Representation in Art Galleries: Honouring or Othering?

Jane Frere, 'Return of the Soul' (The Nakbah Project), Edinburgh Art Festival 2008.

Jane Frere, 'Return of the Soul' (The Nakbah Project), Edinburgh Art Festival 2008.

At the start of this year, I was involved in a project that aimed to bring works by refugee artists over to the UK for an exhibition. Whilst the intentions behind this project were wholeheartedly good, the more I learnt about it, the more problematic I found it. I tried to voice my worries, but eventually distanced myself from the project; I was worried that at some point it would stop being about the art, and instead become a sort of performing dolphin show, designed to provide a cathartic experience for the western curators and viewers.

It was a tricky line to manoeuvre, and as far as I know, the exhibition has not yet got off the ground.

My concerns during those few months got me thinking about representation as a whole. Specifically, about what our predominantly white[1] European galleries and major institutions can do to represent, and welcome, marginalised groups whilst also striking a balance between authentic and tokenistic representation. There is such a fine line between giving someone a platform to simply display their differences, and then giving someone a platform upon which to express oneself, and demonstrate any issues of their identity without the fear of being silenced. (I’m looking at you, L’Oreal)

I realise the irony of writing this as a white cis female, and by no means do I intend to use my privilege to legitimise other peoples’ experience. But as someone who works in an arts institution, I want to highlight my personal thoughts on this topic. Changes are definitely happening, but major institutions can do far more to make art open to all: both through representation and accessibility.

In my mind, if we are to start a new normal whereby marginalised groups are equally represented in the arts, it is essential that power is handed over and shared, in order to allow these groups to present themselves through their own lens and ensure an accurate portrayal of experience and identity. If not, there is a risk of Othering such groups even further.

To relate this to my original story: whilst I am deeply affected by the refugee crisis, as a British woman living in London, I am wholly unable to understand, let alone portray, the horrors and experiences that people fleeing their homes have lived through. To try to do so would feel horribly contrived and frankly, offensive. The project required a curator from the refugee community, not me.

I see a link to the ongoing discussion of safe spaces here; by providing a platform for minority groups, institutions would provide a space in which people are not only free to create, but also to own and represent their own lived experience. There is huge potential here. I’m thinking of Burnt Roti’s exhibition, The Beauty of Being British Asian, which ran for a week in the Old Truman Brewery in summer. It was low budget and there were no famous artists – and yet, on opening night, people queued down the street to get in. The founder, Sharan Dhaliwal, who set up Burnt Roti after realising there were very few platforms to discuss South Indian culture, has since collaborated with Tate Britain. Hopefully this collaboration will be a catalyst for major art institutions to wake up and see what’s happening in society, and start absorbing those shifts accordingly.

On a similar note, I recently went to ‘Inside’ at Southbank Centre; an exhibition of British prisoners’ artworks curated by Antony Gormley. I went in with an open mind, unsure of what Gormley’s star status would bring to the exhibition, and was impressed. There was no obvious sense of Gormley’s input; it is curated simply enough. The visitor hosts, who gave us the friendliest welcome I’ve ever had in a gallery, have all spent time in prison and were happy to share their experiences. The works were extremely raw: documenting depression, suicide, the banality of daily life and rare moments of humour.

So, the thirst for these types of exhibitions that go beyond solidarity is clearly there, but the difficult bit is to find the right audience and, I imagine, the right curators, given, for example, the fact that so few ethnic minorities go into the arts according to the Arts Council study. It’s all very well to put on a panel discussion hosted by homeless artists, for example, but how would you ensure that other homeless and ex-homeless people living in the area knew they were welcome to attend? If you have never seen people like you represented in art galleries, why would you ever go and visit them? What relevance is there?

An institution that I think has managed this recently is Tate Modern. I noticed that at its powerful recent show, Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, my fellow visitors made up the most diverse group of people I’ve ever seen in an art gallery (and I work in one).  The curators of the show comprised one white man, one South Asian man and one black woman. It makes so much sense. If you suddenly see people like you represented in a blockbuster show, for the first time ever, it is suddenly so much more relevant, appealing and engaging. It might not be the idea of a ‘gallery’ that’s putting certain groups off; it’s the art within them.

It is possible then, to open up the arts to all – both through representation and through audience. However, it will be difficult to open up outside of the usual echo chambers. Think of the theatre: many people don’t realise that you can often get tickets for £5, which makes these activities seem exclusive. The same thing goes for art. Arts institutions and galleries are so often regarded as being inaccessible, so reaching a different audience from the usual will require a huge shift in understanding - if not a serious marketing strategy. The first step could be as simple as cutting ticket costs.

We’ve come a long way from condemning all non-European art as ‘primitive’ (thankfully) but there’s a lot more work to do, and I would welcome any ideas. If art really is for everyone, why are tickets to exhibitions still so expensive? Why are exhibitions still so dominated by white males? And why did my Art History degree only look at non-Western art in relation to European Colonialism? Why do so many arts students end up having to do unpaid internships? Can you even recall the last retrospective you saw in a major gallery of an artist from a minority group?

There are still so many questions, and I’m not sure I know how to answer them. In any case, times are changing. It’s time that institutions changed too.

- Isabelle Hanson


[1]  Equality and diversity within the arts and cultural sector in England, Evidence and literature review final report. Arts Council England, 2013. P36