At Home – Collection Musings / Black History Month

Mother Tongue with mentor Professor Lubaina Himid at Glasgow Museums Resource Centre with collection works by Tam Joseph and Donald Locke (2019) Photograph by Matthew Arthur Williams

It is Black History Month and for this musings post we are looking at some recent collecting activity in Glasgow Museums for exhibitions at GoMA that recognise the significant contributions of Black artists in Scotland and relate to wider collection conversations in Glasgow Museums surrounding the legacies of slavery in the British Empire and representation of Black lives in the collection.

The context of GoMA is of particular relevance as it has at the core of the building’s history – the house of a Tobacco Lord, William Cunninghame of Lainshaw. Following his tenure, it was sold to the Royal Bank of Scotland (whose founding has links with the Darien Scheme), then developed to become the Royal Exchange of Glasgow. The connections to the British Empire and colonisation are glaringly evident in the history of the building and reflected in recent programming, acquisitions and exhibitions have reflected an interest in this history and different perspectives that are currently represented in the city collection and archives. The acquisitions and subsequent exhibition planned for our 25th anniversary year (2021) will be an important statement about the potency and relevance of the modern and contemporary art collection for which GoMA is responsible within Glasgow Museums’ collection. Migration has been hugely significant to the city of Glasgow, which continues to be the case today. As a museums service, we are committed to reflecting the society we live in and contemporary concerns, including revisiting how empire and the transatlantic slave trade have contributed to the wealth of the city and concurrently how the city’s complicity in the trade of enslaved Africans informs a legacy of racism and inequality today.

Through a number of exhibitions in GoMA – including Unsettled Objects, Polygraphs, Domestic Bliss and Fiona Tan: Disorient – works have referenced experiences of migration, empire and the transatlantic slave trade. These exhibitions have been integrated with learning programmes for schools, families, young people and artists to respond to the work and engage audiences through workshops, talks, tours, commissioned writing, performances, screenings and events. The most recent of these – Domestic Bliss – has resulted in the acquisition of Empire of Love (2020) which recently came in to the collection with the support of a grant from National Fund for Acquisitions.

Empire of Love (2020) Camara Taylor

Empire of Love (2020) is a series of Zippo® lighters which the Glasgow based, contemporary artist Camara Taylor has had engraved with text in key Scottish writing against the abolition of slavery, in particular James Boswell’s 1791 poem ‘No Abolition of Slavery, or the Universal Empire of Love’.

The engraved texts include the following excepts:

licentious joy!
your false philanthropy calls
Let’s justify the Planters’ ways
Love’s strong empire must remain
anti-colonial ire / ensnaring and deceitful veil
No Abolition of Slavery

Empire of Love (2020) quietly inserts itself into the corner cabinet in Domestic Bliss and engages with the social history objects on display there. It inserts a literal incendiary device in to disrupt the white privileged merchant narratives on elite dining clubs, aspirational lifestyles and Glasgow’s proclaimed reputation as the second city of the British Empire. Empire of Love reminds us that we easily erase histories that are uncomfortable and closer to home which continue to inform inequalities today. This sculpture was installed for the reopening of GoMA this month alongside other works in the exhibition by Rabiya Choudhry and Walter Price, both of which look at experiences of race, othering and mental health.

John Akomfrah with Mimesis: African Soldier (2018)

Continuing to think about erasure of histories in favour of a Eurocentric white perspective is the 2019 Art Fund award, making the joint acquisition with Bristol Museum and Art Gallery of John Akomfrah’s Mimesis: African Soldier (2018) . Originally commissioned by 14-18 NOW as part of the art programme commemorating World War I, Mimesis: African Soldier is a powerful moving image work over three screens with archival footage of soldiers conscripted from across the Empire is interwoven with tableaux vivants – where often static figures in costume stare out at us, or away from us and scenes where streams are littered with personal effects and the horrors of war. Akomfrah has spoken about reclaiming histories through the archives that through the multiple screens in his work don’t allow us to rest on one meaning or narrative. Instead they expose erased conversations from history that continue to cast a shadow on contemporary life. The acquisition of this work is prism through which we can re-centre stories in Glasgow Museums’ collection, specifically around WWI, but also current conversations on antiracist legacies and care.

These works relate to a core body of collecting activity that has emerged through an affiliation with the curatorial duo Mother Tongue – an independent curatorial project formed in 2009 by Tiffany Boyle and Jessica Carden. In 2015, they were awarded a Paul Mellon Centre research support grant to undertake archival and collection research, which subsequently informed their ‘AfroScots’ proposal in affiliation with Glasgow Museums to the Art Fund New Collecting Award. AfroScots is a term describing people of African and Caribbean descent in Scotland which has gained currency in the last decade; a grassroots identification rather than government-assigned categorisation.

A practice-led art history enquiry, the ‘AfroScots’ project seeks to create new pluralities for the existing narratives of Scottish art, particularly speaking to issues of race and visibility. For complex reasons, many of the artists included within the ‘AfroScots’ narrative did not stay in Scotland permanently. This is reflected in the lack of recognition many of the artists included within the AfroScots timeline have locally, whilst their time in Scotland is equally often omitted from Black-British art histories. Additionally, the number of works by Black artists held in Scottish visual arts collections is shockingly low, with Glasgow Museums’ Fine Art collection – before this project began – only including a handful of works. This perpetuates absences in collection-based exhibition programming. The ‘AfroScots’ New Collecting Award addresses this absence, speaks to issues of representation and decolonisation, and urges a re-imagining of Scottish art histories.

