I undertook a short residency as an artist at Derby Museums within their World Cultures Gallery, platformed by Divine Locale a curatorial group supporting emerging artists and graduates formed by Derby University graduates Jade Foster and Jennifer Birch and steered by current Derby University Fine Art students.
I was conscious in undertaking the work that I have a few positions to be transparent about; I am a white artist for whom working in a world cultures gallery should be done with an undertaking of an examination of white privilege. I am also someone who is actively engaged in community work and education within museums and galleries, having worked as a programmer, artist and educator in many galleries and museums in the East Midlands. I am passionate about the notion of co-production, particularly in relation to building collections and exhibitions. I am particularly passionate about Derby Museums inclusion of human centred design in the way they curate their collections – utilising process led approaches that create spaces with a lack of fixity in meaning – so that new visitors and communities can add their stories and interpretation.
With this in mind and with an idea that the emerging interpretation in the world cultures gallery was evolving and could be informed by mine and the other artists explorations – I decided I wanted to make my work ‘small’ and by this I mean, have limited traces in the gallery itself. The stories in the gallery space speak of colonialism, theft, occupation – the crimes of white people. I felt that my white voice was unnecessary in that narrative. I am more interested in the stories of objects of the world being told by diverse communities.
I have been working with groups of young people with autism and learning difficulties to create non-verbal interpretation of exhibition content for some years now. This has often involved creating movement (dancing, touching, sniffing, tasting) in the gallery space in response to artworks and artefacts and then translating those physical responses back in the studio/ atelier space through making and experimentation and diverse artistic practice that interplays with the exhibition themes – from film and animation to assemblage. I have worked with young people to create alternative conversations with artworks that form interpretation that doesn’t privilege verbal and visual responses – I have been active in this work as a way of highlighting difference and to destabilize the prioritization of neurotypical interpretation over autistic sensorial interpretation and response, suggesting alternative conversations that can be had. I have been inspired by somatics and dance as a vehicle for unorthodox embodied interpretation.
I have been working on the idea of choreographic objects as an individual practitioner and as a socially engaged artist. This involves using the provocation of dance artist, choreographer and theorist Deborah Hay – of ‘Let my body be my leader’ as an impetus for narrating an interaction with an object. Quite simply through visual empathy and an understanding of the form, weight, shape and line of an object I allow my body to be inspired and to move. My body catalogues the feeling of an imagined touch of the object – it recreates the muscular sensation of touching, it translates it and stores the memory of the object. My body becomes an archive or a repository for the encounter. In performance I relate the aesthetic understanding I have of an object. In other project works I then create notation of my encounter through drawing and animation which creates a score for a movement motif. I was clear that this time it was important for me to not make physical works that left a trace in the gallery – and instead my body would be the sole ‘interpreter’.
A dialogue across objects
A suggested connection
A deviation from the plane
An imagined moment
A pushing from static to fluid
Touch and repel
Conversations across space
Through imagined connections
In the World Cultures Gallery I worked with three objects. I always think that good curation involves objects having dialogue across a space. I was interested in the shape and form of three sets of objects – a ceremonial axe handle from Trobriand Islands, Pacific Ocean, a pair of unprovenanced figures and the skull of an elephant, Gabon, Africa. These objects were in different displays but created a sight line and section across the gallery. I created a sequence of movements that documented the way I viewed the objects, the way they made me feel physically. I created a motif of movements that documented this visual and physical engagement I had with the objects – from looking and walking around them. My dance didn’t interpret their histories or provenance or my understanding of their journey to the museum.
Was that ok? I’m really not sure – my desire was to move away from the mythic connections I may have to working with an elephant’s skull. An animal I know from stories and representation and not one I encounter in my wildlife. I was interested in what happened when I thought and I examined how my body responded to the lines and smoothness of this large object – rather than how my body exoticised and romanticised my idea of it. It feels like there is something democratic about having an embodied interaction with a work – but of course that isn’t wholly true as we all have different bodies.
I was interested in how the axe head deviated from the plane of the back of the vitrine, a curve I could recreate in my back side and legs. I was interested in the proxemic relation of my body and the skull, how I could walk around it and how it created spirals in my body. I was interested in how the two figures had bellies that if you moved them closer could be touching. I taped off a small square in the gallery and I performed each part of the motif, knitting together the embodied interactions into a short performance piece.
Many thanks to Divine Locale and Andrea Hadley–Johnson. Head of Co-production Display for the time and space for Research and Development
photo’s by Nisa Khan with thanks to Anne Ishikawa