Who is the 'Britain' within Tate Britain? A Black Feminist Responds

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For our first seminar of the new academic year, CoDE welcomes Janine Francois (Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts).

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‘Safe(r) spaces’ has reached mainstream attention with arguments for and against its use and are often presented as an infringement on ‘freedom of speech.’ However, ‘safe(r) spaces’ date back to the women’s liberation movements of the 1970s, where feminists were demanding separatists spaces from cis-gendered men. Whilst competing definitions may circulate, this paper will define what a ‘safe(r) space’ is within an arts museum context by problematising whether Tate Britain can be a 'safe(r) space’ to discuss race and cultural differences? Tate Britain is an art museum entrusted to the ‘British’ public to display ‘British’ historical and contemporary artworks, however, it’s frequent and most ‘traditional’ audiences are often white and middle class. I will pose, ‘who is the ‘Britain’ within Tate Britain? And how does it contend with ‘Britain/Britishness’ that is transnational, racial and historical, as recent events like ‘Brexit’ (2016) the ‘Windrush Scandal’(2018) and the toppling of Colston statue (2020) has shown it to be? By interrogating the historical, ontological and textual framings of Tate Britain through comparison of the art works: Brunia’s ‘Dancing Scene in West Indies’ (1764-96) and Piper’s ‘Go West Young Man’ (1987) and adopting Araeen’s (2010) critique of whiteness and Hall’s questionings of heritage, nationhood, memorialisation (2008) alongside Critical Race Theory. This paper will explore who is ‘safety’ intended for and what are they seeking safety from? Especially as ‘safety’ is employed through the discourses of surveillance culture, ‘anti-terrorism,’ immigration and citizenship to protect the white-western-neo-liberal-nation-state. Therefore, how might a site like Tate Britain reinforce such dominant structures through security, curatorial and interpretation? I will conclude by proposing ‘brave(r)’ spaces as both a counter-position to ‘safe(r) spaces,’ and as a praxis for art museums to address their colonial histories through the lenses of intersectionality and decoloniality.

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