Katy Barron discusses Looking In: Photographic Portraits by Chan-Hyo Bae and Maud Sulter
Katy Barron, curator of Looking In: Photographic Portraits discusses the compelling artists on show and the significance of their work
Beauty and the Beast by Chan-Hyo Bae
Why has Ben Uri chosen this exhibition?
Ben Uri changed its tag line to Art-Identity-Migration a couple of years ago. We’ve always thought we’d like to do a series of exhibitions that address those issues amongst contemporary artists. We wanted to try and pick up where the permanent collection has left off, dealing with contemporary migrants and artists who have come to London or moved country for whatever reason.
As Curator of Contemporary Art at Ben Uri, this was the first opportunity to put on one of these exhibitions and these are two bodies of work I thought we could start with. We are presenting work by two artists, two photographers, both of whom use costume to change the identity of the sitter. They force the viewer to re-consider the sitters role in the picture, including their own assumptions about the sitter in terms of race, gender, identity and stereotypes. I thought that raising these issues might be a good way to start an ongoing conversation at the museum. (Looking In: Photographic Portraits by Maud Sulter and Chan-Hyo Bae)
Is this a travelling exhibition?
No, we haven’t even tried to travel it as we are borrowing a collection of work from a museum, so we don’t have the option to travel it.
So this one you’ve put together yourself? You’ve combined the two artists?
Where is the art from?
The first artist is Maud Sulter who was Scottish-Ghanaian. She was a writer, poetess, historian, artist, thinker – much more than just a photographer. She died, sadly, in 2008 at the age of 47 so I’m considering her as a contemporary artist. The work that we’re borrowing is coming from the Victoria and Albert Museum collection. We have seven big photographs out of a series of nine, the other two are travelling so we couldn’t have them.
The work by the other photographer, a Korean called Chan-Hyo Bae is coming from his gallery in London, his own studio and a private collector.
Why combine these two artists?
Because they fit together quite neatly, they address quite different issues but they use similar means to do so. They both use costume to challenge the audience’s ideas about perception. In one case our perception of women, of black women, of their place within art history and of their place within cultural history. In Bae’s work its our ideas about Asian men and their place within Western history and culture. So to me the two bodies of photographs work well in parallel. Visually their work is very different, but I hope that together the work will say even more.
Can you tell me just a little bit about each of the artists and their own technique?
These are called ‘staged photographs’. So with Chan-Hyo Bae, the photographs are taken outside in a generic pastoral setting. He hired the costumes from the National Theatre and he had professional wig artists and makeup artists to help him. He then got someone to press the button on the camera as the photographs are of him outside using, I’m sure, a lot of studio lighting.
Maud Sulter’s photographs were made in a studio – you can tell as the backdrop changes between each image and they appear very staged. The series was commissioned in 1989 and they were taken in a photo studio in Manchester that year.
Erato (Dionne Sparks) Zabat by Maud Sulter
I was particularly interested in Chan-Hyo Bae, I guess he discusses themes of sexuality, his own sexuality…
Looking at the images one might assume, for instance, that he was homosexual or transgender or a transvestite. I think that one of the reasons why the work is so compelling is because he’s not gay, he’s a family man as it so happens. What he’s addressing is Western perceptions and stereotypes of Asian men. When he arrived in this country to go to art school he soon realised that European women found him to be completely sexually unattractive and invisible. I think he’s trying to climb into their skin or at least their clothes to try and understand. He presented himself in that context in the series Living in Costume and then through having done that, he then presented himself as the central figure in European fairy tales He did this to become even further part of something that excludes him. To try to understand these stories that are ingrained in our culture and part of our psyche. I think he thought that if he assumed these sorts of central roles he could ask the viewer to question who he is and our assumption as to who should be presented as the central character in those fables. We all have a clear idea of what Cinderella should look like for instance.
I thought it was interesting seeing how he saw himself living in a western culture and how he found it really hard to find women. It’s just not really discussed is it?
No it’s not discussed but once you start looking around at advertising in particular it is noticeable that there are very few Asian men, whilst you do see Asian women; there seems to be some sort of prejudice or bias. Asian men are perhaps seen as effete or effeminate and not male in the stereotypical way. This leads to the stereotypical idea of the Asian man as a martial arts expert. Again, those roles rarely involve sexual encounters with Western women.
Chan-Hyo came to London to study at the Slade School of Art and the first body of work that he made was all about his loneliness and his alienation upon arrival here. He made a series of photographs of his desk and all the desks of his fellow students who had migrated and the way that they dealt with their isolation. All his work then and since is connected to his migration to this country.
There are similar themes running through Maud Sulter’s work. Her father was Ghanaian and her mother was Scottish. She was born in Scotland but was clearly very connected to another culture. In her work there is a strong sense of being torn between cultures and not really belonging in either. She tries to fuse them together and resolve her identity as well as addressing the dispossession of black women throughout Western art and culture.
Existing in Costume 1 by Chan-Hyo Bae
What is Sulter trying to say by shooting nine creative black women as the Greek muses?
She’s trying to force the viewer to reconsider black women as a creative force and not as a marginal by putting them in the context of of the muses who are part of the backbone of European culture and art history. I think she’s trying to place them there to sort of re-present them to us and ask us to consider them within that context. But looking at the way that they’re dressed and the things that they’re holding, you can see a lot of them are African or Egyptian. They actually predate Greek culture and I think she’s also making that point – that culture doesn’t just begin and end with the ancient Greeks and Romans but that they were beholden to the Egyptians before them.
She also writes very wonderful poems about each of these images which we’re going to show in this exhibition. They’re not directly related but they connect with the images. They’re very beautiful.
Melpomene (Abiola Agana) Zabat by Maud Sulter
Tell me about how this exhibition relates to you as a curator and your interests.
It relates to me as a curator because in recent years I have been working principally in photography. My background is in Old Master Paintings which I curated for more than a decade. Then I decided for various reasons to shift my interest to photography. I’ve known Chan-Hyo Bae personally for quite some years. I first saw his work in a very obscure photo festival in China and loved it and thought I’d try to get in touch with this artist assuming he’d be somewhere very far away and he was living in NW5! So it was meant to be. I’ve been supporting him and mentoring him for some years. Maud Sulter’s work I’ve seen in the V&A more than once and have loved it. She’s a photographers’ photographer in a way and curators love her work as it is so conceptually rich and many-layered.So for me it was inevitable that my first show at Ben Uri was going to be photography because it’s actually my field of interest. Had I had to find five painters, I would have needed a longer lead-in time. It is something I’m thinking about for the next exhibition. I believe Ben Uri should address ‘art, identity, migration’, within a broader context, bringing in the ideas of migration and identity to a population in London for whom these ideas are relevant. They’re not so relevant to the Jewish population any more as most of the Jewish people in London were born here and many of their parents were born here also. However huge numbers of migrant communities have come to London over the last fifty years and some of them make art that addresses issues of identity and migration.
That seems like a logical step forward, so you’d like to showcase work from the new migrants?
Exactly, London is a melting pot and that’s one of the joys of living here. I think we need to keep addressing these issues and finding the connections and the context within our collection so that it is relevant and presented to a new audience.
Who would you like to come and see the exhibition? Who is it aimed at?
I would like two things; I would like the main Ben Uri constituency to come and see art that they would never normally look at within the context of Ben Uri. I would also like a new audience to come who wouldn’t normally come to our gallery but people who follow contemporary art. I would also like those who are interested in photography and follow those particular artists and are interested in those ideas. I think this is a chance for us to broaden our audience.
Katy Barron was interviewed by Kim Arrowsmith.