Earlier this year, the British Museum in London 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’s collections, including artists addressing issues of identity, sexuality and social justice.
Drawing Attention: Emerging British Artists is the culmination of a £50,000 Art Fund New Collecting Award to Isabel Seligman, the museum’s curator of modern and contemporary drawing. The funding allowed him to network with curators in the UK and overseas, as well as connect with artists early in 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 cartoonists.
You connect with emerging artists at an earlier stage in their career – how has that been?
It was very exciting! It’s a wonderful opportunity to connect with artists early in their careers, often before they’re represented in galleries, and to watch their work grow and develop in such a short time. I tried to visit as many degree exhibitions as possible, and three of the artists in the exhibition I met at art school exhibitions, so I think that’s a good strategy – even if it was deeply affected by the pandemic, as many were canceled or took place online, where it is very difficult to get a sense of the work.
Studio visits were important to see the work in the flesh, but also to have a real dialogue with the artists about their work. It was often the first time their designs entered a public collection, so it was great that they could be more involved in the acquisition process.
Can you tell us more about the process of acquiring 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. In addition to an acquisition budget, the prize also provided funding for travel and research, which included visiting drawing-focused art fairs, such as Artissima in Turin, Drawing Now in Paris and the Draw Art Fair in London, and prizes specific to drawing. and exhibitions.
I aimed to visit artists’ studios whenever possible, although the pandemic got in the way at times, and I also traveled to visit colleagues at museums and galleries in New York, to place this research in an international context. I benefited immensely from the mentorship of two contemporary drawing experts, Katharine Stout and Roger Malbert, who provided invaluable support and advice throughout the project.
What goals did you have in mind when selecting 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 are not exclusively drawers – often they also work in fields 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 did.
But I also wanted to choose works related to the rest of the collection, demonstrating their continuities with wider traditions of drawing and showing the importance and continued 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 interest us in 10, 20 or a hundred years, even if they need a bit more explanation than they do now. This project will ensure that this exciting new chapter in design history will be represented in the collection and preserved for future generations.
Some artists use new methods and new materials. What challenges does this present from a conservation and exhibition perspective?
Mounting and exhibiting the works made by Sin Wai Kin using makeup on face wipes was an interesting challenge. The artist took each imprint directly from their face following particular drag performances, making it a fascinating example of a modified one-print technique in which their face was the plate and their theatrical makeup a kind of ink. . Fortunately, the wipes are of the polyester type (now verboten!), so they will be stable for a very long time, but their assembly required a collaboration between a textile restorer and a conservation editor to fix the drawings on a textile support.
Normally, restorers sewed on the top surface of a textile; however, as the thread would have rubbed makeup onto the surface of the face wipe, the thread was instead sewn into the side of the wipe, securing the lower layers to the backing using a very fine curved needle manufactured for surgery.
How did you choose existing works to include alongside emerging artists?
It was a very enjoyable part of the process, making connections between new acquisitions and existing collections. Some of these were more obvious, for example Funny Girls (2019) by Hannah Quinlan and Rosie Hastings, which references works by Italian Renaissance artists, including Michelangelo and Mantegna, in order to reflect on politics queer spaces.
Others are more associative, or interpretations I have drawn, such as placing works by Sin Wai Kin next to a 15th century woodcut from the sudarium (handkerchief) of Saint Veronica. Sin described the works as a sort of “death mask” for the drag character they erase, and it was interesting to place them next to an image of a relic that spoke specifically to the traditions of engraving. According to legend, the image of Christ’s face on the sudarium of Saint Veronica was miraculously created after she handed it over to Christ to wipe away his sweat and tears.
What do you think are the biggest changes happening in British cartooning right now?
I think there’s a lot of formal and conceptual experimentation with the drawing processes, which is exciting. But there is also a desire to integrate the articulation of skilled drawing 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 rather use the processes of drawing to critique and question them.
Attracting Attention: Emerging British Artists until 28 August.
Emerging artists featured in the exhibition are: Catherine Anyango Grünewald (b. 1982); Josephine Baker (born 1990); Miriam de Búrca (born in 1972); Somaya Critchlow (born 1993); Jake Grewal (born 1994); David Haines (b. 1969); Rosie Hastings and Hannah Quinlan (b. 1991); Mary Herbert (born 1988); Jessie Makinson (born 1985); Jade Montserrat (born 1981); Sin Wai Kin (born in 1991); and Charmaine Watkiss (b. 1964).