On 8 June 2016, the BAM team visited Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery and the Herbert Gallery and Museum in Coventry, to reunite the artist Gavin Jantjes with his Korabra series, seven paintings created in 1986 during a residency at the West Indian Association in Coventry. The paintings had not been seen by the artist for nearly thirty years. The following day, BAM hosted a Scholars’ Day focused on close readings of the Korabra series.
Invited academics: Dr Dorothy Price, Dr Amna Malik, Allison Young and Dr Elizabeth Robles
Invited curators: Lisa Beauchamp (Birmingham Museums Trust), Carol Thompson (City of Wolverhampton Council), Martin Roberts (Herbert Museum and Art Gallery), Rosie Addenbrooke (Herbert Museum and Art Gallery)
SOME REFLECTIONS ON THE DAY
Martin Roberts & Rosie Addenbrooke (Herbert Museum and Art Gallery), 28.06.2016
We have very much enjoyed being part of the BAM project and appreciated the opportunity to be involved in the study session. The Herbert has historically had an active role in highlighting the work of Black artists through its exhibition programme and collections and the project has enabled us to re-connect with that history. We feel that this can continue to be an important strand in the Herbert’s future work, and we have referenced our involvement in the project in support of a funding application we are currently preparing for an artist’s residency and publication by Barbara Walker, linked to an exhibition of her work at the Herbert in February – May 2017.
The study event, and in particular the close reading, has certainly made us think about the Korabra paintings in a different way and suggested a number of areas of interpretation which we would like to explore in future displays of the works from our collection. It was a really positive experience to hear the different ideas put forward by contributors reflecting their particular areas of expertise. We felt this discussion was extremely fruitful – perhaps a little more time would have allowed for more of a dialogue and debate among participants, particularly after the input from Gavin. We were interested to see that the explorative ideas from the participants seemed to be thought provoking for Gavin himself. Overall the study session was a valuable exercise for us, and we’d be open to close readings of other works in our collection.
Carol Thompson (City of Wolverhampton Council), 28.06.2016
I was unable to attend the morning session at Birmingham Museum so I joined the event at the Herbert. The afternoon discussion around the four works from the Korabra series was lively and invigorating and I left the gallery buzzing with the sense new understanding. Two of the works were on loan from Wolverhampton Art Gallery but I had only ever seen them in the artwork store, and never together. To be able to see them in the context of other works in the series, and discuss them as a set, has given me a new appreciation of their collective narrative and the subtle nuances within each work.
I very much enjoyed meeting and sharing ideas with others in the group. As I come from a museum, rather than an art history, background it was particularly valuable to tap into the thoughts of such eloquent and knowledgeable art scholars.
I left the day with a much deeper appreciation of the Korabra series; its references to classical Western art traditions, and how it relates particularly to German expressionism, the work of Picasso and to abstract expressionism. I made notes about the cinematic qualities of the works, the sense of movement (up/down; in/out), the innovative use of materials, and Jantjes’ strange use of perspective to create a sense of disorientation.
It was fascinating to hear Gavin speak about his own intentions at the end of the session. The interpretations offered by the group were, in some cases, quite different from those of the artist.
Dr Dorothy Price (Reader in History of Art at the University of Bristol), 29.06.16
My general reflections begin with the overriding sense of what a privilege is was to be invited to participate in this session and enjoy time with the artworks in a dedicated, closed session such as this and with a group of different ‘stakeholders’ (for want of a better word); i.e. art historians, artists, film-makers, curators, and the artist himself. It is a very rare opportunity to be able to conduct close-readings with the works in front of you in dialogue with others who are similarly attending to the work. Congratulations to all involved in setting this up and enabling it to be so productive.
The event hasn’t so much influenced my thinking as expanded it; I start from pretty much the same position as that outlined by the BAM project overall – i.e. the need for art history to attend to the works of Black British artists in visual, iconographic, aesthetic and formal terms rather than as simply signifiers for identity politics and/or histories of slavery. However, what the event did do for me was to make me attend much more closely to the specificities of formal debts to modernism in Jantjes work that I otherwise may have done. However, another unexpected turn for me was not only how the close attention to the works enabled me to think about Jantjes debts to German modernism but also about Himid’s debts to Jantjes. It therefore opened up for me a new avenue of reading works by Black British artists in dialogue not just with modernism but with each other and it is this aspect that I will now want to explore further in my own scholarship and indeed in my paper for the October BAM conference.
The close reading approach chimes very much with my own practices as an academic art historian and it really brings the object into clear focus. On this day, it also enabled us to read the individual works in dialogue with each other, as part of a series which I think was important, especially since they are not normally housed or brought together in this way.
Allison Young (Ph.D. candidate in Art History at the Institute of Fine Arts, NYU), 04.07.16
It was a very rewarding experience for me to participate in the BAM Scholar’s Day in Birmingham and Coventry. As an emerging scholar, and as someone who is not normally based in the United Kingdom, the opportunity to convene with other curators and scholars also invested in research on black artists in Britain was in itself a valuable outcome. Our first close reading exercise was a good ice-breaker that helped to open our eyes and minds to different aspects of Jantjes’ work, and I especially enjoyed the prompt that we consider our own viewing positions. Most of my own research involves an earlier period in Gavin’s work, so I began the day feeling less prepared to “read” his later paintings; however, over the course of our group conversations, I found myself noticing, observing and analyzing aspects of the works on view that I hadn’t necessarily thought about in advance. It was actually a great opportunity to “read” the works spontaneously, without too much preparation or scripting.
I gather from recent conferences, publications and personal conversations that many scholars of black British art (and related areas) have been interested in turning towards formalist approaches, or more broadly, that we wish to counter interpretations that are overly reliant on political, cultural or biographical contexts, as these have typically dominated scholarship on black artists. This is certainly true for my own current research on Zarina Bhimji, and in some aspects of my work on Gavin. Our close reading activity was successfully generative of these kinds of new approaches, as it seemed grounded in our capacity to observe and react to the works in person, on a visual level. Because the Korabra paintings are not very well documented, we as participants did not enter with a predetermined “narrative” about the paintings in mind. The close reading exercise allowed us to see Gavin as an artist first, and to ask how the political messages in his art are communicated visually and expressively.