by Gaynor Tutani
The concept of care has become a buzzword in art and curating, however, how it manifests within the actual curating and exhibiting process is often in contrast to what the act of care entails. Characteristically, producing is a demanding job. The pressure to meet deadlines and ensure successful shows can be physically, mentally and emotionally exhausting for all parties involved – be it gallerists, institutions, curators, artists or technicians. Exhibition visitors see the organised, finished product and not the long hours of labour, mess or the trials and errors that occur behind the scenes during installations. In other words, the environment is tension-based; artists are sometimes anxious and question their work, the need to be swift and skilled in managing various artworks can be a balancing act for technicians. Lead organisers/institutions and curators are constantly tormented by worry and often wonder; how the public will receive the work, if the artists are satisfied, and whether the exhibition will pay off. Consequently, during production everyone is stressed and operating on some level of anxiety. Occasionally this contributes to disagreements, either creatively or due to personal differences. These factors create an atmosphere that is not in unison with care. Therefore, as art practitioners how can we incorporate care to exhibition production and art practice?
I had not really thought of the implementation of care in curating until my recent collaboration with the Rita Keegan Archive Project in installing the artist’s current exhibition, Somewhere Between Here and There at the South London Gallery. Given the nature of production, before joining the project I had accepted that there would be some arduous, work and possible conflict and skipping of meals. Once you are in the moment of producing and running on adrenalin that comes from doing what you are passionate about, and within the previously described atmosphere, you can easily forget to take a break. However, working on this exhibition was quite the opposite. From the first day there was a sense of calm. The dynamics between Keegan and the Project members; Ego Ahaiwe Sowinski, Lauren Craig, Gina Nembhard and Naomi Pearce was welcoming. They valued my input and were genuinely interested in my ideas of display despite being a novice to Keegan’s art, and curating archive related material. Deeply engaged in our work, initially I was oblivious to the peaceful energy. It only became apparent while in conversation with Keegan. We discussed cooking, sewing, gardening, and how the act of working with our hands relates to art making – primarily the thinking involved, whereby you are uncertain of the outcome until completing the process. That informal conversation brought me joy. Instantly I realised how lucky I was to relate to Keegan and understand her artistic processes in this way, given what she has accomplished over the years as an artist. She has exhibited extensively, and as an artist-activist with a catalogue of trailblazing initiatives that she established in the 1980s. I was humbled by her openness and how she embraced my involvement. Overall, I appreciated the lightness of approach and curatorial direction of the team. Throughout the week of production, they ensured that no one felt overwhelmed and displayed great care for each other, the technicians and all collaborators.
What the experience taught me was of care in action, fundamentally within curatorial leadership. The project team was conscious of our wellbeing. We took regular breaks and were well fed, this gave us time to discuss the work and connect as people. Each day we finished at 6pm, although this was inconvenient to our working flow, it allowed us to step back and process our progression, rather than being pressurised. It would be dishonest to say that there were no artistic disparities. Nonetheless, they were communicated compassionately with the acknowledgement of each person’s sensitivities, and an awareness of our main objective. This objective was to present Keegan, a phenomenal artist who seems to have been neglected within the contemporary art scene. The team was concerned with accentuating her contribution to art history and considered her feelings and apprehensions as an artist who had not exhibited in recent times. Their attitude towards Keegan, and the project as a whole was an inspiring epitome of how we can apply care in production and art practice.
Recent media coverage has described Keegan as the “Forgotten Pioneer” or “Hidden Figure”. While that may be the case, contemplating on these statements can be unsettling as to what they evoke with regards to how our sector operates and cares for its artists. Why have we managed to overlook figures such as Keegan? That question led to a series of other issues; why is there no dialogue between generations of artists and curators? Why are some artists celebrated while others are not? What of older artists who unlike Keegan have not had the chance to enjoy equal fame yet continue to create? Considering these questions, I realise that there is work to be done within the industry. Many artists like Keegan deserve to have their stories honoured. Especially those of African and Caribbean descent who sometimes give up seeking representation and exhibiting because it is difficult to break into the market. Although the sector is robust, access is limited to prominent names. For that reason, I believe that it is important for us to care and ask why. I am not in a position to answer any of these questions, neither am I casting blame, but I wish to open dialogue and for us to begin to consider more effective practices that are not only inclusive of race, disabilities and LGBTQ issues but also address age and experience of artists outside of the mainstream.
Keegan’s current exhibition includes works by her late uncle, artist, Keith Simon. By showcasing his work, she hopes to make him visible and be incorporated into the global art canon. Simon took part in several exhibitions within the UK and America, but he remained unknown until now. His absence is an excellent case in point. While going through his archive to select for the exhibition, locating information on some of the galleries where he previously exhibited was challenging. Consequently, I could not help but think of those whose archives we do not possess. Evidently there is a gap in our practice. We need to care and make change regarding representation and artists’ collections. In this way we present a holistic art history. Of course, there will be some that slip beyond the radar, but current systems do not cater for older and less known artists. Thus, the Rita Keegan Archive Project’s effort to commemorate Keegan and her achievements is remarkable.
