Category Archives: curating

that which I sometimes do

The black subject: ancient to modern

The black subject: ancient to modern
Tate Britain Saturday 21st of February

This symposium, which in only one day tried to cover the appearance of the black subject in art from ancient times up to modernism, was a gathering together of interesting recent research, given by compelling speakers. It is unusual for me to attend a symposium or conference and not feel bored at least part of the time. I am happy to report that at no point did I find myself thinking “why on earth did they put that on for/” or “who is this person and how can they have the nerve to stand there talking like this?” No, this was a timely, well-organized and utterly fascinating day.

Part of the appeal was just the absolute necessity of this discourse. I have written on a number of occasions* about the invisibility of the non-white artist, and the working-class artist, but I haven’t really talked much about the invisibility of the nonwhite subject. Actually, it was exactly this issue that brought the whole problem to my attention: the invisibility of nonwhite subjects in paintings. I wondered why, despite the plethora of images of black subject in advertising, when it comes to fine art, contemporary artists don’t go there. Then I realized that that’s not it: the problem rather is that the contemporary artists who do make those pictures are much less visible than white artists.


A large part of the symposium was dedicated to “finding the black face” in art history. Although this might sound a bit odd, I believe that it’s a necessary act, and one that really needs to be done more. And when I say done more, I mean addressed within the education / Museum situation. For example, in the late medieval and early Renasissance, it was common for at least one of the Magi to be depicted as a black person. Why not actually draw attention to this and make it talking point within a museum display? There are many depictions of white people with black servants, but this offers a possibility to broaden out the art historical discussion. This point was made by the curator Jan Marsh, who helpfully provided a useful list of images of paintings of Black subjects in British art institutions.


I think at the root of it all is probably the fact that we still labor under a misconception which probably comes out of the 18th century. The 18th century saw the rise of industrial capitalism, of which slavery was the first development, fueling the money that was then available to build factories and develop technology. This obviously meant that the black population of Britain, particularly port cities would’ve increased and the availability of black servants would’ve increased also. Hence the depictions in art.

The 18th century also gives us something else: a kind of whitewashing of the history of the ancient world. Thanks to the Hellenistic endeavors of Johann Winckelmann, we have a picture of the ancient world which is largely white, as white as the marble statues and temples of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Except that this is not true at all. This whitewashing of the ancient world, extends quite laughably to our visual image of it, the white marble image of Aryan perfection. Except that we actually know now that the ancients painted their statuary and all of their temples. I refer you to the brilliant book Chromophobia by David Batchelor for more on this classical legacy.

The Greeks did have a concept of barbarians and Greeks, but this is not based on race. The Romans, on the other hand, didn’t have any racial ideas whatsoever. Their distinction was whether you were Roman citizen or not, and whether you were free or not. Once you had freedom, it didn’t matter what color you were. Roman hierarchy was not racially based. Going along with that was the fact that the and Roman world, the Mediterranean, was conceived as being the entire Mediterranean, not just the North Mediterranean. The ancient world included Africa. People from Africa, certainly North Africa and also Ethiopia, existed all over the ancient world, traveling, trading, working, fighting. Graffiti from Egyptian soldiers sent to man Hadrian’s Wall attests to their disgust at British weather. Some things will never change.

And there are some ancient works of art which never get mentioned at all, such as the marvelous, splendidly realistic Fayuum portraits made in Roman Egypt. These were funeral portraits, made during a person’s life, to be used in attached to the sarcophagus after death. Recent scientific analysis has proven that the portraits, which show dark eyed, dark skinned people, appear to be of ethnic Egyptians, not white transplanted ‘Romans’. Once again, the concept of ‘Roman’ is not racial. And those portraits would have been made by Egyptians.

