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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(Art) History Matters

Dr Sarah Thomas, from the Department of History of Art, shares her experience of museum curation in Australia and discusses how we should interrogate the ‘hidden histories’ that underpin current debates. 

In 1993 when working as a curatorial assistant in a public gallery in Sydney I was involved in a project which I’ll never forget. Yamangu Ngaanya. Our Land Our Body was an exhibition of paintings by a group of Aboriginal artists from a remote desert community in Warbuton, Western Australia. The dazzling canvases, derived from ancestral ‘Dreaming’ stories that were traditionally painted onto the body, were accompanied by forty-five Ngaanyatjarra men and women, most of whom had never visited a city in their lives and who had travelled to Sydney by coach over several days and nights. Besides the paintings they also brought with them sixteen tonnes of red sand from their land, which over the course of several days was dispersed over the gallery floor. What had been a standard ‘white cube’ interior was radically transformed into a space for ceremony: over several days and nights separate groups of women and men prepared and performed Dreaming ceremonies, filling the space with traditional song, language, dance, swirling dust, bodies painted in ochre, the smell of smoke and sweat. This was not what an art historical training had prepared me for: ‘performance art’, ‘installation’, and ‘body art’, even ‘painting’, were all wildly inadequate terms for what I observed over the course of that week.

I am reminded of this moment by the global repercussions recently of the Black Lives Matter anti-racism protests. The Australia I grew up in was deeply racist, and it remains so. Sadly, despite years of protest, public and scholarly debate, and a government apology in 2008 for the forced removal of Indigenous children from their families by national and state agencies, Indigenous Australians remain the most incarcerated people on earth. Leading Aboriginal artists have long been highly critical of Australia’s colonial past, and the pervasive hold it has on the present. Daniel Boyd, for example, critiques the nation’s foundational myths by reworking white Australian imagery, from heroic depictions of Captain Cook (statues of whom are currently the subject of heated debate) to encounters between Aboriginal and European settlers. I included Boyd’s painting We Call Them Pirates Out Here (2007) in an exhibition I curated in 2015 called Colonial Afterlives, which brought together the work of contemporary artists from former British colonies including Jamaica, Barbados, Guyana, Canada, New Zealand, as well as Australia.

: Colonial Afterlives exhibition catalogue cover. Image by Christian Thompson, Trinity III, from the Polari series, 2014. Christian Thompson is represented by Sarah Scout Presents (Melbourne) and Michael Reid Gallery (Sydney and Berlin).

Colonial Afterlives exhibition catalogue cover. Image by Christian Thompson, Trinity III, from the Polari series, 2014. Christian Thompson is represented by Sarah Scout Presents (Melbourne) and Michael Reid Gallery (Sydney and Berlin).

Over the past decade, I’ve been researching the European representation of enslaved people in the 18th and 19th centuries across the Caribbean, Brazil and antebellum America (the subject of my book, Witnessing Slavery: Art and Travel in an Age of Abolition). More recently, I’ve been talking to museum professionals and scholars across the UK about how their institutions might publicly acknowledge the cultural legacies of slavery. The work of UCL’s Legacies of British Slave-ownership project has uncovered a wealth of data about slave-owners at the moment of British emancipation in 1833, when a grant of £20 million (40% of Britain’s national budget) was paid in compensation, by British taxpayers to slave owners. My research draws on this work, focussing on the impact of slave-owners as art connoisseurs, collectors and patrons on the early history of British art museums.

There’s no doubt that such ‘hidden histories’ are troubling. The toppling of the statue of slave-trader Edward Colston on 7 June was not simply a spontaneous action born out of collective rage, but one with a long and more complex history of thwarted community attempts to acknowledge publicly Colston’s role in the slave trade. Madge Dresser points out that when the statue was erected in 1895 (over 170 years after the subject’s death), it coincided with the building of monuments which glorified the Confederacy in the United States, and others in Britain and across its Empire, which: ‘similarly extolled the virtues of British imperial figures whose relationship with colonised people of colour ranged from the paternalistic to the genocidal’. Historian Nick Draper is right when he says: ‘Historians need to be realistic about their reach and influence. But for more than 30 years scholars have worked towards an adequate post-colonial account of Britain’s history as a colonising and imperial power.’ He cautions: ‘We have tried to establish an evidence base that can be drawn on by all parties. The hegemonic view of British exceptionalism, its unique commitment to liberty and its glorious imperial past, has been challenged, but it has survived. Had we collectively succeeded, then some of the paths not taken would have been pursued. The binary of leave it alone/tear it down might have been avoided’. There is a sense of disappointment in this statement, as if historians themselves have in some sense failed in their attempts to challenge the status quo. But it is this ‘evidence base’ that is so vital to what we do as art historians as well, and why in our teaching we often speak about ‘authoritative sources’ and the importance of primary archival research.