The conversation began with Mother Tongue quite loosely in 2015 followed by collection research visits to the Glasgow Museums Resource Centre in 2016/17, looking at particular works, searching through MIMSY – Glasgow Museums’ collection database, discussing labelling, etc.  It was a free-flowing conversation for some time until early 2018 when Mother Tongue approached GoMA about submitting an application to Art Fund’s New Collecting Award. In the application, Mother Tongue described how there has been precedence for Glasgow Museums working in affiliation with external curators, in both areas of programming and acquisitions. Similarly, collaborations and partnership have been intrinsic to Mother Tongue’s way of working from their formation in 2009 and they are also fortunate to have Professor Lubaina Himid CBE as their mentor for this project. As independent curators, Mother Tongue operate in a roving manner, forming relationships and dialogues to realise projects. Whilst there is always an aspect of independent curatorial research within these projects, there is equally significant collaboration, shared production, and positive input into the infrastructure of partners. Between receiving the Paul Mellon Centre research support grant at the end of 2015 to the present, they have autonomously been undertaking the ‘AfroScots’ research, searching, collating, and gathering material – aiming to publicly open up new stories and information as it becomes available, on the understanding that the full impact of this research is predicated on it being shared as widely as possible, for example the text Caribbean Connections in Scotland published in MAP magazine. This is where the affiliation with GoMA and Glasgow Museums comes in to play, and the award made to us by the Art Fund marks the first instance of them supporting such an affiliation between independent curators and a gallery or museum.

Mother Tongue with mentor Professor Lubaina Himid at Glasgow Museums Resource Centre with collection works by Tam Joseph and Donald Locke (2019)
Photograph by Matthew Arthur Williams

We have now made purchased the work of three artists through this award: Donald Locke, Aubrey Williams and Alberta Whittle. With the work of three further artists planned in the next few months. The first two acquisitions were both artists from Guyana who knew each other’s work and exhibited together at times, with Locke writing on Williams’ work in particular on the series that the work now in Glasgow Museums’ collection Rockface is from. However their route into Scotland was different. Locke studied Fine Art, specialising in Ceramics at Edinburgh College of Art and the University of Edinburgh in the 1950’s. His son Hew Locke was born there and went to school in his early years before the family returned to Guyana. The works that we acquired are two ceramics from this period that were recently unearthed in Edinburgh and we are delighted that gave us the opportunity to acquire works from his time in Scotland. The artist’s Estate also gifted us a later work – Songs for the Mighty Sparrow: Ballad of Monkey Mountain a mixed media work on canvas which ensures that we have a small capsule collection of his work in the collection.

Rockface 1964 and Maridowa Series IV 1964 are two early-career paintings from the artist Aubrey Williams (1926-1990). They were painted during the period between his arrival in the UK in 1952 – during the height of the Guyanese independence movement – and Guyana gaining independence in 1966, the same year in which Williams became a founding member of the Caribbean Artists’ Movement CAM. Before he left Guyana in 1952 he had worked as an Agricultural Field Officer among cane field workers on the Guyanese coast and then to a remote northwestern rainforest settlement in the country. This understanding of the fauna and landscape of Guyana was an important influence on his painting, but also his interest in ecology, the cosmos and human impact on the world.

Following Williams’ first exhibition in London in 1954, he became an increasingly significant figure in the post-war British avant-garde art scene, particularly through his association with Denis Bowen’s New Vision Centre Gallery. In 1965, Glasgow was one of the host cities for the Commonwealth Arts Festival, which mounted the exhibition 4 Painters, 1 Sculptor at Gilmorehill Hall, on the University of Glasgow campus. This exhibition was shown at the time time as projects in the fellow host cities of London, Liverpool and Cardiff. This exhibition included four paintings from Williams and his work was shown alongside that of Arthur Boyd (Australia), Avinash Chandra (India), Ben Osawe (Nigeria) and Jean-Paul Riopelle (Canada). ‘Rockface’ (1964) was one of the works shown in this show and demonstrates the influence of abstract expressionism – his early experiments in the use of colour, texture and composition – much more typical of his early 1970s work.

The latest artist we have collected for the AfroScots project is Alberta Whittle through the acquisition of her 2019 work – between a whisper and a cry (2019). Alberta Whittle born in Bridgetown, Barbados, is a graduate from The Glasgow School of Art MFA programme. Her interdisciplinary practice aims to develop a visual, oral and textual language that questions accepted Western constructs of history and society. This is undertaken with an acute understanding of how formal historical records produced by privileged white men have always sought to replace more ancient and informal ways of comprehending the past. The artist’s wider research questions the authority of postcolonial power, its implications and its legacy; the current climate crisis and legacies of slavery. Whittle’s work often considers conditions in the afterlife of slavery where the racialised black body can become suspended in a state of stress that directly impacts upon physical, mental and emotional health. Within her work, the artist connects these ideas of black oppression with meditations on survival; championing the idea of healing as self-liberation.

between a whisper and a cry explores the intersection between climate change, neoliberal capitalism, the echoes of colonialism and labour, through a film where the soundtrack and the visuals ‘create this feeling that we were within a wave, that we were going through these moments of being submerged and considering our bodies as falling beneath the threshold of the wave, and how you can come up for air when the wave is dragging you under.’ Alberta Whittle (2019).

between a whisper and a cry was made following the artist’s receipt of the 2018/19 Margaret Tait Award, the most significant award for artists’ moving image in Scotland. The feature-length film marks a significant shift in the ambition and scope of Whittle’s practice and was produced in collaboration with a number of PoC Glasgow-based creative practitioners including: Divine Tasinda, Matthew Arthur Williams, Sabrina Henry, Basharat Khan, Thulani Rachia, Camara Taylor and Cassie Ezejie. The film itself provides Glasgow with a rich resource to further consider its entangled histories with Triangular Trade and its continuing legacies.

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