Category Archives: Arts

How to get your Birkbeck studies off to a flying start

Student Engagement Officer Rebecca Slegg offers top tips to new students, to help you settle into Birkbeck, get your studies off to a flying start and help you make sure you get the most out of your time here.

  1. Set up a study space at home. If possible, decide on one place where you will be able to study. Keep it free from clutter and other distractions as much as possible and make sure that your family/flatmates know that when you’re there they should avoid interrupting you if they can.
  2. Talk to your friends and family about your course. If the people in your life know why studying is important to you and what it involves, they will be able to better support you throughout your course. They’ll understand why you might not be able to go out every weekend at exam or assignment time. They’ll also be interested to hear about the new ideas and topics you’re now an expert on!
  3. Attend Orientation and the Students’ Union Fresher’s Fayre in September. This is a great opportunity to meet fellow students, find out about life at Birkbeck and join some of the many clubs and societies open to students.
  4. Create a wall planner and use it to map out your first term. Plot on your term dates, exam dates and assignment deadlines. This will help you to know when the pressure points are so that you can plan ahead in other areas of your life to accommodate your study needs and be well prepared to meet all of your course requirements comfortably.
  5. Set up a WhatsApp group/Facebook group with your classmates. This will enable you to share tips and information between lectures and seminars and help you get to know each other quickly. You will probably find that your classmates quickly become a source of support and encouragement.
  6. Sign up to academic skills workshops. Birkbeck offers a wide-range of resources for students to brush up on their academic skills, whether you need a refresher on essay writing or an introduction to academic referencing – get ahead with these skills now so you’re not trying to master them at the same time as researching and writing your first assignment.

  7. Explore the campus. Get to know Bloomsbury. There is a wide range of bars, restaurants, coffee shops, indie bookshops and cultural facilities close to our campus.
  8. Arrange to meet your personal tutor. Your tutor is there to offer advice and support on issues that may affect your academic progress. Some of the topics you might discuss with your tutor include module choices; exam revision; meeting deadlines; any personal or professional issues that are affecting your studies.

  9. Buy some nice stationery. Investing in some nice paper and pens is a subtle reminder to yourself of the investment you have made in coming to Birkbeck and that this is something that you believe is worth doing and will help you to move ahead with your life goals.
  10. Find out about Birkbeck Talent (the in-house recruitment agency) and the Careers and Employability Service. These two services can offer advice on CV writing, interview techniques, setting up your own business and can suggest suitable short- and long-term positions to match your skills and interests.
  11. Make sure you’ve ticked off all the items in our new student checklist, which includes all the practical details you need to have covered like enrolling on the course, paying your fees and setting up library and WIFI access.

At our graduation ceremony we asked those who had made it what advice they would give new students:

If you’re a current student, why not add your own advice for those just starting out in the comments section?

 

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“Undertaking my curatorial internship has allowed me to discover the world of curating contemporary art and has enabled me to gain invaluable first-hand experience”

Mathilde Jourdan, MA Museum Cultures with Curating student, is undertaking a work placement at the P21 Gallery, London, as part of her degree course. In this blog, she highlights the experiences she has gained so far on her placement and her ambitions for the future.

The ‘We Refuse To Be Scapegoats’ exhibition

Work experience is increasingly essential to the development of a career, sometimes even more so than degrees and skills. For many students or recent graduates, acquiring that work experience is made difficult by the lack of opportunities in the professional world. Therefore, work placements and internships are often the first step into building one’s experience.

After an initial career in archaeology specialising in Greek cults and sanctuaries, I decided to switch to a museum career. The degrees available in France did not offer an interesting overview on the field of museums nor practical work experience; for those reasons, I decided to continue my studies in the UK. In the context of my MA Museum Cultures with Curating degree at Birkbeck, one of the main aspects I was looking forward to was the work placement, and I was thrilled when I was offered an on-going placement at the P21 Gallery in a curatorial role under the guidance of the director, Mr Yahya Zaloom.

During my degree I have been focusing on studying the impact of colonisation on museums’ collections and the decolonising process in art institutions. The P21 Gallery felt like the perfect environment to develop my ideas and curatorial experience. The gallery, located in Somers Town, is a London-based charitable trust promoting contemporary Arab art and culture. It also commits to increasing the visibility of Arab artists, partly thanks to their residency programme, reACT, offering opportunities for emerging student artists to contribute to the creating of art that aims to strengthen cultural ties and open dialogues between the East and West.

In the first few days of my placement, I met Pam Skelton, a British artist with mixed Eastern European Jewish heritage, who was preparing for her exhibition. We Refuse To Be Scapegoats was Pam Skelton’s first solo UK exhibition in the last ten years and it was the result of Skelton’s long-term research on her own family history, in particular the memories and impact of the Jewish Shoah (Holocaust) and the Palestinian Nakba (meaning ‘catastrophe’ or ‘disaster’) on ensuing generations. I helped her and the exhibition curator, Iliyana Nedkova, with social media posts and related publications, which enabled me to explore the exhibition resources they curated – all free to read, listen to, watch or download. Pam draws her work from different sources, including her own video and audio archive from her research trips to Poland in 1993 and 1996, Israel and Palestine in 1995, and Scotland in 2016, alongside online archives selected from Israeli and Palestinian non-governmental organisations, human rights charities, and media resources.