Australia has a longer history of grappling with its colonial (British) past. As a curator in a big state art museum in the late 1990s, I was part of a generation that began to question the traditional separation in collection displays of ‘Aboriginal art’ and ‘Australian art’, interrupting Euro-centric chronological displays by introducing works of contemporary Indigenous artists, such as Boyd. (European visitors had no doubts about what constituted ‘Australian art’: they headed straight for the Aboriginal art collections.) My first sustained encounter with Aboriginal art and its makers in 1993 was profound, and its complexities and contradictions have stayed with me over the course of my career and feed now into my teaching. In Britain, museums are starting to engage more directly with the deeper implications of empire (see, for example, The Past is Now: Birmingham at the British Empire, 2017), but there is still much work to be done.

Art historians today are attentive to the complexities of social context, and careful to avoid the simplistic dualisms that newspapers, politicians and much social media commentary thrives on. Public statues have garnered attention across the world as lightning rods for heated and often bitter debates about national identities, yet the very fabric of our cities and countryside  – street names, public buildings, museum collections, archives, country houses, to name just a few examples – is steeped in the residue of history. This reminds us that colonial business is unfinished, its legacies are raw; history is now, and it matters.

 

Sarah Thomas is Lecturer in Museum Studies and History of Art in the Department of History of Art, and Director of the Centre for Museum Cultures. In Autumn term 2020, she will be teaching the seminar ‘Slavery and Its Cultural Legacies’ as part of the MA Museum Cultures and MA History of Art.

 

 

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Making Monuments Matter

As the debate about the removal of historical statues rages on, Professor Annie E Coombes reflects on the significance of statues in the discussion and commemoration of history. 

Sethembile Msezane performs 'Chapungu - The Day Rhodes Fell', April 2015.

Sethembile Msezane performs ‘Chapungu – The Day Rhodes Fell’, April 2015.

Since the 2015 call to arms of the #Rhodes Must Fall and #Fees Must Fall campaigns started on South African University campuses in a drive to get universities to finally address the legacy of racial inequalities produced by colonialism and apartheid, the baton has been taken up by other students worldwide. They have demanded that educational institutions address colonial amnesia and actively decolonize the curriculum. Birkbeck and other colleges of the University of London have slowly begun to put some energy behind addressing these demands closer to home, although some of us have always had this at the heart of our research and teaching agendas. The recent protests initiated by Black Lives Matter have reignited awareness of the deep structural legacy of racism in the wake of George Floyd’s hideous murder at the hands of Minneapolis police. The ripple effect around the globe has strengthened the long-repeated calls for legislated action to ensure equal rights and their implementation.

Here in the UK the Black Lives Matter movement has lent support to the voices of Baroness Lawrence of Clarendon OBE and David Lammy MP in their insistence on the necessity of implementing, rather than ignoring (again) the recommendations made in the numerous reports and reviews on racial inequality in Britain (including the 1997 inquiry into Stephen Lawrence’s death, Lammy’s own 2017 review into the treatment of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic individuals in the justice system and Wendy Williams’ review into the lessons learnt from the discriminatory treatment of the Windrush generation (2018 & 2020).

Municipal statuary has often been the visual centrepiece of these protests. For the past twenty years, I have been fascinated by monuments and their afterlives. The love, hate and ridicule they inspire, and the ways in which even those originally standing for the very worst aspects of human endeavour can become reanimated to generate a rallying cry for the most progressive solidarity. The recent toppling of the much-maligned statue of the Bristol slave trader Edward Colston during a Black Lives Matter protest is a case in point. That activism and energy were able to accomplish in one fell swoop, something that campaigners and academics in Bristol had been working towards for many years – a greater recognition of the ways in which the history of slavery has shaped the city of Bristol and the removal of celebratory monuments (including Colston’s) to the glory of that hideous trade.

