ASTONish presents a masterclass with Zoe Whitley Co-curator of critically acclaimed exhibition ‘Soul Of A Nation’, Tate Modern.

Wednesday 1 November, 6-8pm
Hippodrome Theatre, B5 4TB

Following a series of powerful masterclasses from its sister programme RE:Present, Birmingham Hippodrome and Lara Ratnaraja welcome you to attend the third edition of ASTONish Masterclass with Zoe Whitley, Curator – Tate Modern.

Spaces are FREE but limited and we anticipate that spaces will fill up fast!

Book via Eventbrite 

About Zoe Whitley

Zoe Whitley works as part of the team of curators and assistant curators responsible for the development of and research into Tate’s collection of artworks post-1980. She oversees the development of the artists’ film programme at Tate Britain, such as Transform: Artists’ Film, Artists Beyond Film (2014). Since 2014 her role also has included work at Tate Modern, where she co-wrote Tate’s revised Africa acquisitions strategy and researches contemporary artists and art practices from the African continent and the African diaspora.

Research interests

Zoe Whitley’s research has centred on contemporary art of the African diaspora and twentieth-century and contemporary works on paper. She has a particular interest in the ways in which artists engage in institutional critique, and since joining Tate her research interests have extended into artists’ film and video. Zoe Whitley has lectured at undergraduate and MA levels throughout the UK on visual culture, cultural studies and exhibiting contemporary African art in the West. At Tate’s London sites she has led public lectures, screenings and conversations on the work of Ellen Gallagher, Lis Rhodes, Black Audio Film Collective, Wangechi Mutu, Theo Eshetu and Ian Forsyth and Jane Pollard, among others. Her curatorial practice frequently returns to questions of museological categorisation and how artists assert their identities within art museum frameworks. Zoe Whitley has also lectured on the historiography of museum collections of African art in Britain. From 2013 to 2015 she is a research curator member of the Institute for Black Atlantic Research and the Making Histories Visible project with the University of Central Lancashire. In 2015 she was awarded a grant from SAUK and the British Council to co-curate a series of screenings on South African artists’ film.



Latest Work: Soul of A Nation – Art In the Age of Black Power

Image courtesy of Andrew Dunkley, Tate Photography

This masterclass is in partnership with New Art West Midlands and CREATE.

ASTONish presents a masterclass with Zoe Whitley, Co-curator of ‘Soul Of A Nation’, Tate Modern. In partnership with New Art West Midlands and CREATE.

Wolfgang Tillmans, Iguazu 2010, © Wolfgang Tillmans

Artist Adam Grüning was awarded a Micro Bursary to carry out research at Tate Modern exhibitions Wolfgang Tillmans and Media Networks. He reflects on his visit and its relevance to his practice below.

Wolfgang Tillmans, Iguazu 2010, © Wolfgang Tillmans

For me looking at a photograph is the closest thing to looking at the sky on a clear night, both have the ability to make you feel the enormity of time and to think about what reality means. More and more when I look at a photograph I feel as though I’m trying to find a truth rather than see an image, and I think about how that truth then sits in reality. This connection between the two can move with time and context, but Wolfgang Tillmans’ truth sits very much in the present, as you may expect from a show with “2017” in the title.

The show in its entirety is 14 rooms, hundreds of images, tables of news articles and books, 1 video piece, one room playing tracks from Colourbox and although its scale and superficial variety of work feels like one, it’s definitely not a retrospective (it even says so in the hand-out, just in case you weren’t sure.) The work spans from 2003, three years after Tillmans’ Turner Prize win, to the present day, so it’s easy to make this mistake. It’s been difficult to ignore the show; it’s felt as though every other post on my Instagram feed since its opening has been from the exhibition. I don’t know whether this helped or hindered my perspective on the show but it was certainly a factor that drew me closer to Tillmans’ work and to see a connection between his approach and how I have been working more recently.

The complex, messy connections between the images have a kind of poetic quality that is maintained in each room; it is gentle, tender and gives you a strange sense of being held whilst you walk through the space. It took me a week from seeing the show to fully appreciate this. I usually take two trips around an exhibition and it was the second trip I felt this more. Initially it felt a mass of independent research and evidence all at once, like clicking open all tabs on an amateur detective’s browsing history. There was a point too when I was alone in a darkened room watching a larger than life video of Tillmans jump around in his underpants thinking “why am I alone in a darkened room watching Tillmans jump around in his underpants”, but after a second pass it all made sense … more or less.

