Interview with artist Raphael Dada – we chat talent, doodles, the importance of language & entering into the creative industry as a black artist….

I’ve been super excited about this Culture Vulture artist interview for ages – another Instagram find through The Social Distance Art Project – artist Raphael Dada- @artbyadrafa on Instagram. I discovered Raphael’s work before George Floyd’s murder and the social justice and civil rights movement that followed and continues to the present (keep it going!). Raphael’s work explores the ‘black experience’, racial identity and his experience as a Nigerian-British diaspora artist growing up in the UK……

I loved Raphael’s work before, but now…well it’s like looking at it with a whole new lense and important reflective provocations exist in each piece of work. So please go and check it out.

This is a beaut interview – one of my faves for a while.

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Raphael Dada

Hiyer, Raphael – for my fellow Culture Vultures and readers – can you tell me who you are and how would you describe your varied practice?

My name is Raphael Dada and I am a 20-year-old Nigerian- British, multidisciplinary artist. Over the years my practice has taken many forms, ranging from videography, screen print, spoken word, installations and many more. But the one consistent motif about my practice is that through my various means of expression, what I try to do is tell stories about the black cultural experience that mainstream media or the education system will not tell you.

Most of my work is based around my own personal experiences growing up as a young black British artist in the UK. Even though a lot of my work is very personal, there are numerous entrance points, so the viewer can relate and empathise, as I do appropriate and reference aspects of black popular culture frequently in my work.

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Artist Raphael Dada

I really love you work – beautiful, interesting and very important. Tell me about your journey into the creative industries?

My journey into the creative industry was a weird one because when I was growing up, I never expected to enter the creative industry or make money off my art and collaborations with other artists. When I was young, I just knew I liked drawing and I liked colours, and when GCSEs came I was like: “Yeah, why not? It will be funny and it is one of the only subjects I actually like,” and I basically had the same reasoning when it came to A-Levels.

Then it came to applying to university and I almost didn’t choose art because there were so many different variations of the course, depending on where you wanted to go. I eventually decided on Fine Art at Leeds Arts, and even at Uni I wanted to get into the fashion industry, so I started my own clothing line in first year. As I started creating art work on subjects that I felt more passionate about, as well as working and networking with more artists, I decided the creative industry is where I belong. My clothing line is still active, and we have some new clothes dropping soon, but the creative industry will always have my heART.

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Raphael Dada

You’ve just finished Leeds University  – How was your experience studying at Leeds?

I can’t even lie and say my experience in Leeds was amazing, because if I’m being honest, it was tough most of the time. Having to adjust from living in such a diverse and multicultural town, then becoming the only black boy on the largest course at the university; it was very difficult. I experienced microaggressions on the daily and was racially abused a few times. Even got stopped by the receptionists a couple times because they didn’t believe I attended the Uni. It was tough.

But I didn’t let any of that get me down, I was able to channel all that anger and put it into my art, making art that was charged with emotion and passion. It worked for me almost like a coping mechanism, and it is because of this that my art is so important and personal to me. However, it wasn’t all bad; the Uni has really good facilities, allowing me to push my practice and continually experiment with new mediums. In my time at Leeds, I was able to meet some amazing people and like-minded creatives, and form relationships I can see myself having for life.

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Raphael Dada

Thinking about the positives, do you have a favourite moment during your study you’d like to share?

My favourite moment in Leeds without a doubt would have to be our ACS ‘2020’ Exhibition in February of this year. As president of our university’s African Caribbean Society, I was given the opportunity to oversee the running of an exhibition which included the work over 30 different artists- all from various different cultural backgrounds. This was a big deal, as our Uni is a white dominated institution, so to be able to see the work of so many different ethnic artists on display was a beautiful occasion. We also got the chance to collaborate with the Student Union, and the event was even sponsored by a local brewery. While the show was on we had over 1000 members of the general public come view it, and it was just such a great experience that gave so many artists the coverage they deserve, something that they wouldn’t normally get in the conventional gallery setting.

