Curating beyond the Canon

15th December 2020

News, Alumni news

Honorary Fellow Paul Goodwin, talks about his career and the under-representation of Black British artists in the history of British art.

Play Paul Goodwin, Ken Macdonald, Jane Garnett and event guests

Wadham Honorary Fellow Paul Goodwin (DPhil, Geography and the Environment, 1992) is an independent curator, researcher, educator and urban theorist. His career, which spans the worlds of academia and art, has allowed him to highlight the stories of the innovations of Black British artists who have been under-represented in the history of British art.

Speaking at a ‘Wadham in the World’ event, Curating Beyond the Canon, Paul began by speaking of the ‘burden of representation’ that many Black intellectuals, artists, writers and curators have when working in mainstream institutions such as national museums or universities like Oxford, particularly when working with communities that are often vulnerable or marginalised.

Citing his experience as a researcher and activist in urbanism working with immigrant populations in the Paris banlieues he described the reaction to his work; “People were quite intrigued as to what my position was and also sometimes suspicious about my motivations for doing this kind of research, often asking me, how will it help us?” He commented on his scepticism then that the relevance of his academic research would readily be understood or appreciated by many of the communities he was working with.

Although Professor Goodwin still works in academia, his curatorial work has taken him into a broader social context where thousands of people see his exhibitions and even more read and debate the works he has displayed in non-canonical spaces and via the media.  In his role as curator at Tate Britain from 2008 to 2012 he directed the pioneering Cross Cultural Programme that explored questions of migration and globalisation in contemporary British art through a programme of exhibitions, international conferences, workshops, talks and live art events.

This led to him working with artists who first achieved critical acclaim at the height of the growing Black British art movement of the 1980s: Sonia Boyce, Chila Kumari Burman and Lubaina Himid, all of whom are now internationally renowned and continue to create engaged and activist art.

Interestingly, only small percentage of the Tate’s collection is on display at any one time and Paul described visiting the treasures housed in the store, a collection which represents British art. What is displayed depends on a number of factors, from the personal taste of the curators to the trends of the time. “One of the factions of Britain which hasn’t been very well represented until recently is the work of Black and Asian artists and that’s one of the things that I really try to address in my work,” he said.

Demonstrating this point, Paul showed a variety of artworks by Black and Asian artists including Chris Ofili’s ‘Union Black’, a version of the British ‘Union Jack’ flag created in the colours of the Black Nationalist movement, red, black and green. Union Black was flown over the Millbank entrance of Tate Britain in 2010.

Putting the work first and taking it out of the sometimes limiting or constricting frame of ‘diversity’, race or blackness has been important to Paul in his curatorial work.  “When you look at the work of Damian Hirst or Tracey Emin, they do not have to explain their work as white artists, whereas Black artists often do have to explain themselves…when actually they are just doing work that interests them. It is really important to place the work of art at the centre and that’s what guides my practice at the moment,” he said.  

Paul was talking with the Warden of Wadham College, Ken Macdonald QC and History Fellow, Professor Jane Garnett to a virtual audience of more than 80 members of the Wadham community.  Watch the entire discussion HERE

  • Professor Paul Goodwin

    Paul Goodwin in his office at Chelsea College of Arts, by Sabrina Mumtaz Hasan

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