Q&A | 'An exciting new chapter in the history of drawing' - Museums Association

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Q&A | ‘An exciting new chapter in the history of drawing’

Isabel Seligman talks to us about curating a show on some of the youngest artists ever collected by the British Museum
Isabel Seligman is the Monument Trust curator of modern and contemporary drawing at the British Museum
Isabel Seligman is the Monument Trust curator of modern and contemporary drawing at the British Museum

Earlier this year, London's British Museum opened its first ever exhibition of drawings by emerging artists, whose works are displayed alongside similarly themed pieces by figures such as Michelangelo and Andy Warhol.

The new works bring stories and perspectives not currently represented in the museum collections, including artists addressing questions of identity, sexuality and social justice.

Drawing Attention: Emerging British Artists is the culmination of a £50,000 Art Fund New Collecting Award given to Isabel Seligman, the museum's curator of modern and contemporary drawing. The funding allowed her to build a network with curators in the UK and abroad, as well as connect with artists in the earliest stages of their careers.

The drawings are by some of the youngest artists ever collected by the museum, including Sin Wai Kin, the non-binary artist who is shortlisted for this year's Turner Prize. Museums Journal spoke to Seligman about the excitement of discovering the next generation of British draughtspeople.

Jessie Makinson, And other darlings (study), 2021, graphite Reproduced by permission of the artist © The Trustees of the British Museum

You’re connecting with emerging artists at an earlier stage of their career than ever before – what has that been like?

It’s been very exciting! It’s a wonderful opportunity to build relationships with artists early in their careers, often before they have gallery representation, and to see their work grow and develop in such a short space of time. I tried to visit as many degree shows as possible, and three of the artists in the exhibition I came across at art school shows, so I think it’s been a good strategy – although one deeply impacted by the pandemic, as many were either cancelled or took place online, where it’s very hard to get a sense of the work.

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Studio visits were important in terms of seeing the work in the flesh, but also a chance to have a genuine dialogue with the artists about their work. Often this was the first time that their drawings would be entering a public collection, so it was great that they could be more involved in the acquisition process.

Can you tell us more about the acquisition process behind the exhibition?

The project was funded by an Art Fund New Collecting Award to research and acquire drawings by emerging artists who have worked, lived or studied in the UK. As well as an acquisition budget, the award also provided funding for travel and research, which included visiting art fairs with a focus on drawing, such as Artissima in Turin, Drawing Now in Paris and the Draw Art Fair in London, and drawing specific prizes and exhibitions.

I aimed to visit the artists’ studios where possible, although the pandemic sometimes got in the way, and I also travelled to visit colleagues at museums and galleries in New York, to place this research in an international context. I benefited hugely from the mentorship of two experts in contemporary drawing, Katharine Stout and Roger Malbert, who offered me invaluable support and advice throughout the project.

What goals did you have in mind when selecting which artists to include?

There are 24 drawings by 13 emerging artists in the exhibition. Drawing is very important to each of these artists, and they all use it in innovative and exciting ways, taking the medium in new directions. They’re not exclusively draftspeople – often they are also working in mediums ranging from painting and film to performance – but drawing is an integral and independent part of their practice. I wanted the works to transform the museum’s collection of contemporary drawings, and I hope they’ve done just that.

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But I also wanted to choose works that related to the rest of the collection, demonstrating their continuities with wider traditions of drawing, and showing the importance and continuing relevance of historical collections. I also wanted to choose artists telling stories that are not currently represented in the collection, that say something about our present moment, and that will still be of interest in 10, 20, or a hundred years’ time, even if they need a little more explanation than they do now. This project will ensure that this exciting new chapter in the history of drawing is represented in the collection and safeguarded for future generations.

Sin Wai Kin, what you have gained along the way, 8 July 2017, makeup on facial wipe Reproduced by permission of the artist © The Trustees of the British Museum

Some of the artists are using novel methods and materials. What challenges does this present from a conservation and display perspective?

Mounting and displaying works made by Sin Wai Kin using make-up on face wipes has been an interesting challenge. The artist took each print directly from their face following particular drag performances, making them a fascinating example of a modified monotype technique in which their face was the plate and their theatrical make-up a kind of ink. Luckily the facewipes are the (now verboten!) polyester kind, so will be stable for a very long time, but mounting them required collaboration between a textile conservator and conservation mounter to attach the drawings to a textile support.

Normally conservators would stitch on the top surface of a textile; however as the thread would have rubbed the make-up on the surface of the face wipe, the thread was instead stitched into the side of the wipe, to secure the lower layers to the mount using a very fine curved needle manufactured for surgery.

How did you choose which existing works to include alongside the emerging artists?

This was a very enjoyable part of the process, drawing out links between the new acquisitions and the existing collections. Some of them were more obvious, for example Hannah Quinlan and Rosie Hastings’ Funny Girls (2019), which references works by Italian Renaissance artists including Michelangelo and Mantegna in order to think through the politics of queer spaces.

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Others are more associative, or interpretations that I have drawn out, such as placing works by Sin Wai Kin alongside a fifteenth century woodcut of the sudarium (handkerchief) of Saint Veronica. Sin has described the works as a kind of “death mask” for the drag character they wipe away, and it was interesting to place them next to an image of a relic which specifically spoke to traditions of printmaking. According to legend, the image of Christ’s face on Saint Veronica’s sudarium was created miraculously after she handed it to Christ to wipe away his sweat and tears.

What would you say are the biggest changes happening in British drawing at the moment?

I think there is a lot of formal and conceptual experimentation with the processes of drawing, which is exciting. But there is also a willingness to incorporate the articulacy of skilled draughtsmanship into an exploration of conceptual and political concerns, often with an emphasis on figuration, and as part of an expansive, multidisciplinary practice. The works are not mere illustrations of the artists’ ideas, but instead use the processes of drawing to critique and interrogate them.

Drawing Attention: Emerging British Artists runs until 28 August.

The emerging artists that feature in the exhibition are: Catherine Anyango Grünewald (b.1982); Josephine Baker (b.1990); Miriam de Búrca (b.1972); Somaya Critchlow (b.1993); Jake Grewal (b.1994); David Haines (b.1969); Rosie Hastings & Hannah Quinlan (b.1991); Mary Herbert (b.1988); Jessie Makinson (b.1985); Jade Montserrat (b.1981); Sin Wai Kin (b.1991); and Charmaine Watkiss (b.1964).

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