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Raphael Dada

That is truly brilliant – well done. How did it feel passing your course during lock down and not having a final year exhibition?

It was weird completing my degree during lockdown, because just like the rest of the world I never expected it. It took me and most third years nationwide by shock because our final module was a curation module, and you can’t really curate a show when the whole country is on lockdown.

The final degree show is what we were working towards for three years, and to have it all scrapped and turned into a digital submission was really strange and hard to get my head around. In protest I almost wasn’t going to submit, because I thought the whole idea was stupid, but looking back I am glad I did, and that the degree is over. Ideally, I would have wanted a degree show, but there are just some things you just do not have any control over, and hopefully we will have the opportunity to exhibit again soon.

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Raphael Dada

Absolutely and I hope I get to see it! (Invite me!) You work across a lot of mediums – do you think you’ll hone in and settle into one or two – or (like me) do you refuse to be pinned down?

I don’t actually know because sometimes I go through phases when I will only use pen, or only use pencil, or only screen print. I think the medium that I use always depends on my mood, or which the one I believe will best get the job done and convey my message the most effectively. I like having options.

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Raphael Dada

I’m a huge fan of your Dada Doodles –how do you select your subjects?

Ahh thank you! Dada Doodles is just a little thing I have had going for a while, they are just quick sketches I do in between major projects, or when I have taken a break from art for a bit, something light to get me back into drawing. They’re called Dada Doodles because when I was at Uni my friends used to say I was paying “9 grand to go doodle,” so I actually started doodling. But more times my subjects are kind of random and just things I like, ranging from music, TV shows and cartoons, or sometimes I can just see something and be like, “that looks like it would be fun to draw”, so I just draw it.

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Raphael Dada

Africa and African culture features in some of your work – can you talk about the personal link and why it’s important to you?

African culture, more specifically Nigerian culture is something that will always feature in my work. I was born in Nigeria and moved here when I was 5, so to me I always have to pay homage to my roots; it’s the country that made me, and it plays such a big role in my identity. And I feel like this is something that every black person should do, they should make a conscious effort to get in touch with their cultural heritage and roots. In the words of Burna Boy’s mum “Every black person should please remember that you were Africans before you were anything else”.

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Raphael Dada

Your practice and work is hooked into black cultural experience and identity…..what has your experience as a black artist been so far?

As mentioned earlier, entering into the creative industry as a black artist at first, was not easy at all. I was faced with numerous obstacles, and it was just hard getting started, because as a black artist, as much as we try and deny it, due to institutional bias, we will always be two steps behind our white counterparts, so we have to continuously prove ourselves by working twice as hard just to get noticed.

And I think I got to understand this quite early as my sixth form was quite white dominated in comparison to my secondary school, so once I understood how the game worked, I was able to use that to my advantage. In a way I kind of like the challenge as well; it is what keeps me going, because I know if I do eventually make it big, it would be a well-earned W for the culture.

Raphael Dada

In your about me section on your website you say “I also explore how language has been used both historically and in contemporary society in relation to the black experience and culturally the impact this has not just on me as a black British artist, but on my generation as a whole.” – can you talk me a little bit through that and what you mean?

As well as art, English Literature has always been one of my passions growing up, and till this day. I have always been fascinated by words and the use of language, and the power we give words when used in certain context. On their own words hold no weight nor power, but it is how we use them that determine their effect. For example when we see the word “blacks” it is not a racist word, the New Zealand rugby team are referred to as the All Blacks, simply due to the fact their kit is all black, but if we are to flip it and change the situation, let say a white lady says something like “all blacks are murderers”, then the word becomes racist, because it has been charged with animosity towards a racial group and its being used derogatorily to generalise and stereotype black people .

