This is the first in a series of Ben Uri exhibitions exploring themes of identity and migration in detail and questioning how contemporary visual artists who consider themselves outsiders express personal feelings of isolation and crises of identity through their work. The exhibition pairs photographic work by two artists whose interests are very different but who both choose costume and theatre to represent the sitter and to challenge the viewer's perceptions and prejudices about race, gender and history.
The parallels between Sulter's portraits of black women, which seek to reposition them within British society and Western art history, and Chan-Hyo Bae's self-portraits in costume in which he also attempts to become a part of our national history, are both visually and socially challenging.
Maud Sulter (1960-2008) was born in Glasgow of Scots and had Ghanaian parentage. She was a poet, historian, teacher and artist - working with installation, photography and video. She participated in the notable exhibition The Thin Black Line at the ICA in 1985. Sulter produced Zabat in 1989 as a response to the celebration of the 150th anniversary of photography which she saw as an overwhelmingly white occasion. She was the artist-in-residence at Rochdale Art Gallery, where Zabat was first shown. It is a remarkable cycle of studio portraits of creative black women, each representing one of the nine muses of classical antiquity. The word Zabat describes an ancient ritual dance performed by women on occasions of power. An artist's book, Zabat: Poetics of a Family Tree (1989) expands on the iconography of the series. A portrait of the novelist Alice Walker represents Thalia, muse of comedy. A remark by Walker, quoted as an epigraph to the text on Clio, muse of history, illuminates the whole series with sharp humour: 'As a black person and a woman I don't read history for facts, I read it for clues.'
The images work on many complex levels: as representations of the Muses, as allegorical portraits of black women, as a celebration of black women's creativity and as a remaking of photographic traditions. The presence of black women contradicts the traditional Western depiction of the Muses, that of passive white women, their artistic and scientific skills, inspirational abilities and spiritual powers removed, while they become objects of sensual enjoyment. These Muses are 'characters', active women, creators of culture: writers, artists, photographers, singers.
Sulter's work shares some concerns with that of the feminist artist Judy Chicago, who was subject of a major exhibition at Ben Uri in 2012, particularly her installation The Dinner Party. Permanently on display at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the piece consists of a huge table with 39 place settings for famous mythical and historic women.
In contrast Chan-Hyo Bae (b.1975-) is a young Korean photographer whose series Existing in Costume
questions his place within British society. Each of his self-portraits depicts Bae in a different historic British costume and the resulting images challenge the viewer's notions of masculinity and British identity. Bae writes that as an Asian man he is invisible to British women and that he has no means of understanding the history and culture in which he finds himself living. He is shown holding traditional Korean objects, which exaggerate the differences between the sitter and his costume even further.
The exhibition also includes two photographic works from Bae's Fairy Tales in which he presents himself costumed as the main protagonist within traditional Western Fairy tales - he is Cinderella and The Beast (of Beauty and The Beast). These large staged photographs, made in British stately homes, challenge our assumptions about the classic tales and question the racial and sexual stereotypes that the stories present.
The exhibition is a natural and strategic extension of the museum's on-going narrative on identity and migration and addresses the issues faced by more contemporary artists in Britain outside the Jewish émigré's from both the turn and middle of the 20th Century.
Ben Uri closed in 1995 and was re-launched and completely repositioned in January 2001 as The Art Museum for Everyone - The London Jewish Museum of Art - Bridging Communities through Art since 1915. The repositioning of the museum took it out of the Jewish community and into the mainstream, and the rebranding was an interim step towards the current identity Ben Uri: Art, Identity and Migration. This accurately reflects Ben Uri's driving focus.
Two thirds of the 380 artists in the collection are émigré's and this universal experience, particularly within many of the communities living in London, is core and central to the museum's ethos. These exhibitions explore themes of identity and migration in detail, and question how visual artists, who often consider themselves outsiders, express their feelings of isolation and crises of identity through their work.
Read the interview with curator Katy Barron as she prepared for the exhibition. The works will, "force the viewer to re-consider ... their own assumptions about the sitter in terms of race, gender, identity and stereotypes."
The exhibition is accompanied by a small full-colour catalogue, which will reproduce a number of the works by each artist and include an essay by Katy Barron, exhibition curator. The Looking In catalogue (£5) is available here.
In the media
Ben Uri's 'Looking In' exhibition is featured in Artlyst, 13 June 2013 where it is described as 'a natural and strategic extension of the museum's on-going narrative on identity and migration. It addresses the issues faced by contemporary artists in Britain looking beyond those of Jewish émigré's from the first half of the 20th Century.'
The exhibition is featured in ArtDaily.org, 8 July 2013.
The exhibition is featured in British Portraits, 8th July 2013.
The London Evening Standard reviewed the exhibition, 11 July 2013, calling it a 'quietly beautiful exhibition by two very different artists [that] is an important contribution to the Ben Uri Gallery’s commitment to themes of identity and migration.'
The Sunday Telegraph writes in it's July 20th 2013 issue 'Now on show in London, Existing in Costume – a photographic series in which he casts himself as famous figures from Western history and fiction – illustrates and exaggerates his sense of the impossibility of fitting in.'
Photomonitor recently reviewed Ben Uri's current exhibition, 22 June 2013, “Looking In: Photographic Portraits by Maud Sulter and Chan-Hyo Bae”. The author Felicity Cole says that “it is well worth a trip to this small north London gallery to view this thought-provoking show – and look out for the rest of the series, which promises original, intelligent and compelling viewing”.