It was an amazing opportunity to be able to work alongside an experienced curator and an inspiring artist while discovering the importance of social media and diverse forms of communication to reach audiences, especially in a COVID-safe gallery environment. In the future weeks, I have the chance to develop my own online exhibition on the representation of Algerian women, by female artists of Algerian origin. The exhibition has two main goals: firstly, to denounce the hurtful stereotypes created by Orientalist men-artists from the 19th centuries which, to the present day, have consequences on the view of Arab women; and secondly, to help women of Muslim and Arab backgrounds reclaim their history, their bodies, and their image, eroticised and oppressed by the Western world.

Undertaking my curatorial internship in the lead to the private view of the We Refuse To Be Scapegoats exhibition allowed me to discover the world of curating contemporary art and has enabled me to gain invaluable first-hand experience of publicising a solo exhibition comprised of moving image works which span 20 years.

In the future, I intend to continue expanding my knowledge and experience to work in curating, in particular for difficult and silenced histories which are, more than ever, relevant nowadays. This work placement made me realise the importance of peoples’ struggles through history, the impact these events have had on our current society, and the priority we should give to those narratives to develop our understanding of the past to create a better future.

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Meet the Open Library of Humanities team

The six members of the Open Library of Humanities Team in different squares on Microsoft Teams

The Open Library of Humanities team

Tell us who you are, and where you sit in the Birkbeck, University of London departmental structure?

The Open Library of Humanities (OLH) is an award-winning, academic-led, gold open-access publisher with no author-facing charges. OLH was launched in 2015 and has been operating as an independent charity until May 2021, which is when the platform merged with Birkbeck, University of London.

We are based in the College’s Department of English, Theatre and Creative Writing, and it’s Centre for Technology and Publishing. We’re proud to hold a Coko Foundation Open Publishing Award, an AOP Digital Publishing Award, and to have been Highly Commended at the ALPSP Awards for Innovation in Publishing.

How many staff are in the team?
The OLH has a team of five — soon to be six — full-time members of staff.

The team in detail:

  • Dr Rose Harris-Birtill is the Acting Director and Managing Editor of the Open Library of Humanities, and is head of editorial at OLH. She is also the Editor of our flagship journal, OLH.
  • Paula Clemente Vega is the Marketing Officer for the Open Library of Humanities where she is in charge of memberships and of increasing the visibility of the OLH through outreach, marketing and advocacy.
  • Dr Eleanor Careless is the Editorial Officer for the Open Library of Humanities where she oversees editorial processes and production.
  • Andy Byers is a Senior Publishing Technology Developer at the Birkbeck’s Centre for Technology and Publishing. He leads development of the Janeway journal management system project.
  • Mauro Sanchez is a Senior Publishing Technology Developer at Birkbeck’s Centre for Technology and Publishing. He is in charge of managing development processes and operations for the Janeway project.
  • The OLH was co-founded by Professor Martin Paul Eve and Dr Caroline Edwards from Birkbeck’s Department of English, Theatre and Creative Writing.

What are the key functions of the team?
Our mission at the OLH is to support and extend open access to scholarship in the humanities – for free, for everyone, forever. Our small but hardworking team each oversee different facets of the organisation to make this mission a reality, supporting the editors across our platform of 28 open access journals, developing and maintaining our own field-leading open-source publishing platform, and securing the funding that allows our journals to remain completely free to read and free to publish in.

The OLH operates using a consortial funding model, which means that over 300 institutions pool their resources to collectively fund our open access publishing activities, allowing us to publish scholarship without the need to charge authors or readers. Our idea is that research organisations and libraries make a relatively small voluntary contribution – often less than a single article processing charge – that, when combined, covers the costs of running a publication platform on which peer-reviewed scholarly journals can then be published as fully open access. Our dedicated Marketing Officer is in charge of working with member universities, securing the vital member support that allows us to keep running.

One of the goals of the OLH has been to flip subscription journals to open access, making previously paid-for scholarly journals completely free to read and publish in. With this model we are proud to say that the OLH has been able to expand from 7 journals in 2015 to 28 journals in 2021. A huge milestone was the development and launch of Janeway in 2017, our own field-leading innovative open-source publishing platform developed fully in-house by our talented Senior Publishing Technology Developers, which is used both by our published and funded journals, as well as by a growing number of external partner university presses. The editorial team is in charge of coordinating the academic journals published by the Open Library of Humanities, and our Director oversees the day-to-day running of the organisation.

How have you been keeping each other afloat during the pandemic?
The OLH is fully set up for remote working, which allows us to keep overheads low. As such, we worked from home before the pandemic, so in that respect, not much has changed! However, we’ve continued to work closely to support each other through a challenging year. Organising online parties and games has been what has helped cheer up our days and keep us motivated during lockdown, as well as sharing funny gifs, anecdotes, photos and pet updates!

What are your current key activities?
We recently merged with Birkbeck, University of London, which has been a huge milestone for securing the future of the organisation, and now have a new Director, Dr Rose Harris-Birtill. She stepped in to replace Professor Martin Paul Eve, who is currently on research leave until Autumn 2022.

Universities continue to join us on a weekly basis, and our Marketing Officer is always busy dealing with member universities, sending invoices and doing outreach.

With a strong supporter base, we are now in the process of expanding our team. We recently hired a talented new Editorial Officer, Dr Eleanor Careless, and are in the process of hiring a third Publishing Technology Developer to help with journal migrations to our in-house publishing platform Janeway.