And this is something I find so interesting, especially when exploring racial matters, and how language has evolved over the year due to factors such as education, colloquialism and migration. No word is inherently offensive, it all depends on context. Even the word nigger (or nigga, however you want to spell it), it comes from the Amharic word Negus, which refers to Ethiopian royalty or emperor. But when colonialists come to Africa they didn’t like the idea of black royalty and excellence, so they took a word which was used to glorify black people to dehumanise a whole race, and due to centuries of subjugation and racism, the true meaning of the word has been lost. And I just find it crazy how a word that was twisted to subjugate a whole race, still holds so much weight and power over us today.

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Raphael Dada

Can you tell me about one of your recent projects?

Since I finished Uni I have not really taken on any large projects, I have just been chilling to be honest- it just been a lot of small commissions here and there, nothing big. But as mentioned earlier, I have been working on some new items for my clothing line, which are set to drop middle of July, fingers crossed.

Same for me…I keep reminding myself that it’s ok to not start a new project right now as….well…there’s a global pandemic and all! I know you take commissions – what type of commissions do you tend to take? How do people engage you for a commission?

All my commissions are all different if I am being honest, I have never received any two similar commissions; they are all personal and catered to the individual. And the thing is about being disciplined in most mediums, I don’t limit myself in the type of commissions I take in, if you can describe it, more times I will be able to draw it. I take most of my commissions through Instagram, if someone wants anything they can just drop me a DM (@artbyadrafa on Instagram), or through my phone number, which is on my website.

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Raphael Dada

You often collaborate with other creatives and artists – how do you choose who you collaborate with or how do you connect with collaborators? Can you tell me about some of your recent collaborations?

I can’t give you a straight-forward answer to that because all my collaborations have all come around so differently; sometimes people approach me, or I could be scrolling through Instagram and see someone’s work I like and be like “Yeahhhh I wanna work with you, your work is dope.” Or I could have an idea or project in mind that I want to execute, but the work load is just too much, or  physically don’t have the ability to do it, so I create a meticulous plan for the project, and what I want to do, then message people who I believe could be best fitted in helping me actualise this idea.

For example, before lockdown, a project I was working on was a photography series called ‘Black Baroque’, where I was recreating Baroque paintings but replacing the white aristocrats in the paintings with black models. But even before I started I knew this was going to be a big task at hand, because I would need help with photography, set design, costume and much more, all which are alien to me, so I pitched the idea with a couple of my friends who studied fashion photography and they were all aboard and agreed to work with me.

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Raphael Dada

Can you share with me three black artists that I MUST check out immediately and why?

If we are talking black artists, I am going to have to plug the work of some of my friends because these guys talented for real. They are all black creatives I met in Leeds and have had the honour of working with at some point.

Instagram: @artizham

Zhama Jumbo is all round talented guy- name it he can do it. Animation, illustration, graphics; anything, that’s my guy. He has such a distinct art style that no matter what he does or what medium he takes on, you will always be able to tell it was him, and I have had the pleasure of working with him a couple times. We have a collab we are working on soon, so make sure you follow his page so you don’t miss the drop.

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Instagram: @artizham

Instagram: @KapturedbyBennyK

Benny is a freelance photographer and stylist based in Leeds and Derby. She has worked and collaborated with clothing brands, make-up artists and social media influencers, she has a lot of experience under her belt with a rapidly growing following on Instagram. She has also just started a styling page as well @Stylehauss, so please follow that as well.

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Instagram: @KapturedbyBennyK

Instagram: @Gullygolden

A Leeds and Bristol based documentarian. Out of everyone I would say I have worked with Gully the most- she has such a distinct way of capturing life and moments, nothing like I have ever seen before, and what makes her so different in comparison to other documentarians I know, I have only ever seen her shoot in 35mm, and she has an aesthetic I don’t think anyone else could imitate if they tried.

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Instagram: @Gullygolden

Three amazing creatives right there to follow and each very different. Back to your work…can you tell about something you’ve got planned for 2020? A future project?

I had a few events and exhibitions that I was meant to be debuting some prints at, but because of corona, I don’t know when these will be happening. For the mean time, I am just chilling with no major projects on its way, mainly focusing on my clothing for a bit (make sure you give us a follow, Instagram @rddesigns99

Anything else you’d like to tell me about?