Those who criticise the action as the erasure of history, fail to understand that the gesture has actually reignited an awareness of the importance of an understanding of how history shapes our experience of city spaces and either reinforces or excludes a sense of belonging in swathes of the population. In Bristol it has foregrounded the work of Madge Dresser, David Olusoga and others who have produced deep research on the often hidden histories of slavery and colonialism lurking in street names and municipal landmarks. (Dresser, Slavery Obscured: The Social History of an English Provincial Port c. 1698 – 1833, 2001) Perhaps iconoclasm and the deeper histories it draws attention to, can also enable a greater public recognition of the lives and deeds of men and women from BAME and other underrepresented communities. Or as Jared Brock says, writing on the hidden history of the ‘real’ Uncle Tom of the eponymous book – Joseph Henson, an unsung champion of the Underground Railway – “As monuments topple around the globe they leave space for worthier replacements’.

Research I conducted in Kenya at a moment when a new national history was being written in the wake of the unbanning in 2003 of the guerrilla organisation (Mau Mau) that had fought for the creation of an independent Kenya against British colonial rule in the 1950s and 60s, reinforced the potential power of monuments, but also their complicated valencies. In a quest for representativeness and a bid for national unity, following a wave of post-election violence that had rocked the country, local constituencies nationwide were asked to nominate heroes and heroines for national commemoration. While having many beneficial outcomes for some disenfranchised Kenyans, the nationwide competitiveness occasioned by the government ‘Taskforce for National Heroes and Heroines’. ended up reinforcing, rather than diminishing, the perceived and historic ethnic differences that had led to some of the worst post-election violence in Kenya’s history in 2009. ( Coombes, “Monumental Histories: Commemorating Mau Mau with the Statue of Dedan Kimathi”, 2011) But it is also true that the inauguration of these monuments (for example, to the Mau Mau leader, Dedan Kimathi in the heart of downtown Nairobi) provided the occasion for one of the few acknowledgements by the State, of the role of Mau Mau veterans in the creation of an independent Kenya.

On the other hand, perhaps it is worth considering that sometimes ‘disinterest’, can be as powerful a means of countering the hegemonic presumptions of any monument.  In 1994, in the wake of the first democratic elections in South Africa, I began research on the ways in which histories were being re-thought and re-written in the public sphere in relation to different kinds of visual commemorative practice (monuments, memorials and museums). I took a photograph, later used on the cover of my book, History After Apartheid: Visual Culture and Public Memory in a Democratic South Africa (2003). It shows the gigantesque bust of J.G. Strijdom, Prime Minister from 1954 -58 and member of the white supremacist wing of the ruling National Party which established formal apartheid.

At the time the picture was important to me because it showed Black South Africans walking through the square, oblivious to its original significance, to the extent of using the space as an expansion of the entrepreneurial informal economy and setting up market stalls in the shade of Strijdom’s bust. It seemed to encapsulate a complete lack of interest in the overbearing sculpture commemorating a brutal figure in the apartheid regime. I wondered if the act of ignoring the violent history embodied in the monument and the square’s name, could be seen as constituting in and of itself, a form of resistance. In a neat and entirely appropriate twist to this tale, the monument (the head and the surrounding arch) subsequently collapsed, apparently of its own accord ! It has now been renamed Lillian Ngoyi Square after a member of the multi-ethnic crowd of 20,000 women activists, who marched on J.G. Strijdom in the Union Buildings in Pretoria, to present petitions against the extension of the hated Pass Laws to black women in August 1956 – which finally in 2000, gained its own monument commemorating the bravery of the womens’ action, “The Monument to the Women of South Africa”.

Looking back at a moment twenty years ago when monuments were similarly the visual flashpoints at the centre of protest in the UK, what struck me then seems as pertinent in the current statue debate: “… monuments are animated and reanimated only through performance and … performances or rituals focused around a monument are conjunctural. The visibility of a monument is in fact entirely contingent upon the debates concerning the reinterpretation of history that take place at moments of social and political transition. Their significance is consequently constantly being reinvented but always and necessarily in dialogue with their past”. (History After Apartheid, p.12) Thus the knowledge provided by the historian and art historian is absolutely crucial to a more complex understanding of that past and the lived experiences that contribute to its various and often competing interpretations in the present.

If living in Covid times has taught us anything, it is the value of social connectedness, of ‘community’ sought and found in unusual places, of the street as a valuable locus of social interaction. With this in mind, monuments and public memorials could play a critical role in reclaiming those streets and making many who have been disenfranchised and dislocated from British society feel more ‘at home’.

Annie Coombes is Professor of Material and Visual Culture in the Department of Art History and Founding Director of the Peltz Gallery. In Summer term 2021, she will be teaching the MA seminar option ‘Curating Difficult Histories’ as part of the MA Museum Cultures and MA History of Art.

