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.

Rupi Dhillon, Jharu, 2019. Still from performance, duration : 9 mins

We are delighted to announce that 10 artists and curators have been selected for our 2019 round of Studio Visits, an initiative as part of our professional development programme run in collaboration with The New Art Gallery Walsall.


Rupi Dhillon, Jharu, 2019. Still from performance, duration : 9 mins


We are especially pleased that this is the first year independent curators have been selected to receive studio visits, that this is the first year artists have been selected as studio visitors and that we have been able to facilitate a number of open slot nominations from applicants. Each of these visits will take place in the coming weeks and we hope they will be particularly useful and fruitful conversations.

Artists Rupi Dhillon and Karen McLean will be visited by London-based artists Matthew Krishanu and Hew Locke respectively. Mixed media artist Leanne O’Connor will be visited by artist Mark Murphy and digital specialist Edie Jo Murray will be visited by artist and PhD candidate Sarah Walden. Birmingham-based curators Aly Grimes and Josephine Reichert will be visited by Irini Papadimitriou, Creative Director of FutureEverything and Ned McConnell, Curator at David Roberts Art Foundation respectively. Ned will also meet with artist Andrew Gillespie. Emalee Beddoes-Davis, curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, will meet with artists Joyce Treasure and Bernadette Kerrigan, while Charlie Fellowes of Edel Assanti will visit Sarah Taylor Silverwood.

Applications were selected by a panel including Deborah Robinson and Hannah Anderson of The New Art Gallery Walsall and Anneka French, co-ordinator at New Art West Midlands, in conjunction with the relevant studio visitor.

We are delighted to announce that 10 artists and curators have been selected for our 2019 round of Studio Visits, an initiative as part of our professional development programme run in collaboration with The New Art Gallery Walsall.


The 6 bursary artists for Living Memory have been announced. Working alongside 6 commissioned artists, the bursary artists will be working with partner venues across the Black Country to undertake new research circling community, archives and photography in Sandwell.

Grayson Perry, Claire's Coming Out Dress, 2000, © the artist, image by Jerry Hardman-Jones, Nottingham City Museums & Galleries collection. Coming Out: Sexuality, Gender and Identity exhibition at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

“Art can help us understand how society has changed … it can also enable us to see the world differently, offering insights into personal experiences beyond our own.” C.K McDonald

Grayson Perry, Claire’s Coming Out Dress, 2000, © the artist, image by Jerry Hardman-Jones, Nottingham City Museums & Galleries collection. Coming Out: Sexuality, Gender and Identity exhibition at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

Coming Out: Sexuality, Gender and Identity is a touring exhibition conceived by Charlotte Keenan McDonald, firstly showing at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool and now at our very own Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery. In McDonald’s own words, “A lot of the work I have been doing to date is around LBGT+ history in [the Liverpool] collection and the way that it has been erased. I’ve been really interested in seeing what has been done in terms of research and who has been overlooked, as well as people who have been part of public histories.”

Coming Out is part of a trio of shows that began last year, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of male homosexual acts in England and Wales. This ostensible helping hand failed many within the LGBT+ community because of its complete lack of inter-sectional amendments which did not address the lesbian community and still demanded a differing age limit to the community’s heterosexual counterparts.

Tate Britain’s 2017 exhibition Queer British Art 1861–1967 kicked off this reconsideration of histories. Coming Out has been seen to respond to the drop off point of 1967, initially with Andy Warhol’s Marilyn, which won the John Moore’s Painting Prize in 1967.

In the Birmingham instalment of this realigning trio, there are a variety of different works, ranging from audio visual work, to a decaying commissioned installation from Anya Gallaccio, from a number of high profile artists such as Grayson Perry and Sarah Lucas to emerging artists such as Jez Dolan, who graduated recently from Birmingham School of Art with an MA in Queer Studies.

As you first walk in to the exhibition, you are made aware to the fact you are walking in to a space for the queer and the kitsch. Viewers are instantly exposed to the queer cigarette gnome by Lucas, juxtaposed against the pristine materiality of Perry’s Claire’s Coming Out Dress which he wore to accept the Turner Prize as his transvestite comrade Claire in 2003. There is noticeable gaze from Perry’s dress to Lucas’ gnome. This gaze mirrors the multiple histories and queer voices heard in this exhibition, some louder than others – but nevertheless a multitude of voices are represented.

The prevalent kitsch is extended by the use of colour within the space, paying respect to the Gilbert-Baker Pride flag, which formed part of the battle cry of the late 1970s gay liberation movement and represented magic, healing and the spirit. This further reconfigures the normative wealthy, white, industrialist history of the gallery world, moving it further away from the white cube to a colourful non-linear queer art space.

As well as the kitsch, the might of the Young British Artists (YBA) calls you home to roost. A neon piece from Tracey Emin is hung above Warhol. This kitsch element of design was brought into Warhol’s seminal Marilyn print. Emin hit the headline in the 1990s with her evocative intra-personal works that laid bare female sexuality through the subversion of craft. Emin and her fellow YBAs somewhat co-opted Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame model, just as the YBAs arguably co-opted the public gaze – but for more than 15 minutes and on borrowed time. This seminal print anchors you to the middle of the space, drawn in by Emin’s romantic swirly neon, and by the chanting oozing out of Isaac Julien’s film The Long Road to Mazatlàn, with the beauty of queer ballet juxtaposed against the backdrop of the Wild West.

Contrasting with the Walker Art Gallery’s Coming Out, the curatorial volume then dies down to a whisper when we are met with the arresting photographic series ‘Exiles’ by Sunil Gupta, depicting the cruising zones in his hometown of New Delhi, where the law against same sex acts still remains ironclad. This section is quieter in comparison, with the Walker Gallery display showing Gupta close to Warhol. This curation reflects the frequent white washing and the misheard processes that queer people of colour go through within the art institution.

These histories aim to be redressed and realigned by Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery through a learning and engagement programme called FORUM facilitated by the Arts Council. FORUM’s programme breathes inclusivity as local artists and community groups were part of its development. Its aim is the realignment of queer within the art world so that its communities can continue and thrive.

The term ‘coming out’ has gone through a shift. It has been reclaimed, turned from a negative phrase to a moment full of colour, celebration and vibrancy. This is underpinned by the variety of gender identities and sexualities disclosed in the exhibition, brought to life by the sculptural and film works displayed particularly. These act as flag posts for the concept of the show. This latest instalment of pioneering queer British exhibitions is an important baton to carry into the main arena of the art world. More should be done to continue the realignment of queer histories through the lens of art.


By Leanne O’Connor


(This is an amended version of a review first published here.)


Leanne O’Connor reviews Coming Out: Sexuality, Gender and Identity at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, on display until 15 April.