I Am Karen

I am Karen: Re-interpreted is a new exhibition at Bank Street Arts.  Sabine Dundure is a Latvian photographer and her work here is a portrait project documenting the lives of Karen refugees resettled in Sheffield.

Accompanying her photographs is a writing project focusing on the curator’s text.  6 people from various backgrounds were asked to write the curator’s text for Dundure’s exhibition.  All 6 pieces are on display, and the writers will be asked to make changes to their text after we’ve had the chance to read how the others approached the task.  The texts can be read here.

Thinking about what should go into the Curator’s text is really very difficult.  How much description is needed and how much is too much?  Where do you stop trying to get the viewer interested and start telling them what to think?  How do you pull out what is important enough to say, and why say that and not something else?  If the writing is the first point of contact between the artist/artwork and the viewer, how is that text mediating the viewers’ interaction with the work?  It’s a minefield!

I tried to use Dundure’s quote to get across what I thought was crucial to the project.  By using the artist’s own words, I felt that was a more legitimate framing, and as the quote was small, perhaps there was still room for the viewer.  I kept mostly to description, while trying to get across what seemed to be Dundure’s intentions, things a viewer might not know without being told.  For example, the photograph subjects were asked if they’d wear Karen traditional dress.  One of the subjects has chosen to mix a traditional shirt with jeans, and that may or may not be important, but that this was his choice seems significant, whatever you might make of that significance.  I tried to get that choice across without pointing directly to it.

Even though I spoke to Sabine about the dress and locations of the photographs, and what she’d asked of her subjects, my questions were directed by what I’d already seen in the photographs and the significance I saw in the juxtaposition between the grey English landscape and the bright national dress.  She confirmed what I’d thought, but perhaps if I’d asked her more open questions, she would have given more emphasis to other aspects, things I’ve missed.

To hand over everything to Sabine’s words was an option.  I think I chose not to for a number of reasons, some of which to do with my own expectations of curatorial text and what I was being asked to do, but also, how does that affect the potential for the viewer to see things not consciously intended by the artist?  To hand over everything to the artist solves some problems, but not others.  I think my problem was more about managing a degree of vanity, the instinct to tell people what I think: the desire to tell the viewer how to see what I see, and the need to leave enough space for them to see something else.

But there is a need to say something, I think.  Done well, the curator’s text can be a really useful tool for the artist, the gallery and the viewer.  Have a read through the texts to see how the others tackled the problems in writing about art.

The contributors are:

Angelina Ayers: Writer in Residence at Bank Street Arts and studying on the MA Writing at Sheffield Hallam University.
John Clark: Creative Director at Bank Street Arts.
Andrew Conroy: Photographer in Residence at Bank Street Arts.
Bryan Eccleshall: an artist who works with image, text, performance and installation. Recent work has engaged with ideas of authenticity and originality.
Chloe Reith: recently graduated from Newcastle University with a Masters in Art Museum & Gallery Studies. She has worked on the Jerwood Photography Awards and for Portfolio Magazine and has been recently involved in various freelance writing and curatorial projects with Peacock Visual Arts and Bank Street Arts.
Richard Steadman Jones: senior lecturer in the School of English at Sheffield University.  His research and teaching focuses on cultural responses to the experience of encountering ‘foreign’ languages, especially in the context of colonial encounters and narratives of exile.


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