ROZEENA JABEEN (second year joint honours student in History of Art and English)
The Wanting to Say: Finding a Place in the Past exhibition, now on at The New Art Gallery Walsall (13 October – 22 December 2017), opened as part of Black History Month, alongside the launch of Midlands Art Papers on 12 October. The exhibition examines works from the region’s public art collection and presents them in reference to themes including storytelling, history, memory and identity. Curators Dr Greg Salter and Dr Kate Nichols, from the Department of Art History, Curating and Visual Studies at the University of Birmingham (where I’m currently studying Art History as an Undergraduate), put together an exhibition that I found very interesting and thought-provoking, not least of all because it sums up what we might call an evolving West Midland’s identity: it’s a wonderfully multicultural place, whose identity might still be taking shape but which is partly already defined by diversity. In fact, the exhibition provides a great opportunity to view a series of works side-by-side that explore the ways in which artists – who may well have been marginalised by the official art establishment – have nevertheless found a place for themselves in the past, partly through their art, and features works by black, LGBTQ, Jewish and Irish artists.
The title of the show Wanting to Say was taken from Eugene Palmer’s Wanting to Say I (1992), a work that is exhibited in the exhibition, which shows a black woman looking out at the viewer from what appears to be ship’s porthole. As such, this work immediately brings to mind histories of slavery and of (forced) migration; but, significantly, it also evokes black selfhood in the contexts of movement, which is conveyed most successfully by the steady gaze of the painting’s female subject. Indeed, I found this work particularly fascinating as Palmer encourages an awareness on the part of the viewer of the dynamics of looking itself, of looking and being looked at, and their implications, and forges a moment of self-recognition that is intended to be unsettling: in the history of western art, it is exceptionally meaningful to find a female figure that returns the gaze of a viewer, and this is perhaps especially true of a black female figure. For in the western tradition – and, certainly, this is the case in pre-modern art – women in art are conventionally represented as objects to be looked at: as passive objects that are subject to the heterosexual male gaze. However, in this exhibition, Palmer’s work, which is positioned alongside other works relating to the theme of ‘on the move,’ asks the viewer, or even compels the viewer, to enter into a dialogue about the histories of migration, about identity, movement, ownership and empire, women’s agency, and so on.
Another work in the show, Sophie Anderson’s Scheherazade, especially fascinated me as it depicts the narrator of The Arabian Nights: a collection of tales I read as a child and which deeply resonate with me because of my Islamic and South Asian background. Perhaps in spite of the Victorian inclination towards “Orientalism” here, Scheherazade displays a woman whose ability to tell stories ensures her survival; a woman that again presents a sense of self and of agency, articulated once more through her direct gaze. Contextually, Anderson was a pioneer for women artists, as it was still very difficult for women to train and practice successfully as artists; Anderson, however, was one of the first women artist to have a painting purchased for a public collection in 1871. In the history of Western art, women, not only as subjects in art but as actual artists, have traditionally been marginalised if not actually debarred from the art world, yet Anderson challenges this notion by asserting, to a degree, female agency and autonomy that may well have been intended to inspire women viewers who, by and large, were confined to the gendered space of the home and the role of housewife.
This show, then, draws on a range of artistic traditions, stories, and fragments from the past and is a reminder of how migration shaped British art and how the western tradition in art has operated a system of exclusion rather than inclusion, which, when it is brought out into the open and subjected to scrutiny, can hopefully pave the way for greater inclusivity in the future. The Wanting to Say: Finding a Place in the Past exhibition at The New Art Gallery Walsall is an enlightening and thought-provoking show: it is fascinating for me to see how diverse artists working across time found a place for themselves in the past through their art. The exhibition also reveals some insight into what research and projects the lecturers of the Art History, Curating and Visual Studies Department here at The University of Birmingham get up to – which is encouraging to upcoming graduates such as myself!