What are the plans for the year ahead?
Our developers, with the help of our editorial team, are in the process of migrating most of our journals to Janeway, a sizable project due to be complete by the end of the year, and which means that these will all be published using our own in-house publishing software.

We have recently been awarded a grant of £200,000 from Arcadia, a charitable fund of Dr Lisbet Rausing and Professor Peter Baldwin, to support the innovative research and work of the Open Library of Humanities. This grant will be used to help OLH to expand and diversify its revenue sources. While the pandemic has put strain on library budgets worldwide, OLH has achieved financial stability using its innovative collective funding model. This funding will allow the Centre for Technology and Publishing to expand its Janeway services, thereby providing a second, secure, and stable revenue source for the years to come.

We also recently launched our new Jisc Collections OLH offer for UK institutions. Under this new agreement, UK universities are given the opportunity to voluntarily support us at a higher membership rate. In the coming year, this will allow us to re-open our journal flipping programme to grow our portfolio of open access journals, and make even more world-leading scholarship freely available to all.

When libraries choose to support us at the higher tiers, we will invite applications from scholarly journals currently at for-profit, subscription, and hybrid publishers to apply to join OLH, once we have suitable revenue levels. This flipping will yield benefits not only for the titles that choose to join us and convert to open access, but will also escalate pressure on other publishers to adopt models for equitable open access that allow greater knowledge sharing worldwide.

Who do you most closely work with?
We work closely with our authors, journal editors, partner presses, platform users and university presses that use Janeway to publish their journals, as well as with our 300+ member institutions, and the library open access community more generally.

Janeway is currently used by many publishers and libraries including Michigan Publishing Services, UCL Press, the Open Library of Humanities, Huddersfield University Press, Iowa State Digital Press, the University of Essex, the University of West London, and California Digital Library, which uses Janeway to host its recently launched Preprint service Eartharxiv.

Tell us something interesting about the team.
We love playing games together, and our past online parties have included virtual bomb defusal and the retro real-time strategy game Red Alert (in its open-source version, of course). During the lockdown, two of our team members completed an all-night online gaming session to raise money for charity, and one member of the team even repurposed an old TV to build their own virtual truck-driving rig, complete with steering wheel and cup holder (we’ll leave it to you to figure out who!)

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“The work placement as part of my degree course has given me the opportunity of a lifetime”

Sarina Munro, MA Museum Cultures with Curating student, is in the midst of a work placement at the Swedenborg Society, an educational charity in central London which publishes the works of Swedish scientist, philosopher and visionary, Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772). In this blog, Sarina shares how she is undergoing a complete career change and explains what she is doing on her placement.

Sarina Munro

On a rainy April morning I stopped outside a beautiful bookshop that looked like it was out of a Charles Dickens novel. I walked up the side steps and entered this enchanting little gem in the heart of Bloomsbury, London. Yet, what happened was more than stepping into a bookshop – I had just stepped in through an invisible wardrobe into my very own Narnia. As I closed the bookshop door, I closed the door to the outside world – a high-octane, fast-paced, ever-instant digital world, which can sometimes feel so overwhelming and utterly consuming.

I made my way to the Gardiner Room and found myself in an amazing room with bookshelves from floor to ceiling. I stood there and did a 360-degree turn, smiling to myself because I felt like I had just walked into Tommy Lascelles’s room in The Crown. This was going to be my workplace for the next three months, under the mentorship of a Swedenborg Society librarian and archivist, Alex Murray. I was starting a work placement as a collections and archives assistant, as part of my MA Museum Cultures with Curating at Birkbeck.

I am a mature student. The first time I went to university was in the 1990s. I read English, then did a post-grad in print journalism, and went on to have a career in national newspapers and magazines, which culminated in a staff job at a national broadsheet. However, even when working on a newspaper, I would daydream about going back to university to study at Birkbeck. That daydream to study, then became a dream to pursue a whole new career in museology. When the world went into lockdown in 2020, I realised life is too short to just dream. Once on my course, I chose the work placement option, so that I could get some practical experience. I applied to the Swedenborg Society because I am a huge fan of the early feminist-activist Josephine Butler, who led the campaign to repeal the Contagious Diseases Acts of the 1860s. In my interview, I gave an impassioned speech about her work and my interest in Swedenborg Society’s Josephine Butler collection. Little did I know then that the executive director, Mr Stephen McNeilly, would give me an opportunity of a lifetime.

After my initial three weeks’ training, I was handed a folder by Mr McNeilly. It was Swedenborg Society’s Josephine Butler collection: eight letters written by Josephine to James John Garth Wilkinson – homeopath and supporter of the repeal campaign. I was tasked with transcribing and researching the letters. There was such an incredible intimacy in holding those letters, feeling them between my fingers, looking at the fading ink on the yellowish paper – and then, deciphering cursive-Victorian handwriting. On my first day, I struggled, but as each day went by, I became more and more familiar with Josephine’s writing and began to spot dates and connect them with corresponding events in Josephine’s life. It was an incredible feeling, being given the privilege of working with the collection. I felt a closeness to Josephine Butler. I also felt extremely humbled and honoured to have the responsibility of transcribing Josephine’s impassioned words and extracts from her spiritual diary.

My work placement is hands-on and inspiring. Every day I learn so much about collections, archives and the history of Emanuel Swedenborg, his work and all the prominent figures in history that he has influenced and been linked with, such as William Blake, S.T Coleridge, JJG Wilkinson and many more. Working at the Swedenborg Society has inspired me to peel back more and more layers and I have immersed myself into the esoteric, enchanting world of Swedenborgians.