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However, once we have a concept of the ‘wonderfully white’ ancient world, and the Europe sanitized of all nonwhite inhabitants, we then get a completely different perspective on the reality of black presence in Europe. Yet, any kind of historical sense makes it clear that could never have possibly been true. Even a casual glimpse at trading patterns across Europe would make it clear that there was a constant two-way traffic between North Africa the Middle East and much further beyond. It is probably true that, then as now, urban areas were more diverse than rural areas, although even that may not be the case. William Mulready’s 1835 painting The Toy Seller shows a black peddler selling toys to a white mother. Although we can’t take the painting as any kind of documentary piece, it does seem to indicate that the rural world was not quite as ‘bleached’ as we pretend.

Of course, the first thing we have to admit is that the actuality of slavery, forced us into a black and white thought dichotomy. The dichotomy of black / white, dark / light existed probably forever, but was not necessarily attributed to human beings. Because in the Mediterranean region and Persia (where Manichean beliefs about dark and light developed out of Zoroastranaism) people usually aren’t specifically black or specifically white, but have different degrees of pigmentation.

So, having spotted the black faces in the history of European art, what next? Actually, the answer was provided right at the very beginning of the symposium. The artist Kimathi Donkor discussed his own work as a painter, which interrogates mis/representations of black subjects in Western art history. His current research is on the the representation of Andromeda (according to Ovid’s story, an Ethiopian princess) who is usually portrayed as white. What’s really important about Donkor’s work is that he’s one of the few recognized figurative painters active in Britain today who portrays black subjects.  Yes, that’s exactly what I said: one of the few. I became familiar with his work Toussaint L’Ouverture at Bedourete, a powerful and strongly cinematic depiction of the Haitian revolutionary hero. I was really impressed with this painting, a remarkable piece in the grand tradition of history painting and, I think, a very important work.

One of the problems with art history, of course, is that with very few exceptions such as H.O. Tanner,  the one doing the representing is white. It’s only in the 20th century that we start to see a trickle of representing being done by black artists. But even those are largely invisible in terms of European modernism. One of the most stimulating presentations, which is saying something in a day full of stimulating presentations, was by Prof. Partha Mitter. Discussing the work of Jamani Roy. I didn’t know anything about Roy before but what Mitter talked about was the idea of alternative modernisms. I’ve always been interested in this, the idea that modernism has been interpreted purely from Eurocentric perspective, which if you think about it is absolutely ridiculous. Especially when you think about how the architects of modernism were themselves completely influenced by Eastern philosophies; one of the things most noticeable in the recent Matisse exhibition was how influenced Matisse himself was by Moroccan visual culture. This limited approach to something as universal as art-making leaves out Egyptian modernism for example, as well as the whole of Latin America, Africa and Japan. The art market may reward the Eurocentric interpretation of modernism, but why should we?

The symposium didn’t really address the subject which I left wondering about, which is how to get all of this fantastic research into the broader public discourse. Where are the art history television programs that present this art history? Where are the non-white artists in the major prizes, and television portraits such as “what artists do all day”?

It is necessary, but not enough simply to spot the presence of black people in art history. We need to see them in contemporary art as well. We need to encourage and support artists who want to depict their reality, black subjects. Because these black subjects are part of our reality. The faces of our history, our neighbors, our friends, our families. Donkor’s work is significant and necessary, as is the work of artists such as my colleague, the London-based Egyptian painter Nazir Tanbouli.

The commercial demands of the art market does not seem to be interested, which is their prerogative. After all, they’re mainly interested in buying and selling, whether it’s arms or paintings. But once again, I have to say that we need to examine how and why the criteria of the art market is so accepted completely uncritically, not only by our media but sadly, also by the curators and critics, and those who are supposed to be nurturing our art tradition and building our artistic legacy.


presenters were:

Kimathi Donkor, Michael Ohajuru,  Temi Odumosu, S.I. Martin,  Michael Fisher, Caroline Bressey, Florian Stadtler, Jan Marsh, Gemma Romain, Roshan McClenahan and Partha Mitter,  hosted by David Dibosa  and Sonia Dyer.


* Previous articles I wrote on this:

Art and Invisibility

Dis-membered from the Art World

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Last month I blogged about the difficulty of running physical space in London, because of the property values and the sheer expense of it. I didn’t mention all the hard work, because that would be the same wherever we might be. In the last few months there been some very unfortunate closings of small independent galleries and artist run spaces and there is no question that the difficulties associated with DIY ventures are starting to reach a breaking point in the city. But that’s not what I want to talk about today.