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Is the city a place of freedom? Reflections on Priya Sen’s documentary on Delhi

Priya Sen’s newest documentary explores the everyday lives of young women in contemporary Delhi. The film is available for streaming as part of Birkbeck’s Arts Week. In a podcast that accompanies the documentary, the director was interviewed by Professor Melissa Butcher (Geography, Birkbeck) about the process of film-making in urban India. Together, the podcast and the film invite the audience to reflect on how the arts and the social sciences can be used in combination to explore contemporary urban life. The event marks the launch of Birkbeck’s new MA/MSc Cities programme, showcasing its interdisciplinary approach.

Image courtesy of The Kitchen.

The social life of cities

Early thinkers of urbanization reflected on the ways in which city living was transforming the relationship between individuals and others. In the “Metropolis and Mental life”, Simmel coined the famous concept of the “blasé”, in reference to the indifference that urbanites expressed in multiple everyday interactions. Compared to traditional rural settings, he argued that urban life allowed for a certain degree of autonomy. In the city, people were liberated from the constant social expectations of communitarian life and could thus behave more freely. What would Simmel say if he could watch Priya Sen’s exploration of everyday life in Delhi?

In “Yeh Freedom Life” we follow the lives of Sachi and Parveen, two young people living in a working-class neighborhood (Ambedkar Nagar) of Delhi. The film shows their struggles to negotiate family and societal expectations for “the right to live their lives properly and openly”. Far from the “blasé” attitude, what we observe is the constant scrutiny of others in relation to the protagonists’ choices of who to love and how to live their lives. The film invites viewers to reflect on how patriarchal norms are contested but also reproduced and accommodated within India’s fast-urbanizing society. This topic has been recently discussed by Sanjay Srivastava during Birkbeck’s “Gendered cities” webinar in which he explored the spatial-politics of gender in contemporary urban India. For Sanjay, rather than challenging gendered norms, Indian society is incorporating those normative ideas through practices of “modern” consumption.

(Un)making gender in urban India

The documentary opens with scenes of an event where a female audience listens to a talk based on Hindu mythology followed by a discourse on the importance of women’s education. The event can be seen as a space where “traditional” and “modern” ideals are combined to offer a standard of womanhood compatible with contemporary India. In the event, we are first introduced to Sachi and her soon to be married friend Didi. They both work in a beauty parlor where they spend their time discussing their love affairs while threading costumers’ eyebrows with impressive dexterity. In the “Beauty Care and Training Centre”, femininity standards are being produced but normative behaviors are also subverted through Sachi’s personal struggle for a fulfilling life. Despite Didi’s protest over the sorrow inflicted on her friend’s family as a result of her unusual choices in love, Sachi refutes any critical commentary, arguing that “if you live by what people around you say, life will be very hard”.

The constrains of associational life

Similar to Sachi, Parveen also struggles for love and happiness, facing the negative consequences of his unconventional life. He works on a cigarette stall owned by her family located in a busy intersection. Despite his hard work for the family business, he remains an outcast, often facing the hostility of those around him. Nonetheless, he is unapologetic about who he is and willing to have a less comfortable life to keep his autonomy. His discourse never veers towards a rights-based language, always foregrounding instead the truth of his emotions and his need for freedom. Like many others, he is willing to accept the penalty of exclusion from social networks in order to claim a “freedom life”.

The film reveals the complex ways in which solidarity actually works. The reality is far from the idyllic appraisals of associational life often celebrated by international development agencies for its beneficial role in poverty alleviation. In those accounts, communities are often portrayed as unproblematic networks of solidarity and trust that can be accessed by its members in case of need. Particularly in Southeast Asia, schemes of microcredit and other market-oriented initiatives focused on the inclusion of the “bottom of the pyramid” usually assume the existence of such socially cohesive networks. However, as Priya Sen’s documentary reveals, the maintenance of social networks often require adherence to social norms that either constrain individual’s autonomy or exclude those who are non-conforming. The film also illustrates how the complex realities of urban life in postcolonial settings are not easily captured by rigid frameworks.

