The bigger picture

Mark Sealy has transformed Autograph into an organisation with a powerful mission statement
Decolonising Museums Inclusion
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Simon Stephens
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Mark Sealy has been at Autograph since the early 1990s
Mark Sealy has been at Autograph since the early 1990s Portrait by Phil Sayer

Not many arts organisations have placed diversity and inclusion at the heart of what they do, despite a raft of arts sector initiatives designed to encourage this. Autograph, a photography space in London that connects audiences to UK and international artists working in photography and film, is different.

Under the leadership of Mark Sealy, who joined in the early 1990s, Autograph has become an organisation that explores “identity, representation, human rights and social justice through work produced by artists who use photography and film”. It’s an unusual mission statement for an arts organisation but a powerful one that reflects the venue’s ambitious work.

“There is a long arc of conversations around our mission and lots of different voices, but ultimately the point came when I began to feel as though having the discussion just through race was a polarising space,” says Sealy. “I found that, as a strategy, if I started to talk about people’s rights, then people began to feel that they could enter the conversation, rather than being accused. Having race and rights together is interesting – it helps people join the dots.

“The idea around the mission is to break up the homogenisation of thought around what is valued, and this is where Black Lives Matter comes in – we must value these ideas,” adds Sealy. “Of course all lives matter, but if we say that, we are back to square one, as historically, black lives have not mattered because black people have been systematically brutalised over time.”

The Syrcas Gallery installation Image courtesy Zoe Maxwell

Autograph, which is based in Shoreditch in London, was classed as “outstanding” in the diversity ratings created by Arts Council England for its Equality, Diversity and the Creative Case report, released earlier this year. But Sealy believes that creating a genuinely inclusive organisation is not as simple as signing up to a plan.

“It ranges from jobs through to governance, from interpretation material through to curatorial opportunities, and also how conservative or transgressive ideas can be in those spaces,” he says. “It can be exciting – and it should be.

And hopefully, we can move past a culture of ‘them and us’ and move to a place where we are all ‘us’. These are the ideas that we try to work through when we talk about race, rights and representation.”

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As one of Arts Council England’s National Portfolio Organisations (NPO), Autograph receives £700,000 a year to support its work. Sealy believes that more could be done to persuade other NPOs to become more inclusive.

“You have to follow the money,” he says. “If you keep on funding organisations that don’t change, even when you want them to change, it is quite important to say we are funding you to do this. If they can be funded to do other things, like monitor audiences, they must be able to work towards changing the conversation inside their institutions. The result will be that when a 25-year-old says I want to do something on, let’s say, the history of sound systems, someone inside the institution will know what that person is talking about.”

Sealy believes that museums can and should change how they work to become more inclusive. “Museums come from a particular time and place, and institutions take a long time to turn around,” he says. “But I see a great opportunity for museums to rethink themselves.”

Museums come from a very particular time and place, and institutions take a very long time to turn around. But I also see a great opportunity for museums to rethink themselves.

Sealy points to the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC as a sign that things are changing.

“It has been a long-time coming, if you look at what else has been established on the mall in Washington DC by the Smithsonian. But finally there is a place where Jimmy Hendrix’s guitar and James Brown’s cloak have got real value. When you realise the impact of all that stuff, that material culture, the photographs and the objects, and the influence African-American history and culture has had on the world, it is fantastic. And there are museums opening in Nigeria and Mali. It has taken a long time, but new museums are arriving, which is great.”

Sealy also believes that film and photography are good media for the work he wants to do in the areas of social change, identity politics, race and human rights.

“Photography has a specific history and it is tied to how we see each other,” he says. “Because of its reproductive qualities, its relationship to news, to evidence, to archives and collecting, and to recording objects, it has an increasingly important role to play.

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“If you think about the power of the lens in people’s pockets, it is a democratic medium, with the power to change, and we have seen that through recent events. Without the camera being present at various disastrous events, we would not be able to understand them.”

Cultural rights

Autograph was founded in 1988 to support black photographic practices, initially working from a small office in Brixton, south London. Until 2007, it used an agency model to initiate projects in gallery spaces, museums, festivals and other public sites.