There is an element of preaching to the choir about the show, the gentle reminders about assumed truth, how the future is written from today’s actions and the bigger role we (both as individuals and as a larger collective) play in the world channeled most notably through Tillmans’ anti-Brexit campaign. That being said, it is more than just a reminder, it is the connections made that say most; from the headlights image, the oceans (both literal and of Frank) the still lives and the tables of information, it is looking through Tillmans’ eyes on a world right now putting his perspective on it all and the subtle links between everything and everyone. Maybe there is a sense of being spoken down to or of pointing out the obvious, depending on your view. The exhibition has split opinion quite dramatically but the images and information speak beyond current climates, which is where its greater successes lie.

Whether the Tate is the right venue for the exhibition, I’m unsure. It certainly has the space and status to house Tillmans’ idea but I couldn’t help feel that the white cube style environment did nothing for the work, and that the room Colourbox was playing in provided a more engaging sensibility overall with its blue walls and generally less stale environment.

There was an overwhelming sense of finding comfort and beauty in the work, and although I can see the eyebrows of previous lecturers frowning on me for saying it was beautiful, there was an undoubted sense of ‘this is beautiful’ in an unexpected way. Maybe it was the perception of gravity that kept me circling the exhibit that weighted it in time, in the moment, that made me feel beauty. It was something more than all of its parts. Although I kept being told that the display was original, it was nothing I hadn’t seen before, no one image particularly stood out, no one article or print out said more than another but together it demonstrated the workings of something, a perception, an understanding and an insight into someone who cares. It repeatedly moved outside of the gallery for context, which I found unusual for a Tate exhibition, and repeatedly moved me.

Image: Adam Grüning

In terms of my own practice, I’ve struggled with balancing how I work and feeling a disconnection between all the parts that make up my practice; the exhibition has been a positive influence on this. It has made me feel more comfortable with how I work and allowed me to see the connections between all the things I do, seeing they are much closer together than I initially realised. Maybe comfortable is the wrong word but it brought a calmness, making me see things more as a whole rather than as so disjointed.

Whilst at Tate Modern I was interested in seeing the Media Networks exhibition too. Although not my primary reason for visiting, the exhibition displayed artists’ responses to media and technology over the past 100 years which is something that has always returned in my work. Although the show was fine, if a little dry, the work of Louise Lawler stood out massively. Her composition, value, commodification and critique alongside Tillmans’ seemingly insignificant images and information hoarding, both balanced together and felt important to my practice right now, not one more than the other but a connection between them both. Overall, the show was not what I expected, not that it turned out better or worse, but it highlighted to me things I didn’t anticipate. Rather than research or theory or practical understandings, I need to address my perception of myself as an artist and to encourage work I’ve maybe been denying myself from producing because of this.

Artist Adam Grüning was awarded a Micro Bursary to carry out research at Tate Modern exhibitions Wolfgang Tillmans and Media Networks. He reflects on his visit and its relevance to his practice.

Robert Rauschenberg, Untitled (Spread), 1983. Solvent transfer and acrylic on wood panel, with umbrellas, 188.6 x 245.7 x 88.9 cm. © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, New York

Kurt Hickson was awarded a Micro Bursary to undertake two research trips to London, visiting several exhibitions including Painters’ Painters at Saatchi Gallery, which ran from 30 November 2016 – 22 March 2017 and Robert Rauschenberg at Tate Modern, which ran from 1 December 2016 – 2 April 2017.


Dexter Dalwood, Kurt Cobain’s Greenhouse, 2000, Painters’ Painters, Saatchi Gallery. Dexter Dalwood/Saatchi Gallery, London


Tuesday 28 February 2017

To his credit Charles Saatchi has continued to advocate painting despite its steady decline over recent years. Painters’ Painters at Saatchi Gallery was an exhibition that continued to challenge modern conceptions about the oldest form of image making. The show featured nine international artists of varying ages and stages in their careers. Each with their own gallery space, there were nine distinct approaches to the medium.