A view from the South

Recently, postcolonial urban thinkers have challenged “universal” narratives of urbanization rooted on Western experiences. Calling for a “view from the South”, urban scholars have challenged “modernizing” discourses that ignore situated trajectories of urbanization and impose inadequate analytical frames and solutions. In this context, researchers on urban India have criticized the use of binary categories, such as modern/traditional, formal/informal, as unsuitable for uncovering the complexities of contemporary urbanization in the country. In “Yeh Freedom Life”, the unfolding of everyday urban life reveals how rigid categorizations of gender, femininity and sexuality are simultaneously reinforced and contested.

Dr Mara Nogueira is a Lecturer in Urban Geography and Programme Director of the MA/MSc Cities programme.

 

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How long do we need to wait to acknowledge that black people are no longer our slaves?

Following the death of George Floyd in America on 25 May 2020, Dr Carmen Fracchia, Reader in Hispanic Art History, talks about art, slavery and what it means for modern society.

Isidro de Villoldo, The Miracle of the Black Leg, 1547: © Museo Nacional de Escultura, Valladolid, Spain.

The deliberate public torture and murder of George Floyd by Derek Chauvin, a former police officer in Minneapolis, on 25 May 2020 and the indifference to the black man’s pain shown by his killer and three police officers, Thomas K. Lane, Tou Thao and J. Alexander Kueng, immediately brought to my mind the most violent image of The Miracle of the Black Leg, made by the sculptor Isidro de Villoldo, in 1547 in Valladolid (Spain), then the royal seat of the most powerful Iberian empire in the Western world. In this small wooden panel, a mutilated African man lies on the floor while screaming with pain, following the removal of his left leg to have it grafted onto the patient by St Damian, while his brother St Cosmas is taking the sick man’s pulse and examining his urine in a vessel. This horrific scene takes place in a sumptuous setting, where there is a lavish application of the New World gold that was still readily available. The wealth that is exuded here is in stark contrast to the violence of the African amputee lying, in agony, on the ground. The ensuing horror of this image is amplified by the indifference shown by the white figures in the room towards the amputee’s excruciating sacrifice. Medieval legends of saintly healers, who perform miracles of body reparation, were written to counteract the revulsion felt at the fragmentation or dismemberment of bodies for political or scientific purposes that had become common in Western Europe at the end of the thirteenth century with the legalization of dissection practices in European centres and the public exhibition of body parts from criminals, associated with the practice of judicial punishments.

The narrative of the Valladolid image deviates from the three known legends (Greek, Latin, and Catalan) that inform the visual representation of this miracle enacted by SS. Cosmas and Damian, although the Latin legend is closest to it:

Felix, the eighth pope after S. Gregory, did do make a noble church at Rome of the saints Cosmo and Damian, and there was a man which served devoutly the holy martyrs in that church, who a canker had consumed all his thigh. And as he slept, the holy martyrs Cosmo and Damian, appeared to him their devout servant, bringing with them an instrument and ointment of whom that one said to that other: Where shall we have flesh when we have cut away the rotten flesh to fill the void place? Then that other said to him: There is an Ethiopian that this day is buried in the churchyard of S. Peter ad Vincula, which is yet fresh, let us bear this thither, and take we out of that morian’s flesh and fill this place withal. And so they fetched the thigh of the sick man and so changed that one for that other. And when the sick man awoke and felt no pain, he put forth his hand and felt his leg without hurt, and then took a candle, and saw well that it was not his thigh, but that it was another. And when he was well come to himself, he sprang out of his bed for joy, and recounted to all the people how it was happed to him, and that which he had seen in his sleep, and how he was healed. And they sent hastily to the tomb of the dead man, and found the thigh of him cut off, and that other thigh in the tomb instead of his. Then let us pray unto these holy martyrs to be our succour and help in all our hurts, blechures and sores, and that by their merits after this life we may come to everlasting bliss in heaven. Amen.

