Why Are We Here? With Black Artists & Modernism

Why Are We Here? With Black Artists & Modernism

Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art

Magdalene Odundo, Vessel, 1983. Earthenware.

April 12, 2019
Why Are We Here? With Black Artists & Modernism
March 23, 2019–March 22, 2020
Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art
Centre Square
Middlesbrough TS1 2AZ
United Kingdom
Hours: Tuesday–Saturday 10am–4:30pm,
Thursday 10am–7pm,
Sunday 12–4pm

T +44 1642 931232
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New stories form the Middlesbrough Collection
As part of our commitment to addressing the colonial structures that have shaped the institution, MIMA has commissioned an audit of the Middlesbrough Collection by Black Artists & Modernism researchers. Artist Sonia Boyce, art historian Anjalie Dalal-Clayton and researcher Ashleigh Barice are auditing the collection for contributions by artists of African, Asian and Middle East and North Africa Region descent living or working in the UK from 1900 to 2016. Their findings have joined Black Artists & Modernism’s national database which holds information on a number of significant British collections.

Black Artists & Modernism (BAM), a three year research project based at University of the Arts London, in collaboration with Middlesex University, and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council between 2015 and 2018. It asks how artists of African and Asian descent in Britain feature in the story of twentieth century art. BAM researchers address the understated connections and areas of contention between Black-British artists’ practice and the work of art’s relationship to Modernism. Following Kobena Mercer’s essay “Iconography after Identity” (2005), researchers undertake close readings of artworks to counter a frequent deflection from the art object in favour of a focus on identity and ethnicity. 

The initial results of the audit of MIMA’s collection show that there are 49 artworks in the collection by 23 artists of African, Asian and Middle Eastern descent working in Britain over the last century. This represents 2% of our collection. It includes artists such as Lubaina Himid, Siddig El Nigoumi, Magdalene Odundo, Keith Piper and Veronica Ryan. 12 of these artists are women; 11 are men. The balance across the broader BAM audit dataset is typically in favour of men, making MIMA relatively unique in this respect. Almost a quarter of the artists were born in the 1950s, followed by almost a fifth each in the 1930s, 1940s and 1960s. The slightly larger proportion of artists born in the 1950s mirrors the broader BAM audit dataset. We are now looking at the conditions that led to these statistics.

BAM’s research supports the institution to pay close attention to this aspect of the Middlesbrough Collection and to take careful, considered steps towards future acquisition and display. This small selection of artworks is a rich seam upon which we will build. While BAM’s research focuses on artists who have lived or worked in Britain, MIMA will build on this over time to explore dialogues with wider international communities of artists represented in the collection.

This research underpins Why Are We Here?, an exhibition of the collection curated by MIMA, which highlights pieces from 1870 to 2019. The display makes visible some of the structures behind collections, sharing narratives around how works have been collected and why some art histories have been neglected. It asks, publicly, how the collection should be developed, used, interpreted and shown in the future. At the centre of the display is a self-portrait by the artist Sonia Boyce (then just 25 years old) She ain’t holding them up, she’s holding on (Some English Rose) (1986). The Cleveland Gallery (a precursor to MIMA) acquired this significant work in 1987 and 32 years later, it is a cornerstone of what is now the Middlesbrough Collection.

MIMA is one of just a handful of institutions actively collecting and commissioning contemporary art in the North East of England. It holds Tees Valley’s modern and contemporary art and craft collection of around 2,500 works by British and international artists date from the mid-1800s to today. Inherited from the Middlesbrough Art Gallery, the Cleveland Gallery and the Cleveland Craft Centre, the collection has been developed significantly since MIMA opened in 2007.

Note: The display is supported by a nationwide programme of talks, events and exhibitions to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the Royal Academy of Arts. The Royal Academy is the world’s foremost artist and architect-led institution. Since its foundation in 1768, the membership of Royal Academicians has included over 650 of Britain’s most eminent artists and architects. With support from Art Fund, this far- reaching programme will celebrate Royal Academicians, past and present, foregrounding the impact they have had throughout the UK.

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Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art
April 12, 2019

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