Since I started working as an artist I’ve been interested in that relationship between art and audience, artist and viewer, public and individual expression. I was particularly influenced by the work of Fluxus artist and theorist Allan Kaprow, who described his work as a “blurring between art and life,” and by the French philosopher Henri Lefebvre, whose book The Critique Of Everyday Life urges that everybody engage in some kind of productive and creative self-sustaining leisure practice. Both Kaprow and Lefebvre communicated to me that art needs to try to engage on every level with all people, all the time. And this approach doesn’t have to be “avant-garde” art, like Fluxus. You can see this communication happening in the art of the great churches, and you can see it happening in any well curated museum. One of the things that fascinated me when I went to the Tretyakoff gallery in Moscow in the 90s was how all walks of life were there. There were as many obviously working-class people there looking at the paintings as there were the usual middle and upper middle classes.

My approach to the blurring of art and life was to work in site-specific art. To bring art into environments that were not created for art, or had little or no contact with art and reinvigorate them through art. To this end, I co-founded the organization Luna Nera, which was concerned entirely with creating artistic site responses in locations that had once had some kind of major public significance, but which no longer had any function. The point of this was not to create alternative gallery spaces, but to create a new kind of art, one that would bring people together and engage.

The same kind of impulse was at work when we founded Studio 75. Using a flat on the ground floor of a social housing estate meant that there was a potential for a steady stream of visitors who otherwise would ‘ve never entered an art gallery; this is a neighbourhood with a lot of art galleries, but the majority of the neighbours never visit places like the White Cube or Flowers Gallery or Iniva. Studio 75 managed to get this steady stream of visitors; some came to every show, some popped in once. Some hung around a few feet from the front door where our large mural was: looking nervous, clearly wanting to come in. We considered it our job to pop our heads out and invite people in.

(We never served alcohol, just endless cups of tea. We initially tried to have a no alcohol policy, partly because there were people living in the building and we didn’t want to encourage the sort of private view art party drinking sessions that are perfectly all right in a non-residential environment. We also wanted to encourage people from all sections of the community. However, we realized that such is the culture it was actually impossible to deny alcohol and so we operated an informal BYOB approach to alcohol: we didn’t serve it ourselves, but we allow people to bring it. Annoyingly, we also had to clean up after it.)

We closed Studio 75 10 months ago, and opened a pop-up gallery in a nearby café that had a large window space, so the artwork can be seen from outside or from inside the café. Clearly there was a financial implication, in that we didn’t have to pay rent on the pop-up; on the other hand, we had to choose artwork which fitted within the café environment. The idea here was again to bring art into ordinary, everyday public life. It was interesting to discover that while people had taken studio 75 seriously, they did not take the idea of the pop-up seriously as an art project. While we had people clamouring to exhibit studio 75, even offering us large amounts of money to let them exhibit (which we refused), this wasn’t the case at the pop-up. It seems that in most cases people see art on the walls of the café or restaurant as décor, I don’t really think about it is art. At first I was surprised, but then I thought about it and I realize that usually when I go to a café or restaurant. I don’t really think of what’s on the walls as art, either. We are completely conditioned to the gallery environment (whether that gallery is purpose built or some kind of transformed space). The gallery environment offers a space for contemplation without the kind of distractions that a café, often delightfully, offers.

We’ve now just closed the pop-up, and are taking stock. Looking back over what I now realize is 17 years (!) of art practice that has largely been around the blurring of art and life, what do I now think about this idea? Future blog posts will explore this question.

art  is desire

text and artwork ©GILLIAN MCIVER 2014

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“The real problem with the art world is not the money men scavenging in its wake – they’ve always been there – but the pirates who’ve taken over the ship. I am thinking of course of that awful art world species: the curator. When I started writing about art, there were no curators. Now they are everywhere. They go to the same biennales; speak the same meaningless art language; and control the art world from within by privileging their creativity ahead of the artist’s. For 5,000 years art survived perfectly well without curators. Now they are its gate keepers.