The Swedenborg Museum is currently showing Swedenborg in 27 Objects, curated by Executive Director Stephen McNeilly. It is open to the public every Wednesday from 11am to 5pm. It is a wonderfully eclectic exhibition – from The Josephine Butler collection, a letter written by disability activist Helen Keller, to illustrations by William Blake. For the ghoulish, there are even Swedenborg’s body parts on display. Come and visit. Enter through the bookshop and experience your very own Narnia.

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Mentoring on the Compass Project

Luke Williams is a part-time lecturer in Creative Writing, member of the Compass Project Steering Committee and mentor. In this blog, he speaks to Natasha Soobramanien about his involvement in the project.

A laptop with a sign that says 'we rise by helping others'

I’ve been involved in the Compass Project since it began in 2016. Right from the start we realised that if we wanted to offer scholarships to people from forced migrant backgrounds, we also needed to make sure those students received the support they might need to thrive at Birkbeck. Each student on the Compass Project has a mentor, an academic at Birkbeck who elects to support them through their studies.

Compass Project students face particular challenges in relation to British institutions: government policy is designed to create a hostile institutional environment for migrants, and educational institutions are no exception to this. But the university is also a place to gain and share knowledge, and to form friendships with others. Our job as mentors is to give Compass Project students practical and moral support so that they remain able to focus on the positive and rewarding aspects of student life, and the opportunities Birkbeck offers.

The mentoring role is a little like a personal tutor, but involves a lot more contact and communication, and flexibility. On average I speak to my mentee around three to four times a month. It could be a simple check-in, or a response to a request, like support with an essay, or help liaising with other departments or services. I’ve helped out with finding a laptop and looking for a place to live. In the current pandemic, this kind of contact is particularly necessary for students who might already feel quite isolated. I’d say this role has been the most challenging and rewarding aspect of my involvement in the Compass Project.

Before the Compass Project, I’d volunteered for several years at Akwaaba, a Hackney-based social centre for migrants, so I had some awareness of the stressful logistical, bureaucratic and emotional complexities faced by migrants. Getting involved with the Compass Project allowed me to find a way to align the advocacy, creative work, and activism I was involved in at Akwaaba, with my day job at Birkbeck.

Through my role as a mentor I have met some amazing people. I’ve enjoyed our conversations, and learned a lot. Everyone at Birkbeck knows that universities are in a precarious position right now, and that our roles as academics are increasingly co-opted by the marketisation of education. Getting involved in the Compass Project feels like a gesture of resistance against this deliberate erosion of what is truly valuable in the university, which is to say study – and the freedom to do this with others.

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A moving celebration of Black History Month

Carmen Fracchia, Professor of Hispanic Art History, Cultures & Languages, School of Arts, reflects on her recent book tour and the emotive nature of the response to her book in considering the experience of Black people in Spain.

Flemish painter, Baptism of the Ethiopian Eunuch. Book of Hours of Charles V, do l. 82r. Brussels or Malines, c. 1519, Österreichische, Nationalbibliothek

On 2 October, I was invited to present my new book ‘Black but Human: Slavery and Visual Art in Hapsburg Spain, 1480-1700’ (Oxford: OUP, 2019) at the University of Lincoln (UK) to celebrate Black History Month, together with two poets, one visual artist, and an art historian. I found this event, UT PICTURA POESIS: An Evening of Poetry, Art and Art History, deeply emotional.

Organised by Dr Laura Fernández-González (School of History and Heritage), the title emerged from her belief in the power of images, following the steps of Horace’s maxime, ‘as is painting, so is poetry.’ Her aim, however, was to show new work produced as a case study on how to construct a ‘new anti-racist Art and Architectural History’. Her brief was followed by the presentation of the three artists by the art historian Michael Ohajuru, a TV personality and director of The John Blanke Project.

In my view, the most unexpected feature of the evening, was the poem ‘Negro pero humano’ (‘Black but Human’) by the literary activist, editor, publisher, and, award-winning poet, Kadija Sesay MBE. It was one of her two extremely powerful poems, written specifically for this event as a response to my book, to its title, and to two images of her choice, The Miracle of the Black Leg and The Baptism of the Ethiopian Eunuch.

The first part of the title of my book, ‘Black but Human’, was an Afro-Hispanic proverb and the prism from which I tried to foreground the forgotten presence of Africans and their descendants in the visual form in early modern Spain. This proverb also allowed me to explore the emergence of the ‘enslaved subject’ and the ‘emancipated subject’ in Spanish portraiture.

This saying, that was circulated in the Afro-Spanish oral tradition and appropriated by well-known Hispanic poets, such as Luis de Góngora in Spain and Juana Inés de la Cruz in Mexico, was also written by enslaved and liberated Africans, as the findings of anonymous black carols, in 2004, testify.

‘Black but Human’ encodes the paradoxical nature of what it meant to be a ‘black’ person in ‘white’ Spain, between 1480-1700. To be ‘black’, as I have recently written in my blog, ‘How long do we need to wait to acknowledge that black people are no longer our slaves?, ‘meant to be a chattel, a piece of property, to be hired, bought and sold as a precious commodity at auctions; to become objects of material exchange: traded to save the donor’s soul, gifts, dowry, and, heritage; money to pay debts, to settle accounts in lieu of mortgages, and rents.

