The ‘useful’ museum: significant acquisitions of Black British artists for Middlesbrough Collection

Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (MIMA) acquires the work of four key British artists: Lubaina Himid, Chila Kumari Burman, Keith Piper and Stephen Willats.

As crucial members of Britain’s Black Art movement, Himid, Burman and Piper have become vital figures in the Institute’s socially-engaged mission, addressing issues around cultural identity, politics and housing. Art Radar looks at MIMA’s recent buys and the transformative roles they are anticipated to play in the collection. 

Exhibition view of Keith Piper's 'The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse', 1984, from "Wilderness Way", 2017, Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art. Image courtesy MIMA.

Keith Piper, ‘The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’, 1984, from “Wilderness Way”, 2017, Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art. Image courtesy MIMA.

Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art is undergoing a rebranding project, declaring itself a ‘useful’ museum. With the desire to develop civic agendas that reconnect the museum with its social function, they plan to spend the coming years promoting art as a tool for change. While past projects have lent themselves to the promotion of international artwork residing in the Teesside area, its future programme will utilise the Middlesbrough Collection displays, exhibitions, educational programmes and community-focused events for their pedagogical and socially-engaged gatherings.

Internationally recognised for its progressive mission, MIMA and the Middlesbrough Collection play a crucial role in the cultural landscape of Northeast England. The expansive collection, spanning work from the mid-1800s to the present day, stands as the base from which the institute’s contemporary exhibitions are constructed. The museum has thus acquired the work of four key British artists who confront the urgent themes that MIMA seeks to promote in its new agenda.

New Acquisitions

Lubaina Himid: black comminities in England

Winner of the 2017 Turner Prize, artist Lubaina Himid’s courageous work often depicts onerous issues, casting a critical eye upon many of history’s European politicians and forms of systematic racism. She is not only the oldest recipient, but the first female of colour to be awarded the prestigious award – a remarkable feat for one whose work has been largely overlooked in the past thirty years.

Himid’s multimedia piece Toussaint L’Ouverture is a new highlight for the Middlesbrough Collection. Depicting a former slave who led the Haitian revolution (1791-1804), the work not only recounts the first Black insurrection, but also alludes to issues surrounding black communities in England throughout the 1980s. Had many individuals been given the chance to be part of history, Himid suggests, the experiences of black people in the United Kingdom today would be positively altered. Born in the Sultanate of Zanzibar, Himid now lives and works in northwest England.

Lubaina Himid, 'Toussaint L'Ouverture', 1987, paint and collage on wood. Image courtesy MIMA.

Lubaina Himid, ‘Toussaint L’Ouverture’, 1987, paint and collage on wood. Image courtesy MIMA.

Chila Kumari Burman: race and identity in 1980s England

A series of lithographs and screenprints by British artist Chila Kumari Burman have also been purchased by MIMA. In response to a range of political issues emerging under Margaret Thatcher’s administration, Burman’s work manipulates and recreates newspaper articles, photographs and found materials that consider race and identity in 1980s England. She responds further to the problematic (mis)representations of South African and South Asian women in the United Kingdom, their voices having been muffled by a normalised system of discrimination and diasporic anxiety. Burman’s portfolio acquired by the museum include July 13th 1981, Chapeltown Uprisings and the 5 demands (1981), Solidarity with our Sisters in South Africa + Namibia (1982) and Liberation (1982).

Selection of works by Chila Kurmari Burman exhibited in "Wilderness Way", Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art, 2017. Image courtesy MIMA.

Selection of works by Chila Kurmari Burman exhibited in “Wilderness Way”, 2017, Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art. Image courtesy MIMA.

Keith Piper: revealing despotic histories

If his career as an artist, critic and curator were not impressive enough, Keith Piper’s vital role in the establishment of the UK’s BLK Art Group catapulted him to greater international recognition. His work acquired by MIMA combines satirical caricature and poetry to explore political urgencies of the 1980s. Entitled The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the painting interweaves the popular biblical narrative of the same name with the rise of right-wing politicians – namely Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan – revealing systems of oppression and the seeming inevitability of nuclear war.

In depicting the decay of social and economic systems, Piper’s large-scale paintings read like spiritual or mythological storylines, split into scenes that offer viewers snapshots of nonfictional, despotic histories.

Keith Piper, 'The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse', 1984
, acrylic on un-stretched canvas. Image courtesy MIMA.

Keith Piper, ‘The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’, 1984
, acrylic on un-stretched canvas. Image courtesy MIMA.

Stephen Willats: art and community

Though not of African decent, Stephen Willat has provided a significant contribution to the Middlesbrough Collection, going beyond his conceptual oeuvre to social and political realities. The mixed-media work, Sorting Out Other People’s Lives, focuses on the isolation ensued by individuals living in England’s council housing and the ways in which its inhabitants confront bureaucratic dependency. As a pioneer in the conceptual art movement of the 1960s, Willats’ multi-faceted work attempts to tackle this subject by suggesting the construction of community networks and mechanisms to overcome loneliness.

Stephen Willats, 'Sorting Out Other People’s Lives',1978, photographic prints, photographic dye, gouache, ink, and Letraset text on card. Image courtesy MIMA.

Stephen Willats, ‘Sorting Out Other People’s Lives’,1978, photographic prints, photographic dye, gouache, ink, and Letraset text on card. Image courtesy MIMA.

A Growing Collection

In the press release detailing their newest acquisitions, MIMA Director Alistair Hudson comments:

These are four extremely important works, all of which will add to the growing story of the Middlesbrough Collection and be of great use in our effort to debate and act on vital issues around cultural identity, politics and housing. These works have all been acquired through exhibitions in 2017 that have promoted artists that have often been neglected by the mainstream art system.

The museum’s Senior Curator Miguel Amado adds:

These works will make a significant addition to the Middlesbrough Collection as they are relevant to the context of contemporary Middlesbrough. Although the town’s population has always included immigrants, it has become a key hub for asylum seekers and refugees since the early 2000s. Yet the Middlesbrough Collection does not include works that examine their histories, so the acquisitions of works by Burman, Himid and Piper will help to change that.

Megan Miller

2043

The recently-acquired works will go on display in February and March 2018 in a new, expanded presentation of the Middlesbrough Collection at MIMA, Centre Square, Middlesbrough TS1 2AZ, United Kingdom.

Related Topics: Post-colonialism, identity art, migration, political, colonialism, acquisitions, painting, museum shows, British artists

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