Jacobus of Voragine collected the Latin legend of the miraculous transplantation of the black leg in ‘The Lives of Saint Cosmas and Damian’ in his book The Golden Legend or Lives of Saints (1275), the most widely circulated stories of saints in Medieval and Renaissance Europe. In this Valladolid image, the first obvious departure from this legend is that the mutilated ‘Ethiopian’ is not a corpse from a cemetery, but an in vivo Afro-Hispanic man whose leg has been amputated whilst he is alive. It is impossible to grasp this violent image if we do not take into account the backdrop of the abolition of ‘Indian’ slavery in the New World in 1542 and the emergence there of a new system of slavery with the enslavement, capture, and export to the Americas of Africans, a trade that was directly promoted by the Crown and the Cardinal Inquisitor Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros, but also by Bartolomé de Las Casas. The latter expresses pastoral concern only about Native Americans and actively contributes to the export of black slaves to New Spain in the years between 1516 and 1543, an action that he came to regret (1545–7), some time before the end of the famous Valladolid debate with Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda about the soul of the Native Americans (1550–1). This horrific imagery is symbolic of not only the process of colonization in the Spanish empire, but above all the appropriation of the black body and the violence of slavery, the paradoxical emergence of the commodified domestic Christian Afro-Hispanic slave, and the encounter with free Christian European subjects. The shocking thing is that the worth of the black mutilated man is defined vis-à-vis his total subordination to his white master. To be a black person in imperial Spain, between the last quarter of the fifteenth century until the end of the eighteenth century 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 and their descendants anywhere in the globe do not need to learn from us that the institution of slavery is a crime against humanity. They had experienced the dehumanisation process inherent in the workings of slavery every day, every hour, every minute, every second of their lives for the last five centuries. The killing of Mr Floyd shows that we are still stuck in the effects of the transatlantic slavery, originally institutionalized by the Iberian empire that was partly responsible for the presence of approximately two million slaves living in the Iberian Peninsula and islands during the early modern period.

The problem is not the African diaspora. The problem is our attitude toward the Other, in this case towards Africans and their descendants. We need to change our attitude and to become more aware of their history and of their secular sacrifice to their master. We never experienced the lack of total freedom, the nature of total subordination to a master. And we never allowed Africans to be totally free. They could become freed women and freed men which is not the same as free women and free men. The deliberate killings of black people systematically show that we still consider Africans and their descent as our slaves. We believe in their sense of inferiority and we still demand their unconditional services to us because thanks to us they became ‘human’ and ‘civilised’. We still demand their total sacrifice of their life, talents, and contributions to our societies as their obligations towards us, because they owe us their wellbeing, their freedom, education, and, careers. After all, they are now civilised because we rescued them from being wild, barbarians and pagans. We taught them how to become Christians. They should be thankful for these opportunities we gave them in life, so much so that if we need their leg to heal our body, we’ll take it with no consultation. If we need their life to achieve our aims, we take them. The evidence is the death of George Floyd. How long will it take for us to believe that the African diaspora in the Americas and in Europe are no longer our slaves?

Perhaps we could learn from another Spanish image: the portrait of the enslaved painter Juan de Pareja (c.1606, Antequera, Málaga–c.1670, Madrid), by his celebrated master, Diego Velázquez, court painter to Philip IV, King of Spain, which was made (1649) and exhibited to great acclaim in Rome during the Jubilee year of 1650, before Velázquez emancipated Pareja in Rome on 23 November 1650. In his half-length portrait, Velázquez’s slave is seen looking directly at the viewer, holding his right arm across his waist and standing against an undefined brown-and-black back- ground. Pareja is portrayed as a Spanish gentleman wearing a dark grey velvet doublet and coat with an exclusive white lace collar from Flanders, ‘forbidden in Spain to free men and shunned by Philip IV, who favoured austere dress’. In this extant portrait, now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York), the sitter is the sole figure and his powerful gaze totally dominates the canvas and engages the viewer.

In his Juan de Pareja, Velázquez comes to elaborate the emergence of the slave subject in Hapsburg Spain. The court painter acknowledges and expresses the inner life of his slave by depicting his ‘thinking mind’ and the ‘perturbations of his soul’. Thus, Velázquez endows Pareja with his own humanity: his slave has an equal gaze to that of his viewers. The powerful sitter of this extraordinary portrait is not depicted as a subordinate subject as the sacrificial Ethiopian victim of the Miracle of the Black Leg. The slave Pareja is shown as a free subject even before his emancipation. Velázquez’s adoption and adaptation of the restrictive genre of portraiture to include his slave magnifies the effect of Pareja’s sense of humanity and worth. The depiction of a mestizo/mulato slave in a portrait defamiliarizes the essence of this genre and produces a dislocation in the viewer’s mind. Juan de Pareja transcends the hegemonic norm in imperial Spain and could only be regarded as oxymoronic. Velázquez’s powerful depiction of his slave provides the conceptual scaffolding and the form that Pareja uses in his own self-portrait as a freed slave and in the depiction of the emancipatory slave subject in his painting The Calling of Saint Matthew, produced for the Hapsburg court, one year after his master’s death in 1660, and now at the Museo del Prado (Madrid, only recently shown to the public).