To be a black person meant to be owned by a slave master and to suffer punishment at any sign of rebellion against this complete dehumanization in a society where the word ‘black’ and the physical appearance of blackness were signifiers of the specific social condition of slavery. Besides, to be a black person also meant to become a strategic resource for the colonization of the New World.’ Africans were also considered ‘children of God’ as they had a soul that was whitened by the transformative powers of baptism. Christianity made them equal to Spaniards, but only in the spiritual realm.

Kadija’s beautiful poems encapsulated the ideological, painful, and contradictory position of Africans in the Spanish empire that I explored in my book, perfectly. Her poems set up the emotional barometer of the Lincoln event that was strengthened by the topical work made by the visual artist Victoria Burgher. In her presentation, she showed ten temporary works made with ‘colonial commodities’, like sugar and cotton to ‘re-examine white-washed narratives of empire’ and as a critique to the British Transatlantic Slavery in the Caribbean and in the UK. This strong visual presentation was complemented by the speed and cascade of words by international media activist and poet-educator Mark Thompson’s brilliant performance of his personal and historical poems, that brought the energy and anger of the young.

The last half of the evening was followed by the conversation between Michael and I about my book. We discussed the historical amnesia of the African presence in today’s Spain; the title of my book; the visual representation of the Miracle of the Black Leg, as the metaphor of the violence of slavery and the roots of contemporary racism in the Hispanic world; the portraits of the enslaved Juan de Pareja (c.1606, Antequera, Málaga–c.1670, Madrid) by his owner, the court painter Diego Velázquez; Pareja’s self-portrait, as a freedman, in his painting The Calling of Saint Matthew, and, the urgent need to recover the Afro-Hispanic contribution to the Hispanic culture.

This event was attended by approximately 80 people and generated so many questions from the numerous national and international attendees (students, academics, museums curators, filmmakers, artists, writers, among many others) that time was not enough to address all of them.

Read Kadija Sesay’s poem, Negro pero Humano

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Introducing Birkbeck’s 2020 Chevening cohort

This year Birkbeck is delighted to welcome 30 new Chevening scholars, hailing from all corners of the world. The prestigious Chevening scholarship is offered each year by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office to promising students, chosen for their leadership potential and academic promise.

Once again Chevening students from a number of countries opted to join Birkbeck, attracted by its reputation, the possibility it offers to study alongside London’s professionals.

Meet our 2020 Chevening cohort.

Nozipho Nomzana “Zana” Mziyako, Eswatini, MSc Corporate Social Responsibility & Sustainability

Nozipho Mziyako, Etiswani

Nozipho Mziyako, Etiswani

“I applied for the Chevening scholarship because it presents a big opportunity for individuals like me who envision themselves as key contributors to society’s positive development, to learn through academics, forged networks and international experiences.  I love travelling, hiking, adventures, meeting people as well as experiencing different cultures. Through this Chevening experience, I look forward to the exposure and growth and most importantly ploughing back to society.”

 

Joan Santani Santanasam, Malaysia, MA Journalism

Joan Santani Santansam, Malaysia

Joan Santani Santansam, Malaysia

“I’m a business journalist working with Malaysia’s National News Agency, Bernama. I have been working in the journalism industry for eight years now covering a range of news on business, finance, commodities, stock market and politics.

The Chevening Scholarship is really the gateway for me to enhance my knowledge, broaden my worldview and hone my leadership and social skills. These are essential skills to further enhance my career as a journalist.”

 

 

 

Bongani Njalo, South Africa, MA Arts Policy & Management

Bongani Njalo, South Africa

Bongani Njalo, South Africa

Bongani Njalo is an award-winning South African artist whose work in drawing, performance, installation and traditional bead-making explores themes in culture, collective and individual identity. Njalo was a recipient of the David Koloane Award (2014), he was named one of the Top 200 Young South Africans by the Mail & Guardian (2016) and went on to become a Mandela Washington Fellow in 2017, a programme lead by the Department of State for Young African Leaders.

 

Yoandra Rodriguez Betancourt, Cuba, MSc Marketing Communications

Yoandra Rodriguez Betancourt

Yoandra Rodriguez Betancourt

“As a communication specialist and marketing enthusiast, I’ve been able to work and gain experience on different scenarios; from large public companies to private small businesses in Cuba, and they all could benefit from accurate and up-to-date marketing tools.

For me, to deserve this opportunity means one of the greatest challenges that I’ll ever have, I’ve always found British culture and history fascinating, and being able to experience it in person is a unique privilege; especially for a woman like me that coming from a working-class family I’ve always felt driven to exceed expectations”.

 

Zeina Ramadan, Palestine, MSc Creative Industries

Zeina Ramadan

Zeina Ramadan, Palestine

“Being a professional in the creative industry in my home country and observing the sector first hand on the ground led me to choose this major. Through working on various projects and different institutions within filmmaking, animation, TV, content editing as well as the audio publishing industry, I gained a deeper insight into the needs and the hole in the wall which need to be filled not only in my home country but in the region as a whole and the potential it has to grow. This heightened my passion and consequently led me to Chevening as it was a one-of-a-kind opportunity for me to be able to make a difference. Here I am! About to start a life-changing experience whilst simultaneously gaining knowledge and connections in the field I am most passionate about.”

