Leanne O'Connor, Hands of Sisterhood, installation view at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery

Artist Leanne O’Connor undertook a Whitworth Wallis Residency in 2018 at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery. She spent a month exploring the stained glass and metalwork collections of the museum’s industrial galleries, as well as items in the museum collection centre and local archives services. Her new exhibition, on display until 1 June 2020, uses The Story of Dante and Beatrice by Florence Camm, a 3-part stained glass panel held in the museum’s collection, as its jumping off point, within a series of newly made sculptures in steel and glass. Anneka French finds out more.

 

Leanne O’Connor, Florence?, installation view at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery. Image: David Rowan

 

Tell me a bit about your starting points?

I have made a fragment, a digital print on glass titled Florence? which was taken from the story of Dante and Beatrice, a 3-part stained glass panel made in 1912 by Florence Camm and the Camms of Smethwick. I linked up with a historian called Elaine Williams who theorised that this particular fragment was actually Florence herself. It was a weird exchange between looking at historical photographs of Florence’s life and looking back into the image. How it’s constructed is important because it doesn’t play to the Edwardian rhetoric of everyone looking off or out away from the central image. I thought that there could be something quite feminist about the work, especially if Florence did include herself looking straight out towards us in a pivotal work that was going to be internationally shown at the International Craft Exhibition in Turin. Florence had quite a sheltered life in terms of her output because she was just making for the family really. The figure of Beatrice was always shown as docile and shrouded by other women which goes against the original text. Florence and her contemporaries reframed this story in a way that I haven’t seen before. A defiance is well-captured.

How has this research come through into your work?

I thought it could be something quite excellent to have a fragment of a face of a maker maybe in the Birmingham School of Art room in Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery (BM&AG). The team very kindly said we show the work as an intervention in the gallery.

And this is the first time there has been a contemporary work in that room?

As far as I am aware, this is the only contemporary work exhibited in the Birmingham School gallery, yes. And this work represents both a historic and contemporary maker at the same time. I considered solidarity and sisterhood over generations. There have been some really beautiful and haunting works I’ve seen around women makers who are tied into activism. These straddle art and craft and I enjoy those borders of production. I like that this piece captivates the room and that it is outside of a frame. It is a sort of a devotion to Florence.

Leanne O’Connor, Hands of Sisterhood, installation view at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery. Image: David Rowan

 

How many works are in the industrial galleries?

There are 3 downstairs and 2 upstairs. The central panel that I have been looking at is a transparency reproduction and the original is currently in the Oklahoma Museum as part of a big Pre-Raphaelite exhibition that’s happening in North America. It is on loan from BM&AG. There was a fading reproduction on show but my works nearby are hands pointing towards this and the team at the museum were able to refresh the reproduction. It’s been nice that interacting with collections can re-invigorate the display.

Tell me more about your research?

I’ve been working with the Community and History Archives Service (CHAS) in Smethwick, Sandwell. They have a massive collection of photographs that Florence took of the community of Smethwick that would pose for her ecclesiastical designs. The company certainly didn’t have a hierarchy of models that the central Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood had. For example, there is a picture of a beggar from the panel which is in the archive, as well as a man called Albert Fell who was their glazer or leader. It was bonkers but I was installing this work and his great granddaughter came here with her husband. They were talking to the technician and they said that’s my great granddad with the feather. We’re going to be meeting up soon to talk about everything.

Leanne O’Connor, Hands of Sisterhood, installation view at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery. Image: David Rowan


Tell me more about your works Hands of a Sisterhood?

I made these 5 wee sculptures and had been doing research with CHAS prior to applying for this residency. I had seen the beautiful, big ecclesiastical works that Florence had produced. I felt like it was important to pay homage to women makers who worked within trades that must have been extremely difficult for them. CHAS have all of her familial collection, the photo albums that she built herself, her collected drawings, photographs and the boards she mounted things on such as shoeboxes, I found beautiful. I found some photographs she took of her sisters’ hands and I wanted to create signposts from Smethwick that would point back to existing work. I’ve been thinking about survival tactics for ageing work. The different heights of the poles that support the hands are the different ages her sisters were when they died. The bases are a map of Smethwick and the twist crops up in Oldbury fencing. I’ve not seen this design anywhere else and the hands are her sisters’.

What impact has the residency and exhibition had on your work?

These are the most heavily constructed works I’ve ever done. I saw this residency as a massive testing ground for what I could do, for what historical processes I could learn about and what materials I could discover. Negotiating form has been really difficult for me. There are things I would do differently if I were to make them again so it’s been really great in terms of making me think about how I want to make. It’s given me an appreciation that I don’t just work in steel, that I shouldn’t box myself in. The print on glass, Florence?, is the piece that resonates the most for me. Interdisciplinary ways of working are something I am going to embrace a wee bit more.

Whitworth Wallis Artist in Residence: Leanne O’Connor is on display at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery until 1 June 2020.

Artist Leanne O’Connor undertook a Whitworth Wallis Residency in 2018 at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery. Her new exhibition, a result of research conducted during that residency, is on display until 1 June 2020. We found out more.