What we need is a revolution, akin to the impressionist revolution in 19th-century France. Just as the impressionists overthrew the salon and put artists back at the centre of the art world, so someone out there needs to overthrow the Tate empire. Come on Hackney. Rise up.”
Waldemar Januszczak






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Strength in decay

In a decaying society, art, if it is truthful, must also reflect decay. And unless it wants to break faith with its social function, art must show the world as changeable. And help to change it.
Ernst Fischer (Ernst Fischer, The Necessity of Art: A Marxist Approach)

“The things of mortals, mortal are as they: All pass us by, quickly to fade away, If not, we pass by them and they decay.”
Lucian, Syrian writer, circa 150AD

ALLOWING the work to decay was Nazir Tanbouli’s choice as he announced the end of the King’s Land project. Initially the idea was to keep making murals until the building was hoarded and demolished. However several things intervened to change this plan.

Firstly, the building work was put back and put back. This meant that the mural making could have gone on until October or even November. By which time any impact would have been lost, if the artist was even still interested.

Second, the weather this year has been unprecedentedly wet. As the project was based on the idea of paste up changing murals, there were just too many days of soaking rain when no work was done, or murals melting and dying before their time. 2012 is the wettest  year even in British history. No other year has been recorded this wet. Ever. And it’s Britain., That tells you how wet it its. It became a Sisyphus task of putting and reputting. That might have been interesting in itself but it was not the aim of the project.

Lastly and most importantly, Tanbouli wanted to make an impact and with The King’s Land he did. He also wanted to make something for the place, and as some of the murals are indeed painted, there is a good selection of murals that will stay until the building is torn down. He also wanted to make a point about decay: that this is an estate that has been left to decay for a long time by the powers that be – lives blighted, neighbourhood made ugly and embarrassing. The murals were not meant to hide that. Now the murals play their part in making a comment about urban environments and the politics of decay. Had it not rained so much, the murals might have lasted the summer. But let Nature do what it does, and let the artist do what he does.

Tanbouli finished the project by holding a big party and declaring the murals “open to view for as long as they last.”


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Fantasists: a reminiscence

Today I got talking to someone about fantasists and I realised I’d come into contact with a few of those in my time and they all seem to revolve around art. In fact the worst fantasists I ever met suffered from curator fantasy, a peculiar tendency.

'Pictures (not) in an exhibition', video still

Let’s see, when I was starting my Film & Photography degree a woman I knew slightly from around and about told me she was organising a little show in a health centre we both used. She asked me for a piece of work and although as a first year student I didn’t think I would have anything worth showing I agreed. Then I heard nothing. Time passed. The college year was winding down. I had a few decent projects completed. Suddenly she appeared again with exciting news. It wasn’t a show in a little health centre it was to be a local art festival, taking over the whole High Street of the district, involving all kinds of venues and an important art TV channel was going to be supporting it. Not only that, but she has now an office and a business and was working full time on the project. I was impressed. But then she asked me for my work and I – mindful of what I still had left ot learn – said “Well, no. My work is far too undeveloped for me to show it in that kind of big event. Wait till I have finished my degree.” I didn’t hear from her again until much later I heard that it had all been a fantasy. Worse, she actually had rented an office and spent all her savings but had not actually organised anything still less got the TV involved. Even weirder, in my first group show after graduating she suddenly appeared again as an artist, contributing some bafflingly irrelevant drawings that the curator hid away in a corner of the show. It was all very odd. I never saw her again after that. Little did I know that Curator Fantasy is a real affliction.