Care within the “Somewhere Between Here and There” Exhibition
Reflecting on the exhibition and Keegan’s artistic oeuvre, the idea of care is eminent. It is within the themes she addresses and the motivations behind her art making and collecting. Keegan’s conscious archiving of exhibition catalogues and pamphlets by the Black British Art Movement collectives of the 1980s, as well as other projects of Black and Brown artists is significant. Without the specificity of her conservation the archive would not be available. As for her inspirations, the need to give voice and present histories of the African Diaspora cannot be denied. Her work raises awareness of the transatlantic slave trade and women’s rights. Perusing the exhibition there is no doubt that she seamlessly weaves these issues in her paintings, photographic explorations and mixed media. Features include liberation marches by women in South Africa during apartheid, dress, adornment and African inspired fabric produced by the European textile industry, and the captivating scent of a selection of herbs and spices emphasising the complexity of the relationship between the western world, Africa and its descendants. Although these elements are conveyed through Keegan’s self-portraits, family photographs and paintings, they act as a unifying trajectory of African and Caribbean experiences and her dedication to narrating them.
As a History of Ideas scholar, my fascination centres on the philosophical inferences of the historical and cultural connections implied by Keegan through the motif of the Benin Bronzes. Their predominant presence can be read as a beacon of the resilience of cultural memory, representing strong African roots for Keegan and the African Diaspora. She mentions visiting the Metropolitan Museum as a child and being attracted to the Benin Bronzes. Although her specific African origins may be unknown, she felt a strong bond. Given Keegan’s feminist activism, her attraction to them does not surprise me. According to history, one of the Benin Bronzes was commissioned by Oba Esigie of the Benin Kingdom in Nigeria (1504-1550). Esigie designed it for his mother to be placed by the ancestral altars following her death, as a sign of gratitude for her assistance in fighting rebels and defeating his half-brother to ascend the throne. The celebration marked the first of “Iyoba”, a commemoration that means Queen Mother. By doing this, he elevated the position of women. Ironically, Keegan’s mixed media installation, a restaging of her Cycles (1992) exhibition, particularly the garment and the Benin Bronze imprints, visually echoes the same sentiments as Esigie. Keegan’s display gives an aura of an altar and shows a rich cultural connection of the Diaspora to their African ties. The exhibit poignantly reveals how we are interrelated through these practices in spite of historical tragedies, and urges us to remember what our ancestors endured, and their greatness. These ideas inevitably show Keegan’s care and reverence to African legacies.
For me, the highlight of the display is Keegan’s use of editing techniques in photography, and how the collection challenges our usual notions of a photograph. Her layering of contrasting tones and textures are painterly. This can be seen within the lightbox images and her self-portraits. Together, the artworks push the boundaries of colour and form beyond one medium. Keegan’s reworking of photography projects the idea of what a photograph can be, rather than what it is. This is with direct inference to the self-portraits. The collection borders on commentary on society’s views of women and how Keegan engages with that dialogue. I am drawn to how she invites us to see the delicacy of her beingness and explorations of her identity, in dealing with issues of beauty and adornment. Her work brings to mind questions on power and representation of the photographer, explored by Jo Spence and Terry Dennett in their Politics of Photography anthologies. So too Okwui Enwezor’s extensive writings and analysis of African photography, and photographers who capture authentic African characteristics as a defiance against backward ethnographic depictions of Africa and its diverse peoples. Similarly, with respect to power and ownership, Keegan holds the centre stage within her work. She may not be in control behind the camera, however, her confidence in front of it is undeniable. She dictates how she is to be seen. Evidently, she is making a statement of her strength and sense of self as a woman. Consequently, her work is inspirational to women and advocates self-love and care. Keegan’s ability to achieve that via photography is poetic.
Written by Gaynor Tutani and edited by Jean Joseph of EARTHworks [Artists]
EARTHworks [Artists] is a curatorial and producing duo that specialises in hosting exhibitions, events and talks. The partnership comprises Jean Joseph, a visual artist, curator and writer, and Gaynor Tutani a producer, researcher and writer – representing two generations. Consequently, their creative approaches engage with intergenerational interrogations of cultural production, theories and knowledge, spanning a broad spectrum of the arts. Collaboration with likeminded individuals and organisations forms an integral part of their aims to educate and enrich communities through art practice. This includes working with museums, galleries and independent bodies, curating programmes that explore methodologies of art production and presentation.
Google art and Culture, https://artsandculture.google.com/entity/esigie/m027mltl?hl=en
Jo Spence and Terry Dennett, Politics of Photography Volume I and II.
Metropolitan Museum, Queen Mother Pendant Mask: Iyoba 16th Century.
Okwui Enwezor and Octavia Zaya, In/Sight: African Photographers 1940 to the Present, 1996 (Book and Exhibition).
Okwui Enwezor, Snap Judgements: New Positions in Contemporary African Photography, 2006 (Book and Exhibition).
South London Gallery, Somewhere Between Here and There.
The Espresso Economist, Hidden Figure: A pioneering black British artist.
The Guardian, Rita Keegan: the return of the Black British art’s forgotten Pioneer.