It now works with artists all over the world, reflecting Sealy’s global outlook. For him, Autograph’s mission should be seen in the context of the universal declaration of human rights, which features the right to “freely participate in the cultural life of the community, and to enjoy the arts”.

“The idea of human rights was to link what was going on locally to a global idea and a historical arc,” Sealy says. “It is a good way to think about it, as it is very inclusive.”

Sealy says he has constantly learned from artists and cultural thinkers during a career that has seen him curate exhibitions on James Van Der Zee, Gordon Parks, Carrie Mae Weems, Rotimi Fani-Kayode, Mahtab Hussain and Maud Sulter, among many others.

Being open to new ideas and learning new things is important to Sealy. He recently completed a PhD in photography and cultural violence that led to a book, Decolonising the Camera: Photography in Racial Time. Published last year, it looks at the racial politics within photography in the context of discussions around race, representation and colonialism.

“I wanted to do a PhD because running a small arts organisation is all-consuming,” says Sealy. “I wanted to buy some time out to work within a structure and think about my ideas. I am nearly 60 and now is the time to capture those processes, a bit like an archive.”

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One person that Sealy has drawn ideas from is the late Stuart Hall, the Jamaican-British academic, writer and cultural studies pioneer. “Stuart was amazing and incredibly generous,” says Sealy. “We worked together for more than 18 years, and for two or three Fridays a month, we would just catch up. Having Stuart in your head every couple of weeks was a real benefit.”

Working with Hall led to projects such as Unfinished Conversation by John Akomfrah. This large-scale video installation, building on Akomfrah’s work as part of the Black Audio Film Collective, which was active from 1982 to 1998, traces Hall’s life and work.

Sharif Persaud's Have you ever Had exhibition at Autograph Image courtesy Zoe Maxwell

“I am still learning all the time through conversations with artists and colleagues,” says Sealy. “Trying to be receptive is key. I guess I have always tried to look across the field, while running a small arts organisation at the same time.”

Tough times

Leading an arts organisation while following developments in the international art world and continuing to learn is no mean feat. And running Autograph has not been easy. The organisation has been through some tough times financially, particularly in the early days when Sealy had to support the organisation with his own money.

“We have always struggled with the finances and were, for many years, always on the edge of collapse,” says Sealy. “I was able to underwrite the organisation because I had a little flat to borrow money against.
It was more than a job – it was just what you did. I would never do it now, but I was committed to making it work and, literally, my home was on the line.”

As an NPO, with four-year funding cycles and a secure home in east London, the organisation is on sounder financial footing now. Anxiety over finances remains though, particularly with the uncertainty created by the Covid-19 pandemic.

But Sealy is looking to the future with positivity and is thinking about the next steps for Autograph as an organisation.

“If anything, we are switching more back to agency rather than institution,” he says. “Buildings are costly affairs and, while bricks and mortar are fantastic for people to visit, are we destined to become a visitor attraction? I don’t think so, as we are just not big enough. We are more like a small, contemporary conversation.

“The most important thing we can try to do is work within the lens of what artists are up to, and to stay in conversation with that,” adds Sealy. “We need to continue to look at ourselves and make sure we are working cross-generation, cross-gender, cross-race, offering some degree of support for artists in that space – that is what is really important for us.”

Mark Sealy at a glance

Mark Sealy has been the director of photographic arts venue Autograph since 1991. Sealy has written for photography publications including Foam Magazine and Aperture. The exhibition he curated, Human Rights Human Wrongs, was shown at Ryerson Image Centre, Toronto, in 2013, and at the Photographers’ Gallery, London, in 2015.

He has a PhD on photography and cultural violence. His book, Decolonising the Camera: Photography in Racial Time, was published in 2019. Sealy was the guest curator for Houston Fotofest 2020.

Autograph at a glance

Autograph: The Association of Black Photographers was founded in 1988 in London to support black photographic practices. It originally operated from a small office in Brixton, south London, from where it launched a programme of exhibitions, events and publications.

In 2007, Autograph applied for charitable status and in the same year moved to a purpose-built permanent home at Rivington Place in Shoreditch, east London. The building houses Autograph’s activities and staff team, provides a showcase for its programmes of public exhibitions and events, storage for its photographic archive and a learning studio.

Autograph is an Arts Council England National Portfolio Organisation and it employs 11 staff.

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