The next instance of it came some years later in Berlin. A very colourful character, a sort of old-school style impresario,came to the studio where I was working and offered the studio group a big show in a venue he had acquired outside the city. A medieval building no less. We drove there and saw it, it was quite fine. He held court in his local winekeller, twirling his moustaches and talking about past glories and his new career as curator of contemporary art. We collectively shook hands on the deal. The following spring he confirmed that he had received a huge grant from the state arts fund and was ready to put the show into action. We drove there again and this time we did not visit the building as it was “under preparation” but we did visit his winekeller again where all arrangements were concluded. We then went back to the city; we sent him all the PR materials and he said he’d confirm the final dates. Time passed. I went back to London. Not long after my friends from Berlin called me. They had had no word from the impresario and so finally went down to the place to find out what was going on. They went first to the site of the show the medieval building. Still empty, but for an estate agent. Who told them that it was not rented and had never been rented. He recalled a funny old man who had come and talked to him about renting it but never got back to him. My friends made their way to the winekeller despite it being quite early and he was already there, enjoying a vintage. Confronted, he finally admitted there had never been a project, never a grant from the state art fund and never had he any authority whatsoever to offer anyone anything. He was an old retired man with a younger wife who fancied herself a bit arty so he wanted to seem a bit “with it” and have something to do. But he had no ideas and no resources to do any of it. Mystified, my friends had a glass of wine and then went back to the city.

'Pictures (not) in an exhibition', video still

The third fantasist is the weirdest. She was again nothing to do with art but was a professor of literature and she had received a grant to make a project to mark a particular occasion. Instead of doing what she knew, which was literature, she decided to curate visual art. I was invited by her assistant, to whom the whole job or organising fell. I made the work that was commissioned, based on the place and dimensions that were supplied to me, and I gave a list of materials that would be needed to install it (mainly a roll of light reflective colored gel). Ominously, soon before the show was mean to happen I learned that the venue had changed. Still I went there and tried to get to see the space. This was denied to me repeatedly. I hug around the city for several days waiting and waiting, till she deigned to see me. I had not met her by this point. When I did I found her very odd. First she invited me to dinner in a restaurant and even though I said I was not hungry and going to a party after, she ordered food and insisted I eat while she sat next to me smoking. SO not comfortable, on every level. This was made even weirder when, as we left she suddenly bent down and picked something small off the sidewalk and put it in her bag. I looked puzzled and she told me “I can’t resist anything I see lying on the sidewalk. I have to pick it up and take it. I keep the things I pick up in jars in my house.” I must have looked quite freaked out, which empowered her and so she confided further that sometimes if it was food, she was unable to stop herself picking it up and eating it. Now my gorge rose and I wanted to vom up the unwelcome dinner. Clearly she was enjoying this because she went on to on tell me that for many years she saved all her finger and toenail clippings in jars too. I was reminded of one of the worst things I read in my adolescence: Simone de Beauvoir’s account in her autobiography of discovering that her prim and proper neighbour was a coprophile. If I recall, they discovered it when the woman died. I was traumatised by this news that such people existed. Now I am not saying that my curator friend was coprophile but I had the same shuddery feeling of horror that I had had when I read De Beauvoir’s own account (which itself was still redolent with her horror).

We made it to the site of the forthcoming show. Now the worst unfolded. This so-called curator had in her unwisdom decided that an installation that was meant for a large space, two projectors and a wall of light reflective gel, was actually going to be a single screen projection onto a small window in a staircase. Worse: she planned to balance the equipment on a chair on the staircase. Asked her dumbfounded, what was expected to happen when people walked up the stairs. She pondered. I asked her if the system could be fixed to the celling. She didn’t know I went and got the site manager and he told us that no, in fact no fixings could be made anywhere. I realised that my work was not going to be shown in the way I wanted, and my best bet was to just give her the work and be done with it, which I did, the work and the invoice. I had no further dealings with her but needless to say she never showed her face as a curator again for any reason or in any capacity. One odd thing, a curious friend of mine did go to the show to see how she did end up screening the work, and found they were charging a hefty admission fee. I wonder what happened to the grant money? Fishy, fishy.

In the great scheme of things, these fantasists were pretty harmless, unlike the fantasists who think they are doctors and actually get jobs in hospitals or do dodgy plastic surgery on sad vain people (usually killing them). But it is a weird tendency.