I think I have gone on for ages, so I don’t really have anything left to say but I will leave on this note: Black Lives STILL Matter. This is a movement not a moment, and we will keep going until we put an end to centuries of institutional bias and racism, not just in the UK but globally.

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Absolutely agreed and thank you Raphael Dada and for being so honest!

You can catch Raphael over on his website, his art/personal Insta and his clothing Insta.

Please check out his work. He’s going to be massive – I just know it!

And as Raphael reminds us – we (and I say that in relation to white people as a whole – myself included) need to keep doing the anti-racist work needed, challenging and questioning everything especially as the world begins to reopen and spin again – it must not go back to “normal”.

All my love The Culture Vulture. xxx

 

(#AD) Does Culture Matter? – a mass participation research project from Crystallised.

I’ve found myself really missing cultural experiences whilst on lock down. Even as The Culture Vulture, I didn’t realise how much “culture” mattered to me on a day to day personal level and how intrinsically linked going to the theatre, cinema, wandering around a gallery, is to my sense of self and well-being. I miss it and I miss feeling a part of a creative community in person. Attending things and supporting cultural venues gives me a real sense of positive purpose and now their doors are closed, I’ve spent a little while feeling lost. I am going to go on the BIGGEST cultural binge when this is all over – I want to attend, see, visit, experience e.v.e.r.y.t.h.i.n.g. all the time.

I’ve been trying to replace this sense of loss in my life with cultural streaming – watching theatre, live performance poetry, launching a Silent Book Club (and about to launch a Culture Vulture film club) alongside heading down a rabbit hole on Insta discovering new artists and creative lushness. It’s helping ease that loss….but it’s not the same!

A project that is helping me tackle some of the above and making me feel useful to the cultural sector – is Crystallised’s project Does Culture Matter?  You might have seen me plugging it on my social…. Does Culture matter? explores that question thematically by collating the opinions and insights of the Nation, during COVID-19 and beyond. Through a series of weekly questions sent direct to your inbox on a Sunday, you get to explore and reflect on what culturally matters to you, what you’re missing and what you’d normally be out and about doing.

Lead DCM

Crystallised are collecting all this data, to make it available to arts and cultural venues and sector when locked down measures are lifted. Your insights and data will directly help organisations recover, pivot, be more resilient, stronger through the power of knowledge and shape their activities by enabling them to identify what is actually important culturally to you!

So do I think my fellow Culture Vultures should get involved…..

  • It’s something a little lush to do, to get you thinking and reflecting. The questions asked are interesting and in the moment – I mean there was a question about Tiger King last week!
  • It’s something to look forward to each week; I really look forward to the questions dropping in my inbox, grabbing a cup of tea/Sunday gin and sitting answering them. Only takes a few minutes but it’s a little lush brain exercise.
  • You are a part of a cultural community who are united in sharing their insights – it’s lush to feel useful and to be a part of something happening across the UK. #peoplepower
  • It’s helping the creative and cultural sector at a time of need – the organisations that will have free access to this data need a helping hand to recover post-COVID – this is that helping hand. Knowledge is power. At a time when you can’t attend these venues, support their cancelled projects or donate to every single cultural organisation and venue – this is something you can do to help that they will all have access to.
  • The data produced could form part of regional and National government lobbying – fingers crossed – it could form the foundation to justify increased spending in culture and creative projects by evidencing what is important to the Nation; what they want, need, love.

To get involved and to sign up – follow this link to take part – takes seconds and you can do it HERE

I had the pleasure of catching up with Laura Rothwell, Managing Director of Crystallised to find out more about why they launched this ‘Does Culture Matter’ project, why it is important and what they hope to achieve through it!

Hiyer you – right first things first, tell my fellow Culture Vultures about Crystallised?  

Crystallised is a marketing, PR and events agency for ethically, socially or culturally motivated organisations.

That’s the spiel.