 

Chiranthi Senanayake, Sri Lanka, LLM International Economic Law, Justice andDevelopment

Chiranthi Senanayake

Chiranthi Senanayake

A youth empowerment advocate specializing in the niche area of Youth Empowerment Incubation (YEI) Chiranti Seneneyake is the Founder and President of Hype Sri Lanka which is the country’s first youth empowerment incubator. She is also the Founding President of the Young Legal Professionals Association of Sri Lanka.

She was appointed as the United Nations Youth Delegate for Sri Lanka in 2016 in recognition of her community service. In this capacity she has worked as a Youth Focal Point to the National Youth Services Council and the Ministry of National Policies and Economic Affairs. Chiranthi also served as the Global Ambassador for Sri Lanka for Youth Opportunities in 2018. She is a Women Deliver Young Leader of 2020 and the recipient of The Diana Award 2020.

 

Presely Gitari, Kenya, MSc Climate Change

Presley Gitari

Presley Gitari, Kenya

“I’m a conservation biologist from Kenya, who works with the country’s Ministry of Interior and Coordination of National Government in helping ex-offenders reintegrate into society by using environmental conservation as a tool of socio-economic empowerment.

“I’m also an Associate Fellow with the Royal Commonwealth Society and I am passionate about improving the lives and prospects of citizens of the Commonwealth.

“I applied for Chevening because it represents purpose beyond academic progression, as it inculcates a mindset focused on leadership and fostering networks to positively impact the lives of others. ”

 

 

 

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Locked down, yet together!

In this blog post, we hear from MA Screenwriting student, Omneya Okasha on the support of peers and tutors at the virtual screening of her new short film

Omneya Okasha

As a Birkbeck student and an independent filmmaker, I’ve had the double pleasure of sharing my short film, “Lippie aka Sheffa” with my tutors and colleagues via the virtual screening event that was organized by La Young Jackson from International student administration on the 17th June 2020.

The event was originally planned to take place mid March, in the vicinity of Birkbeck’s Iconic cinema. I was excitedly looking forward to sharing my directorial debut on the large screen with Birkbeck’s community, but unfortunately as we know, we all went through a global crisis and the historical event of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Hopeful as we were then, the event was postponed ’til the summer term, expecting the university buildings would reopen by then. Not too long into lockdown, it was evident we would not be returning to the University this year, and I was regretful I hadn’t held my event sooner in the year.

However an email from La Young in June gave this event another opportunity,  as she suggested that we could hold a virtual screening of my film followed by an online discussion. I was thrilled at this chance revival, though I was a little concerned that the online screening of an international short film may not draw an audience. To my surprise, many registered to the event and showed quite the enthusiasm to attend.

On the screening day, I was delighted to see my professor, classmates, and attendees who I was first acquainted with during the event. La Young has kindly introduced me and I gave a brief presentation about my background as a filmmaker, and about the film. After the introductions, we all watched the film together, then the space was given for a Q& A, which La Young moderated.

The audience’s engagement was incredible, and the discussion was highly intellectual, and I was elated to receive the audience’s questions and gestures of support for my film. It was truly rewarding for me as a filmmaker to welcome such encouragement from an amazing crowd of highly talented professionals and fellow students.

I guess we have all got accustomed to the new normal of the current situation, and it was refreshing on many levels to know that we can still go through such difficult times, making the most of them, with each other’s support. Looking back on this experience, I feel recharged with hope and drive to work hard on my upcoming project, thanks to the support and sense of unity I have received, to which I am deeply grateful.

 

A photo of the poster for the movie Sheffa Aka Lippie

Sheffa (meaning Lip) follows the story of a 10-year old boy and is so-called for the scar he bears. His mother scolds him and uses him and his friends to sell weed on the streets. Her ambitions are threatened when Sheffa gets a period, revealing that in fact Sheffa is a girl being raised up as a boy.

Watch the trailer for the film Sheffa aka Lippie here

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The Unfortunate Persistence of Being

As the discussion over the meaning and significance of statues wears on, Gaynor Tutani, who is currently completing a PG Diploma in Museum Cultures discusses the current Black Lives Matter Movement and how cultural institutions can engage with history and encourage more inclusion within the industry. 

Perpetual Histories

I have been here before,
You have been here before,
We have been here before.
How long will we have this same conversation?

I am tired. I used to feel the pain.
Now, almost, I do not feel!
I saw the knee heavy on his neck, everyone saw it,
but the knee is always on our necks.
We carry it daily.
It’s on my SKIN,
Engraved on my Bones,
And flows through my Blood.

I am Black. I am African,
You are African too,
Evolution says so.
But somehow my Black is an outcast,
To be feared, hated and killed.
Not only a physical death.
No, the deeper death,
One that TAKES my spirit, hopes and dreams.

Regardless, I fight. I push.
I continue to BE. For there is pride in my being.
There is pride in knowing my history and who I am.
I am more than Black!
My life matters, I am human,
Just like you.

Jean Joseph, A Good Outlook, 2010, Mixed Media on Canvas

Jean Joseph, A Good Outlook, 2010, Mixed Media on Canvas

How do I feel about the Black Lives Matter movement? What does it mean to me as a Black woman and a British citizen with African origins? These are a few questions that have been playing in my mind following the passing of George Floyd. It has not been easy to digest his horrific death, and so, I have not really found any answers to my questions. Today we all call for change, but how is this change going to come about or is it even possible? I ask this because Floyd was one of many Black men that have died at the hands of White police. There have been women too, yet their stories do not receive the same attention. This is not to say that their deaths and lives were less important, but it highlights the fact that it is prevalent within the United States of America. I believe that this is why it bothers me, knowing that his story is yet another devastating headliner of perpetuated terror.