(This is not be confused with the lesser bred, the technology fantasists. The ones who get an i-Phone and call themselves photographers, or buy a video camera and call themselves Cinematographers. I guess these are more victims of marketing.)

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imprimatur: the unutterable joy and security of the brand

it’s interesting the variety of people who come by the Studio to see what we’ve got going on. It’s a great mix of people: lively, opinionated, dynamic. Artists and non-artists alike.

What seems to me to be a bit odd though, is that there are quite  a few people I’ve known for a long time and with whom I have had many, many conversations about the “state of art” and how “change is important” and all that. Together we’ve criticized many things we don’t like and ranted about how to change it.

Well, now that my friends and I have decided to put our money where our mouths are, and set up our own thing and try to do things a bit differently (or die trying) – where are these putative supporters cheering us on – or pointing out where me might be going wrong? Invisible. Oh wait, no they’re not. They are just down the road, busy swanning around at the self same institutions they had been criticizing only recently.

Should I be angry or upset? Or just resigned? Let’s face it, we live in a branded culture, where the imprimatur of a big known brand just does count for more than the “no name” version. If a well known brand wants to sponsor an art event, then it is just going to get more people there than some obscure collection of artists. I know that. I don’t even mind. Just don’t preach the radical no-logo art revolutionist claptrap that you don’t actually believe in, cos it’s fashionable.

It’s like the way that so many art bookshops sell these super glossy expensive editions of Situationist texts, or Marxist programmes or even anarchist texts, in lushly bound coffee table editions. Or handsome volumes of radical theory. Relying on the fact that nobody who might ever put any of this stuff into practice will ever buy these glossy editions. Art institutions are not, and will never be, places of radicalism in any form. Do the math.

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New year, new projects

We’re getting ready to launch Studio 75 onto the world. It’s an exciting time, setting up a new artist-run space in London, given the atmosphere of the economy and general gloom of the media.  Of course, times like these are very good for art, because it’s when things are tough that only the tough get going. Nazir Tanbouli’s made a fantastic mural for the space’s facade.

The first exhibition of Parallel Project will take place early April at Studio 75, with the launch of the books Tarkovsky’s River(by me!)  and Tevere (by Catia Ott). Following that, we will host the long awaited London show of the touring exhibiton of book art, Prospero’s Library.

And I’m preparing my new film, Project Gagarin: A Cold War Nostalgia. The first phase of this was a video art piece, now I will shoot interviews. Eventually there will be an installation and a single channel film.

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I went to see Altermodern, the 2009 Tate triennial, as curated by Nicholas Borriaud. My review is posted on A-N here:

A few immediate thoughts:

  • Either there really are no good painters catching curator’s eyes right now (so they should look harder!) OR, curators think painting is dead.
  • If painting is “dead” then we are in trouble because painting, together with drawing, is the fundamental, most basic art from. Picking up the piece of charcoal and using it to draw on the wall of the cave is one of the first steps that made us “human.”  If we are fundamentally  incapable of making art that is  based on pure imagination and simple tools, then the subsequent art  forms that are so prevalent (installation, video, performance, etc.) are really meaningless.
  • How could Borriaud allow Shezad Dawood to put such a dreadful, nay, abysmal painting in the show? His film not much better, despite the parading of many funding marks.
  • I now have respect, and even liking, for Patrick Brill, whom I used to dismiss. Mea culpa, Pat, you are damn smart.
  • Nathaniel Mellors is channelling Alfred Jarry, which in some ways is fun and even admirable, but at the same time Jarry is way, way out of  Mellors’ league.
  • It seems many artists in the show want to somehow be “like” historians, without really understanding anything about the practice of history. So their pronouncements, and their catalogues [written by curators and critics] sound like first year history essays.
  • Appropriation has had its day, and most people are not very good at it (hats off to Tacita Dean whose Russian Ending is an example of a successful appropriation).
  • I assumed Altermodern was a German neologism combining Old (alt) and Modern — but it isn’t.
  • Artists should maybe stick to exhibiting the one or two things they are REALLY good at – be it sculpture, photography OR painting etc…. and consider the rest a hobby.

enough for now.

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