Two new publications launched in the region last week, at events at BLAST! Festival in Sandwell and at Birmingham School of Art respectively, aiming to forefront some of the best photography, art and writing happening in the West Midlands.

Photography for Whom? is edited by Anthony Luvera, with support from Grain and Multistory. Published bi-annually, its focus is upon socially engaged photographic practice. Bringing together past projects with contemporary practice, the publication aims to connect themes and concerns that continue to resonate within the field.

Issue 1 of Photography for Whom?, available to buy online, and in bookshops around the country, features a text by Luvera that situates community photography in grass roots political activism while considering its lack of profile in contemporary accounts of the medium. Heinz Nigg’s article explores the WELD Photography Project (the Westminster Endeavour for Liaison and Development) in Birmingham in the 1970s, while Kieran Connell considers the political nature of community photography. Photographs by Trevor Appleson, John Reardon, Derek Bishton, Brian Homer, many of which have been recently on display at MAC Birmingham, are interspersed throughout the publication.

Forward, a free publication edited by Dion Kitson and Tom Glover, locates critical writing, interviews, poetry and artworks at its core, and is available to buy online or free to pick up in galleries across Birmingham. The editors describe Forward as “your principal port of call for art in the West Midlands: what’s good, who’s good, where’s good … It is the beating heart of art in Birmingham and the West Midlands, celebrating the connection between the region and its cultural output.”

Forward’s inaugural issue features contributions from artists Fred Hubble, Foka Wolf, Abi Mardell and others, and interviews with Ikon Director Jonathan Watkins and drag queen Twiggy. A feature on the elitism of the art world by Charlotte Russell, the painting practice of Annette Pugh written by Ruth Millington, and a playful feature by Kitson that connects a historic Halesowen park and a bench proposed by artist Ian Hamilton Finlay to Saddam Hussain and the ‘Iraqi Super Gun’ are all included in this wide-ranging issue.

Two new publications launched in the region last week – Photography for Whom? and Forward, which aim to forefront some of the best photography, art and writing happening in the West Midlands.

Day three of the fifth year of Art Basel Hong Kong saw me preparing for a talk I was to give at the K11 art space, across the bay in Kowloon, close to the site where the M+ ‘mega-museum’ of contemporary art and visual culture has been gestating for a number of years already. Both Art Basel Hong Kong (founded in 2013) and M+ testify to the significance of the territory now within the global contemporary art world.  On the one hand, it is the third most important centre for art market activity after New York and London; on the other, Hong Kong is both bridge and border between the west and the People’s Republic of China, although as a Special Administrative Region, Hong Kong is now in a volatile process of partial assimilation to mainland China and its government by the Chinese Communist Party. As such, the SAR territory is a key barometer in the global politics and geo-political economy of contemporary art and culture. This system or ecology as a whole has expanded from its traditional sites of authority and validation in Europe and the USA into many ‘emerging’ centres of production and dissemination in Asia and South America (though its flourishing in Africa has yet to occur).

Does the binary opposition of ‘centre and periphery’ still offer to describe adequately the distribution of economic power and aesthetic creativity within the global contemporary art world? Did it ever? In many ways the same question might be asked of the relations between London and the Midlands, and the place of New Art West Midlands in the British sector of the art world. While the art market and the financial value of art activity remains, fetishistically, at the centre of the media’s interest in contemporary art, all other players have always seen a much broader significance in the meaning and purpose of art and its making with modern culture. The geographical relationship between ‘centre’ and ‘periphery’ has always been dialectical and interactive; the latter, within avant-garde art in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century art, offering to usurp the former – as the key examples of Pissarro, Gauguin, Cezanne and Picasso attest. In the SAR the specificities of local production within the dynamics of the city’s relationship with Beijing, with New York, or Sydney are clear to see in the layout of galleries and artists represented at Art Basel Hong Kong, as the territory assumes its own powerful centrality in the Asian art world and increasingly interacts dialectically with Europe and the USA.

The biggest shift necessary is, then, a conceptual and evaluative one – without, however, minimising the difficulties of making a living as an artist, when all the British cities outside London are dwarfed by the cultural economy of the capital. The developmental significance of the STEAMhouse project in Birmingham  – bringing start-up companies and entrepreneurial innovation within creative industries businesses to the city – lies in its partnership with Arts Council England funded projects such as New Art West Midlands, in the same way that Art Basel Hong Kong works with the government of the SAR and its myriad independent cultural partners, such as Asia Art Archive and Videotage, a documentary film collective that has been active recording societal transformation here since the 1980s. These relationships – patronal, economic, cultural and creative – are at the centre of my new book, published by Blackwell, that is the focus for my talk today at K11: The Global Contemporary Art World. Hong Kong and Birmingham both feature in it, and are themselves an interconnected and dynamic part of this world.

Jonathan Harris, Head of Birmingham School of Art, March 2017

 

 

Jonathan Harris, Head of Birmingham School of Art, reflects on the geo-political contexts of Birmingham and Hong Kong