Historically Africans and those of African descent have suffered extreme injustices due to an adopted persistent backwardness based on geography and melanin. While the racists’ systems of slavery, segregation and apartheid have ended, we cannot deny their lasting imprints and legacies within our current political, socio-economic and cultural societies. Deep psychological traumas continue to affect Black people – inherited from their ancestors, termed by Dr Joy DeGruy as Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome. Although she coins it “Slave Syndrome”, I believe that the crippling impact of trauma should be considered with regards to all western encounters with Africa and its diaspora. This includes colonisation and its destruction of Africa as a whole. Therefore, when I think about these histories and the Black resistance movements that occurred – such as the Civil Rights Movement in America and the Black Consciousness Movement in South Africa, both in the 1960s –  it is disheartening  that in 2020 a movement called Black Lives Matter is even necessary to counteract current racist systems.

Nonetheless, despite this dim reality, I am encouraged by the movement’s momentum and the level of scrutiny currently on equality and social justice. But I am also concerned that this focus on racism is an unsustainable banner.

How long will the discourses continue without positive, tangible change? How do we end this perpetual cycle of action and reaction? As a keen student of history and a cultural facilitator, I believe that museums and other cultural institutions can make lasting contributions and be an example of the change we need, via a true engagement with our society. One that does more than tick the boxes of inclusion and diversity, but actually acknowledges our society’s unique cultural fabric and how it came about. We have to honestly discuss controversial topics such as racism and its intricate connection to our lives. I believe that art can inspire and change people’s perspectives and understanding of their world. Consequently, museums and curators should do more to address difficult issues within their curation and programming.

This has been my mission as a curator and co-founder of EARTHworks a curatorial duo that organically formed with my partner, Jean Joseph (a visual artist and cultural facilitator; @artmaroon). Together we have hosted and organised exhibitions, talks and events that delve into similar topics such as race, culture and history. Currently, we are working in partnership with arc Gallery to realise an exhibition that investigates the complexities of colonisation. Reading from scholars such as Frantz Fanon, Cheikh Anta Diop and Mandivamba Rukini, just to mention a few, the project draws upon theories of existentialism, as a means to discuss notions of identity. It aims to highlight how cultural institutions and those working within the arts can address uncomfortable narratives. In short, the exhibition comprises an academic interrogation of how history has shaped the lives of Black and Brown people, which sometimes is not included within museum exhibitions dedicated to people of colour.

The above comment is not an attack on museums. There has been an improvement within their structures, but I believe more can be done, especially within the operational field. There is a significant shortage of Black and Brown curators and general programming staff within museums. Although there has been a rise in exhibitions for/dedicated to people of colour, the fact that these showcases are not directed or led by those they claim to represent is problematic. Therefore, even though many museums have been working on decolonisation agendas within their operations, the extent to which these methods are effective are minimal if the decolonisation does not involve those that have been colonised by the very imperialist structures of museums.

Further, discussing issues of decolonisation within museums, Tristram Hunt, (Director of the Victoria & Albert Museum ) in his newspaper article on restitution and repatriation of previously looted collections within museums, argued that it was not possible to decolonise or return some artefacts due to the fact that losing them would be to disregard museums’ historical ties with empire. As a result, he contends that to “decolonise is to decontextualise” since the rise of empires was closely linked to collections.

Consequently, Hunt urges museums to find the right balance when dealing with their collections and the historical narratives behind them. In a way Hunt’s argument shows the reluctance of the West to relinquish its colonial hold. He proposes better museum practices and claims that the V&A has made procedural progress. However, his current idea of loaning artefacts to their countries of origin is condescending. Why should they borrow what rightfully belongs to them? Hunt’s solution does not solve the problems or issues pertaining to restitution, which I believe can be resolved if there was a commensurate staffing of people of colour within museums and galleries. Their voice, experiences and knowledge are paramount when deciding how these collections can be returned or respectful partnerships be formed with their countries of origin.

As a Black cultural curator, and being aware of the historical race debate within the arts and cultural scene, I am in support of the Black Lives Matter movement as a vehicle to address social injustice. If change can be achieved at all, I believe that it can, and should, start with productive conversations within museums and heritage institutions.

Gaynor Tutani is a student on the Postgraduate Diploma in Museum Cultures in the Department of History of Art, and an independent curator. You can read more about her work and encounters with art and museums here: https://fambaneni.tumblr.com/

Further information:

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To lie about History – Statues and the British Slave Trade

Gabriel Burne, an MA History of Art student, discusses the legacy of the historical figures whose statues have been removed and how the current debates around these monuments should encourage deeper discussion about Britain’s violent and racist past. 

“The air of England is too pure for any slave to breathe.” Allegedly this was said during the trial of Shanley v. Harvey, a case where a British man, Shanley, was attempting to recoup a substantial sum of money given to Harvey by Shanley’s niece on her death bed. The basis of the claim was that Shanley had bought Harvey as a child slave to England some 12 years earlier and given him to his now deceased niece. I heard it quoted during my undergraduate degree in History in a debate about the role that slavery played in the UK economy. Even though many slaves were bought, sold and owned on the British Isles, the quote was employed as evidence of Britain’s relationship to slavery being distinct from that of the United States. Whilst the quote was likely never uttered, and the sentiment it reflected false, its popularisation reflects this Island’s complex and unresolved relationship to its violent and racist past. Much of Britain’s history of racial violence is hidden, existing only as ghosts haunting the otherwise heroic narrative of Britain and its heroes. When I embarked on a Master’s degree at Birkbeck in History of Art, it was these ghosts I wanted to know more about, in an effort to reinsert the lives and horrors which these spectres recall back into popular British history.