What that means is we work with a range of organisations. All of them with a cause or purpose at their heart. We help them promote themselves, or their initiatives, we help them reach new audiences, market their work or make some kind of change. Invariably that means we work with a lot of arts and culture organisations, but we also work with charities, NGOs, ethically minded brands and foundations.

We’ve been doing this for seven years; we’ve helped organisations reach audiences of over 30 million people from all over the world.

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Team Crystallised

Impressive stuff – has has your organisation been personally impacted by COVID-19?

Yes, big time. A lot of our work is about getting people to a place. Arts, culture or destination marketing. So, jobs have been cancelled, or indefinitely postponed. We’re seeing many of our clients putting their plans on hold until at least October.

In January, I started looking at pitching for work which was less event-focussed, because of COVID-19. I have anxiety, and actually that has come in handy here, because I was worrying about this very early on.

Snap and snap! It’s been full of devastation and an opportunity to re-imagine in equal measure. What was is about the cultural and creative sector that drew you in?

It took a while to be honest. As a kid, things like ‘culture’ (museums, galleries) weren’t ‘for us’. Sometimes we went to castles which I loved, other times we went to National Trust properties which I hated, my main motivator for tolerating those was the Kendal Mint Cake at the gift shops.

It’s marketing that got me here, it’s where I started at 17, as a Marketing Administrator. And it’s what I’ve done for the past 19 years. The first eight years or so was retail and destination marketing, very commercial environments which are incredible places to learn and to train as a marketer.

I eventually took a role which connected me to ‘art’ for the first time, albeit in a commercial art organisation. There I ended up working on projects in the museum sector, at Great North Museum; Hancock, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery and Magna Science Centre (Sheffield).

That’s what drew me in. I saw – for the first time really – what art meant, what culture could do for people when/if it wasn’t about commercial gain, how essential it was. I very quickly felt as though I had to use my marketing experience to allow more people (everyone, ideally) to a) know what was out there b) feel like it was ‘for them’ and c) contribute to it, own it, be part of it and d) benefit from it.

I started Crystallised, and seven years on I still feel those things acutely.

We are crazily similar #kendalmintcake Let’s move on to Does Culture Matter? What was the inspiration behind Does Culture Matter? – why did you start the project?

The idea came from an Instagram group convo with a collection of excellent women I know who work in the creative sectors. We were talking about what this all (COVID-19) meant for us, for our jobs, for the sector.

I was in the middle of what I suspect was coronavirus, I felt truly awful in the mind and the body. We’d had a recent, sudden family bereavement, and my brain was just not up for anything at all.

Anyway, as is the way, during this chit-chat back and forth, inspiration struck. I just thought, now is the perfect time to listen to audiences, to learn, without an agenda. No-one is paying us to do this, we aren’t trying to meet a brief, we are simply listening.

You almost never get an opportunity like this.

Can you describe what it is and how people can get involved?

Does Culture Matter? is a mass participation research project. We want to understand how our relationship with culture is changing because of COVID-19, what it was like before, perhaps if our own definitions of what culture means are changing and what we might want it to look like after COVID-19.

We want EVERYONE to give their opinions, even if – no, especially if, like me back in the day, you don’t think ‘culture’ is for you.

All you need to do is follow and input your email address.

You’ll receive an intro questionnaire via email and then one every Sunday for the rest of the year.

Why is it important that people share their insights with you?

It’s important because culture belongs to us all. There should not be someone ‘in charge’ of culture, there should not be someone gatekeeping, or deciding what is or isn’t culture. It belongs to us all. We own it.

I believe every single human being should be able to be involved with and relate to the cultural offer of their cities or communities.

The sector talks about ‘hard to reach’ audiences, that is infuriating bullshit. Audiences aren’t hard to reach, it’s the organisation that is hard to reach, because for whatever reason, intentional or not, they have made themselves inaccessible.

So, it’s important for you all to join up and share, because when your voice gets heard, change can be made.