The freedman Pareja managed to forge a career as a painter at the Spanish Court. The whereabouts of almost 20 out of the 30 paintings by the artist recently identified are still unknown, such as portraits of unidentified subjects and religious paintings. However, Pareja’s surviving works that are signed and dated are in the following museums: Museo del Prado and the Lázaro Galdiano Foundation, in Madrid; Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia; Museo de Bellas Artes de Valencia, Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, Florida.

We urgently need to recover the often hidden, invisible histories of the African diaspora and of their cultural contributions made to European and American societies. We can celebrate blackness as in this extract from the extraordinary poem, The Song of a Freedman (1700) by an anonymous Afro-Hispanic freedman, discovered in 1993:

I am black
Guinea is my homeland Black my body
and black my soul,
and black too
all my lineage,
my glory is to be black,
and I make celebration of it.

Further information:

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Queerantine Bookshelf

While the usual Pride parade may not be possible this year, we’re still keen to amplify LGBTQ experiences and lives. Golnoosh Nour, a Creative Writing Alumna, teacher and author of her most recent short story collection, ‘The Ministry of Guidanceshares her essential LGBTQ reading list.

Fiction: Three Queer Novels

Hot Milk by Deborah Levy: This is a book that beautifully depicts the fluidity of sexuality and desire. This novel was published in 2016, my prediction is that this book will become a classic for its mastery of plot, characterisation, and language, but also for its unapologetic portrayals of female desire, motherhood, and the nuclear family. Levy’s descriptions of lesbian desire and female bisexual desire are beatific. Also, Sofia Irina is one of my favourite protagonists. She is curious, clever, and bold – even though she thinks she is not bold, and she really is ‘pulsating with shifting sexualities’.

Guapa by Saleem Haddad: Another unputdownable novel with an adorable protagonist, Rasa. An Arab gay man who describes his beautiful but forbidden love for the closeted Taymour with the utmost sensitivity both in an imaginary Arab country and the United States. The book subtly debunks the myth that the West is a sanctuary for gay people. The novel also does so much more; it is an extremely nuanced account of being a Middle Eastern queer. While this book made me laugh out loud and cry several times, on the whole, I cherish it for its warmth and compassion. If books had hearts, I’d say Guapa has a heart of gold.

The Sluts by Dennis Cooper: I love this book for the exact opposite reason that I love Guapa; I’m intrigued by its depiction of brutality, cruelty, and hollowness that can accompany uninhibited sexual desires – in this case, homosexual men who enjoy being extremely violent and at times murderous to one another. But apart from these compelling depictions, this book is a work of literary genius in terms of narrative structure. It is a mystery that at the end of the day the reader needs to solve on their own – if they believe it needs to be solved at all. I did and I didn’t. I felt so overwhelmed by the ethereal and yet pungent quality of the prose that during the two days that it took me to finish it, I felt I was on some strange drugs. This was a drug that made me unable to read any other books for several weeks apart from the ones by Dennis Cooper.

(There are so many more amazing queer novels, including the enticing classic: The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst, My Education by Susan Choi, Rainbow Milk by Paul Mendez, London Triptych by Jonathan Kemp, and many more that the limitations of space don’t allow me to mention. The three I elaborated upon are the ones I discovered fairly recently in queerantine.)

Poetry

There is so much breathtaking contemporary poetry exploring queer desire: these are some of the collections I have been rereading during the lockdown: English Breakfast by Jay Bernard (a literary masterpiece that boldly explores race, gender, and sexuality, not often talked about as it’s probably ‘too queer’ for the UK poetry scene) Soho by Richard Scott (a queer bible), I Must Be Living Twice by Eileen Myles (funny and canocial), Rabbit by Sophie Robinson (deliciously readable, yet deep and sapphic), Selah by Keith Jarrett (a star Birkbeck alumni!), Muses and Bruises by Fran Lock (especially the poem Rag Town Girls do Poetry, also, Fran is another Birkbeck star…), and last but not least Insert [Boy] by Danez Smith (their first and in my not very humble opinion, strongest collection).

 

 

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Tap Dancing, Poetry and Black Mascara

Birkbeck PhD student is one of four prize winners at the 2020 International Book and Pamphlet Competition for her collection: ‘Black Mascara (Waterproof)’

This is a photo of Rosalind Easton

Rosalind Easton

An English teacher for the past 10 years and an English, Theatre and Creative Writing PhD student more recently, Rosalind Easton has spent as many years deconstructing poetry. But it took the interaction with and observations of her young niece to inspire her to write poetry in the first instance. 

