Curatorial Activism: in the Gallery and the Streets

"It is not enough to deconstruct and replace errors of the past - we must now use curatorial activism to organise public spaces of the future."

Words: Lucy Pratt

Gentileschi, Artemisia (1620). “Judith Beheading Holofernes" [Oil on Canvas]. National Gallery, London.
Gentileschi, Artemisia (1620). “Judith Beheading Holofernes" [Oil on Canvas]. National Gallery, London.

Lucy is an Art History graduate based in the UK. She works as a freelancer in arts marketing and art research. As a maker, she is primarily concerned with drawing and printmaking.

Artemisia - an overdue retrospective display of the artworks of Renaissance artist Artemisia Gentileschi - is the first ever solo exhibition focussing on a historic female artist in the National Gallery’s history. Art historian Maura Reilly would deem this an act of ‘curatorial activism’; that is, an exhibition curated without excluding constituencies of artists traditionally excluded from the master narratives of art. Bringing women, artists of colour, non-Euro-Americans, disabled and LGBTQ+ artists into the mix, as either subject or object, should be an essential consideration for all major visual arts institutions, and Reilly has done well to articulate this in her writing. I believe her work is so crucial, in fact, that it is not only upon the walls of our galleries that curatorial activism should be actioned. Our city centres, laced with historic symbols - statues, monuments and memorials need ethical curation. What has begun with the formidable Artemisia must permeate further. Our towns and cities should represent the diversity of the society that exists within it; it is only with curatorial activism that this can be achieved.

Existing in a certain place for long enough promotes a feeling of familiarity. So much so, that the eyes and mind become blind to the historical and cultural significance of the spaces we call home. Quite easily, one can go to school or work in a building named after a prolific leader or social figure, without thinking twice about the ethics that surround their achievements. Next, we may sit for a lunch break beneath the statue of a dignitary of days gone by with no consideration for the origins of their wealth. We may pause en route home to take in the vast view of the cityscape, with little thought to the hands that may have built it. We become at ease with spaces we inhabit, we accept them, and we forget to truly see them.

The collective blindness towards the narratives stitched into the urban landscape is not chronic, however. Minds and eyes are opening. Public concern at the decoration of the built environment has prompted physical action. Bristol’s statue of Edward Colston (a man who, in imperial Britain, made his wealth through the exploitation of black slaves), was pulled from it’s plinth by the hands of Black Lives Matters protestors. Recalling the landmark 2018 student protest against the Cecil Rhodes statue that once stood in the grounds of the University of Cape Town, unrest surrounding the looming legacy of these oppressive figures is ongoing. In Bristol, Colston’s empty plinth, no longer belonging to his bronze cast figure, has been claimed by the people of the city, with guerrilla artworks appearing sporadically in the months following Colston’s demise. From a Darth Vader statuette (a commemorative tribute to Star Wars actor David Prowse, after his death in November 2020) to Marc Quinn’s statue of BLM protestor Jen Reid; an informal, publicly-governed Fourth Plinth seems to have been cultivated. In a city where the local government left Colston’s oppressive figure looming for so long, it feels apt for this space to now be left open for topical installations planted by local people. Indeed, it represents the people’s desire to have input into how their built environment is decorated, and a need for a curatorial activism that considers the community as part of its process.

Jen Reid statue in Black Live's Matter movement, Bristol 2020
Jen Reid statue in the place of Edward Coulston in Bristol, 2020

However, care must be taken not to consider this an issue entirely rooted in the past. This is absolutely a predicament of the future - how we curate our landscapes, from street names to statues, writes a society’s narrative.

The built environment is a medium for making sense of the world and our place within it, and for expressing and exploring personal values like belonging, livelihood, memory, and future prospects. It is not enough to deconstruct and replace errors of the past - we must now use curatorial activism to organise public spaces of the future. Yinka Shonibare’s statue of David Oluwale, planned in collaboration with Leeds City Council, cements a legacy for the Nigerian, who drowned in the 1960s after harassment by Leeds police. It is these kinds of actions that promote inclusion and celebrate multiculturality. Following Shonibare’s proposal, can we now see commitments to public representations of women, disabled, LGBTQ+ and all those who exist at intersections of oppression? However, local governments must drive these changes beyond overt reparative gestures such as Shonibare’s statue. Even the words and namesakes embossed into the sheet aluminium that signpost our streets, buildings and green spaces must be given consideration - we are working tokenistically if not.

Artemisia Gentileschi painted the majority of her artworks during the 17th century. Despite her striking portfolio and undoubtable skill, four centuries passed before she was given proper focus in mainstream visual arts. This prolonged erasure is an injustice that should not be repeated. With this in mind, as we step out of the art gallery and into the street, we must carry the method of ethical curation with us, and invest into building diversity in all public spaces.

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