For many of us in Britain, our understanding of racism is taught from the perspective of the United States. The civil rights movement – Martin Luther King, the KKK, Malcolm X and segregation – are all things many in the UK have an understanding of. They are core aspects of our national curriculum and whilst they teach us important lessons on white supremacy, they create a sense of separation from the problems that exist here in Britain. To learn more about how we honour and adulate those who created this system of white supremacy in the UK, I took a module called “Slavery and its Cultural Legacies.” My reading for the course took me to some of the black theorists writing in the US currently – particularly Saidiya Hartman and Christina Sharpe. Whilst their writing was specifically speaking to an American experience, I felt there was a lot to be learned from their ideas here in the UK. Sharpe and Hartman speak of “the wake” and “the afterlife” of slavery respectively. Slavery’s violence lives on in white supremacy, a condition which is constitutive of contemporary Britain. The Research Project that I am currently writing examines the British monuments that often honour and/or neglect to acknowledge racial violence as part of the individual championed legacy.

Robert Milligan statue outside the London Docklands Museum

Robert Milligan statue outside the London Docklands Museum

In February this year, I went to the London Docklands Museum organised as part of the module. We were taken through the museum’s exhibition on slavery – London, Sugar & Slavery. The exhibition itself speaks of the ubiquity and brutality of the slave trade in the UK and is situated in the very building that was a hub for receiving the imported goods from Britain’s slave plantations. Whilst the museum takes steps to foreground black voices and highlight some of these hidden histories, a walk onto the docks outside the entrance reveals some stark reminders of this unconfronted violence. A cocktail bar serves “plantation punch” as a drink on the menu. And towering just in front of that sits a statue honouring prominent British slave trader Robert Milligan, who by the time of his death in 1809, owned two sugar plantations and 526 slaves in Jamaica.

I stared up at the dead metal eyes of Milligan looking out across the docks, posed as if smiling upon an arriving ship, bountiful with the fruits of his murderous plantations. The plinth on which the statue stands illustrates his achievements with a relief that depicts Britannia seated on her tame-looking British lion, whilst the female figure of commerce offers her riches and at her feet three cherubs help carry the bounty. The mast of an approaching ship is visible in the background, the very ships whose docking in Greenwich Milligan would have cheered.

The engraving below Robert Milligan’s statue

The engraving below Robert Milligan’s statue.

In romanticising the wealth men like Milligan brought lady Britannia, statues such as this obscure how this wealth originated in racial violence – the lucrative cargo carried aboard these ships, and which both Milligan and Britain celebrate, were produced by the enslaved. The continued existence of these statues’ silences new voices and alternative histories under the weight of the historical indulgence upon which Britain’s current power structures relies, that of a grotesque imperial and racially violent past located elsewhere, in far-off lands.

When I embarked on researching the Milligan statue, along with the statues of the slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol and Cecil Rhodes in Oxford, George Floyd was still alive. The protests catalysed by his murder at the hands of three police officers have since led to each either being removed or torn down by activists. This totally unforeseeable set of events taking place as I research these statues has left my project at an incredible crossroads that changes from day-to-day. The removal of the Colston statue in Bristol by activists, followed by its symbolically poignant casting into the harbour, prompted the Milligan statue to be removed by the local council days later. It has just been announced that the Cecil Rhodes statue that sat on Oriel College and has for years been the subject of the Rhodes Must Fall campaign, will likewise be removed. Commenting on these events, the Prime Minister stated that to remove these statues is to “lie about our history and impoverish the education of generations to come.” This statement is reminiscent of the same mental gymnastics performed by the relief that sits below the Milligan statue. Rather than being moved by watching the monuments to these men fall and cheering what is, at best, a small step toward confronting this violent past, Johnson continues the exercise of obfuscation. Not once does he mention precisely what he thinks this history is, yet he claims it to be the “truth”. To engage in the actual process of discussing this history is to highlight what these statues hide: that of a British slave-trading and imperial past not confronted, and the “afterlives” of the British slave in which non-white people in this country must live.

At the time of an anti-racist uprising alongside offering solidarity to America, we must also reflect on the constitutive role slavery and white supremacy have played in British history. As the actions of many demonstrators have movingly and powerfully shown, it is imperative to reflect on what voices are hidden when men like Colston, Milligan and Rhodes are celebrated. We must remind ourselves that the enslaved also breathed the UK’s air “too pure.”

Further reading:

On the British abolitionist movement and the Haitian revolution 

CLR James, The Black Jacobins, (Random HouseNew York, 1989)

US Black studies theorists and the afterlives of slavery 

Saidiya V Hartman Lose your mother: a journey along the Atlantic slave route (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2007)

Christina Sharpe In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (Duke University Press, Durham and London, 2016)

Fred Moten In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition (University of Minnesota Press, 2003)

For British involvement in the slave trade

Paul Gilroy The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double-Consciousness (Verso, London, New York, 1993)

Catherine Hall Legacies of British Slave-Ownership (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2016)

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