Just two and a half years ago, she penned her first poem about the birth of her niece and found other familial influences through her grandmother’s love of literature. She shares that her writing was sporadic- just one or two poems every few months but also notes that “when you get into a rhythm of writing, that’s when you get the lightbulb. That’s why it’s so important to try and write every day.”

Easton was able to source further creative expression through her love of dance; tap dancing, in particular. She points to the correlations and expresses, “The rhythm of my tap dancing comes through in my poetry.”

Having found her rhythm and routine, Easton would spend her mornings before going into work, writing in a local cafe for just under an hour, a process driven by “50% ruthless discipline, 50% pie-in-the-sky dreaming.”

Connections between things is a key component of Easton’s work. She draws the link between poetry and mathematics for its patterns and structures; as well as likening the visual elements of poetry to paintings and sculptures. Throughout her winning collection, objects seem to take on a life of their own with judge, Imtiaz Dharker capturing this most aptly:

Catching sight of a former lover makes my iPhone flicker/ with the ghost of a Nokia brick. All kinds of inanimate things come alive enthusiastically in these poems: the stiletto heel, the music stand, the microphone, a wand with no spells, making every poem a delightful surprise.”

It’s all a far cry from when Easton had worried about her poetry being publishable, acknowledging that she writes long lines; so she was pleasantly surprised when judge, Ian McMillan praised her for this. Indeed, both judges McMillan and Dharker were emphatic in stating the“final choices were unanimous”.

A Book & Pamphlet winners reading will he held at The Wordsworth Trust in Grasmere in Spring 2021, and the four winning pamphlets will be published in Feb 2021. Read more about the competition and winners.

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School of Arts Awarded Three Research Fellowships from the Leverhulme Trust

Senior Lecturer, Dorigen Caldwell, reflects on her award and looks forward to a time she can visit Italy again.

Like most art historians, I have a passion for art, and am happiest wandering around art galleries, cities and churches. It is therefore a privilege to be able to call that work!

this is a photo of a cathedral in Italy

Please tell us about your area of research. I am a Senior Lecturer in Italian Renaissance Art in the History of Art Department at Birkbeck. My area of research is early modern Italy, with a particular emphasis on religious art produced after the Council of Trent (1545-63), where the beliefs and practices of the Catholic Church were discussed and codified, partly in response to the Protestant Reformation. This marked a key moment in debates not only around religion, but also around the visual arts and their role in the propagation of faith.

What inspires you most when it comes to your academic pursuits? Like most art historians, I have a passion for art, and am happiest wandering around art galleries, cities and churches. It is therefore a privilege to be able to call that work! In both teaching and research, I think I am primarily interested in the history of ideas, and in thinking about the use of images within a broader historical and cultural context.

Why have you chosen this particular area of research? The title of my current research project, for which I was awarded the Leverhulme fellowship, is ‘Piety, Patronage and Politics in Early Modern Rome’. The focus of this research is a private chapel in a Roman church that was lavishly decorated at the beginning of the seventeenth century, and includes an altarpiece designed by the celebrated painter, Annibale Caracci. I chose this chapel because it was commissioned by a family of cardinals who came from the Northern Italian city of Trent, where the pivotal Council was held, and which at the time was a German-speaking territory. As such, these cardinals represented the interests of German catholicism in Rome, and their family chapel represents a unique opportunity to examine the relationship between the periphery (Northern Italy/Southern Germany) and the centre (Rome) of the Catholic world at the time, and to explore ideas around images, beliefs and politics at a moment of intense artistic production.

What impact do you envisage from the research? I am due to give papers at conferences in Rome and Dublin over the next year (coronavirus permitting!) and plan to write a book which I hope will disseminate my research to a broad audience beyond the disciplinary boundaries of art history. The Leverhulme Trust will be paying for a replacement post to carry out my Birkbeck duties over the course of the next academic year (apart from my PhD students who I will continue to supervise); and I plan to make two research trips to Italy to visit churches and archives. The award allows me to focus on my research for a year, to (hopefully) travel to Italy, and to get as much of my book written as possible in the time.

And lastly, can you share your sentiments on the significance of the Fellowship? I am incredibly grateful to the Leverhulme Trust for this Fellowship, as it will make all the difference to my research, allowing me to focus on my book project over an extended period of time. I am very excited about this opportunity to devote myself to my research and I look forward to the moment when I can travel to Italy again.

Learn more about the Leverhulme Trust Fellowships.

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