The high point of the exhibition for me was the collage-like paintings of David Salle; The Neo-Expressionist being an old college favourite of mine with several good examples of his work on show here. Other highlights included Dexter Dalwood’s painting Kurt Cobain’s Greenhouse (2000), the quirky mix of works by Richard Aldrich and the humorous paintings of Ansel Krut and Martin Maloney.

It could be argued that Painters’ Painters didn’t really live up to the title of the show and neither did it form a complete picture of painting at present (there were no female artists, no pure abstract works and some paintings were nearly thirty years old). The picture the exhibition did paint, however, was a fun one. It was an exhibition that managed to emphasise painting’s basic fundamental elements without taking itself too seriously. It celebrated painting without the need to declare that ‘painting’s back’. Painters’ Painters at Saatchi Gallery was an amusing and entertaining show, that succeeded in emphasising the inherent pleasure of putting paint to canvas; something that I imagine has inspired thousands of art students who visited to do just that.

During the day I managed to take in several other shows including Luiz Zerbini at Stephen Friedman Gallery – the Brazilian painter being someone I’ve admired for a while but this being the first time I’d seen multiple works of his together; Gavin Turk’s Who What When Where How & Why at Newport Street Gallery, which goes without saying had a good old school Brit Art vibe about it; and Monochrome at Ordovas Gallery, a show that looked at the purity and clarity of the use of a single colour – white featuring a single work by five artists including Richard Serra and Barbara Hepworth. I also made it to the Maria Lassnig: A Painting Survey PV at Hauser & Wirth on the evening for a few beers and a look at the Austrian artist’s evolution from experimental abstract painter to figurative painter.

Robert Rauschenberg, Untitled (Spread), 1983. Solvent transfer and acrylic on wood panel, with umbrellas, 188.6 x 245.7 x 88.9 cm. © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, New York

Saturday 1 April 2017

The second part of my Micro Bursary was used to visit the major Robert Rauschenberg retrospective at Tate Modern. As an artist with a strong interest in process and materiality myself, it was great to see the physical quality of Rauschenberg’s use of non-traditional materials and ‘found objects’ up close. From his pop art silkscreen paintings, to his glossy black monochromes; his ‘combines’ through to the formation of Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.); Rauschenberg for me was the ultimate painter-maker.

The show was made up of eleven rooms in a loose chronological order, each presenting a particular shift in direction or technique during the artists six-decade long career. Through a remarkable range of media including painting, digital printing, sculpture, performance, electronics and photography his endless curiosity into all forms of art-making and his constant quest for innovation was plain to see. Several key works were on display, including the stuffed Angora goat, the silkscreen prints of Kennedy and the infamous Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953).

It was the last weekend of the show when I visited and so it was annoyingly busy.  The security guards and gallery assistants were on high alert and on a serious crack-down against touchers and secret copy-right infringing snappers. I was embarrassingly caught several times in the later case. Interestingly whilst looking at Bed (1955), a work I’d seen at MoMA a few years earlier, I noticed a small moth crawling around on the inside of its protective Perspex case.  I informed a guard that was walking by, telling them that they might want to notify someone and have it removed as moths eat quilts and bed sheets.  However, I was told that “It was probably meant to be there … that it was just part of the artwork … and that it would probably die soon”. Clever guy this Rauschenberg.

Before the day was out I managed to head over to FOLD Gallery to check out the Valérie Kolakis show Done With Objects Because Things Take Place, an interesting and somewhat inspiring exhibition of mainly sculptural works that were either made up of or hint at everyday objects.  The use of materials and objects found here in Kolakis’ work echoing Rauschenberg’s own exploration into art production.

Valérie Kolakis, DONE WITH OBJECTS BECAUSE THINGS TAKE PLACE, installation view at FOLD Gallery.


The first half of the bursary was used to engage with several pure painting shows, something that is a rarity within the West Midlands. With multiple exhibitions showcasing a broad range of strong contemporary work, I took away a feeling that despite the odds, painting is still very much alive and kicking in the capital. The second part of the bursary gave me the opportunity to rediscover an artist that constantly broke with conventions. An artist that reminds us all of the joy of working with what’s readily available, questioning, but also reinforcing the possibilities of art-making today.

Kurt Hickson was awarded a Micro Bursary to undertake two research trips to London, visiting several exhibitions including Painters’ Painters at Saatchi Gallery and Tate Modern’s Robert Rauschenberg retrospective.