract from Poem: Audiences as Performers, Lubaina Himid, 2021.

Lubaina Himid, Installation view of Do you want an easy life? Tate Modern, 2021.

Lubaina Himid’s work has long been concerned with demanding space. In the final exhibition space, Himid brings together a brutal new sound and sculptural work which reimagines the sound element from Naming the Money, 2004. Naming the Money, and its installation in the show Navigation Charts in 2017 was one of two exhibitions which contributed to Himid winning the Turner Prize in the same year. Naming the Money is a radical demonstration of how to inhabit space with history. The Ceramicists, The Herbalists, The Dancing Masters, The Drummers, The Viola De Gamba Players, The Toymakers, The Dog Trainers, The Shoemakers, The Mapmakers and The Painters make up the one hundred life-size painted portrait cut-outs. Himid gives each artist a name, artistic talent, and new professional role as an enslaved person. The dehumanised statistics of the slave trade and the legacy of human trafficking are united in the reframing of these people’s stories. The ‘naming’ of the ‘money’ is an act of honouring enslaved people. She integrates the artists’ bodily autonomy with information written in poem on their backs.

 

 

My name is Lubaina,

They call me Polly,

I used to paint patterns to give my friends,

Now I paint dummy boards,

But they are good company.

 Lubaina Himid, Naming the Money, 2004.

Lubaina Himid, Naming the Money 2004, Installation view of Navigation Charts, Spike Island, Bristol 2017
Photo: Stuart Whipps.

So, in stark contrast to the riotous celebration of Black creativity articulated by a physical crowd of artists, the final room in Lubaina Himid 2021 at Tate feels empty. The physical representations are replaced by a recorded recut of the poems read by Himid. The poems can be heard resonating in the space between jazz and baroque interludes. In the space is a bike shelter/smoking area painted in white with red scrawled graffiti painted on the metal reading: Do you want an easy life? The bike shelter is cordoned off to the audience and so the audience stood listening to the jazz and baroque music, some stayed to hear Himid speak, but others wandered straight to the exit.

 

There is an idea of cyclical time where chronology is irrelevant in comparison to the turning over of a concept time and time anew. Dorothy Price asked a pertinent question in the artist’s talk: is the revisiting of motifs in Himid’s work conscious, or is it part of her visual vocabulary which means the repetition is something new every time? Himid answered, there is an idea that there is discovery in the ordinary, an opportunity to improve on the previous exploration, or a sense of reinterpretation just as a pattern moves across a painting and erases it like an “etch-a-sketch”. Perhaps this idea of sweeping across and starting again from the same place is why this final room feels like a departure from the rest of the exhibition. Separating the cut-outs from the sound piece has been criticised by some as a neutralisation of the work. Much in the same way the Kangas which herald the beginning of the show are removed from reach the cut-outs are out of reach. So how does absence, for those who know the work, ache so heavily in this space?

 

 

“Yes, of course I want an easy life. But clearly, I have no idea how to have an easy life and I think that’s the same with all of us. If all those hundreds of people managed to go from being one person to having their identity ripped away from them and given another identity and still keep going then we haven’t really any right to have an easy life.”

Lubaina Himid, ‘Lubaina Himid in Conversation’, 6th December, 2021.

 

 

Through remembering and memorialising neglected narratives and identities, her work undoes racist injustices seeking to relegate Black creativity to myth. The transitory space of the bus shelter stands in for the cut-outs of Naming the Money in a new way. Himid uses a new means of representation to subvert our expectations: absence. Representing Black bodies as a means of remembering the relationships between colonialism, slavery, imperialism, and individuals, has been Himid’s mode of empowering the creative lives of past and contemporary Black artistic talent. Here we can see that the warm promise of envelopment from the Kangas has been abandoned. In the presence of absence, we ask ourselves the questions Himid has prompted: how do we build spaces that fit us, what is safe and what is dangerous, what is our strategy? The questions that the audience were given at the start of the exhibition are now all condensed into a single existential question: do you want an easy life?