We have an opportunity to come out of this and shape the next chapter. I felt as though the best way Crystallised could contribute to that change, was to use our skills and expertise.

Listen to people, advise organisations. It’s what we do every day.

Have there been any interesting insights you wish to share?

Our North East participants told us their favourite places to visit in the city, at the moment, the list looks like this – the data changes the more people who join, so that’s another reason why everyone should get involved.

Tyneside Cinema

BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art

Sage Gateshead

Northern Stage

Laing Art Gallery

But, if you look at our North East respondents under the age of 25, the list changes:

Cineworld, Newcastle

Tyneside Cinema

Riverside Newcastle

O2 Newcastle

Utilita Arena

Three music venues, two cinemas. I find this fascinating, there’s much that can be explored from this data alone.

2 April Stat North East

What do you hope to get out of it after the research period?

I’d like the data to have organisations start asking their own questions. I’d like this to be the starting point for organisations to look at how they can better serve their communities.

I’d love to work with the braver organisations who want to do something bold and radical as a result of seeing the data, perhaps homing in on something specific, collaborating with audiences, flipping the narrative and to some extent taking a back seat, so that others can shine.

In your opinion, do you think Culture Matters more during this period?

Yes.

This is a horrible, terrifying time, we’re all going to lose someone or something. There are many many people, organisations, institutions that desperately need support. I’m not suggesting that an “art gallery is more important than the NHS” – which I’ve been accused of on social media of late.

No argument is that black and white.

I think culture has the power to uplift, to teach, to heal, to connect, nourish and to be fun. I think it’s essential for us to support and protect the sector if we don’t want to see a desolate, cultural wasteland post COVID-19. Our lives and societies will be much poorer if we don’t act.

Has the lock down changed your cultural consumption personally? Have you been watching any streams/online happenings?

Yes, I’ve been watching National Theatre, stand-up comedy, a film discussion and some DJ sets all online.

A theatre performance feels special even when it’s on the small screen, you can still sense the atmosphere between the audience and the cast.

How do you feel about the movement to digital culture and events through streaming platforms and social media?

I think it’s amazing and fantastic that so much has suddenly become available, the speed at which organisations have been able to adapt to the changing circumstances I think is impressive.

However, I can’t help but find it problematic that it’s taken a global pandemic for organisations to make their content accessible. It has long been the case that parts of the arts sector are inaccessible to disabled people. To now see all this readily available content filling our timelines because their able-bodied audience members are no longer allowed to attend a venue, is shameful.

The future must be radically different. We cannot live through this, witness all the change that has been enacted and then revert. That would be a tragedy.

What’s the first thing you’re going to do post lockdown?

Oh Christ! I’d like to go to Riley’s Fish Shack, sit on the beach and listen to my pals chatter, feel the sunshine on my face and be able to lie down on the sand, let my dog make friends with a Bichon Frisse, and just take my sweet sweet time outside.

What would be success for you as Crystallised for 2020?

Crystallised still existing would be success. I’m fearful of how much harder the year is going to get for business. This is going to be a slog. If we still have our full team and are on the way to some semblance of stability at the end of this year, I’ll be thrilled and relieved.

Anything other projects or happenings you think my fellow Culture Vultures should know about?

Right now, we’re working with one of our long-term clients Family Arts Campaign, who exist to make the arts accessible for families. Our focus is supporting their ambition to be the go-to national database of all arts and culture events happening online for families to join. We’ll be working on PR and influencer campaigns to get as many families as possible trying something new. Find that here: fantasticforfamilies.com

We’re also deep into New Creatives, a two-year project with BBC Arts and Arts Council England which looks to find undiscovered talent to make work for the BBC – could be a film, or something for radio. No prior experience is necessary, we’re trying to find northern creative folk under-30 who have something to say. Find that here: newcreatives.com

Other than that, we’ll be staying at home.

DCM. Share your thoughts.

Thank you Laura….so does culture matter? Well it does to me, it does to Crystallised and I think it matters to my fellow culture vultures, followers and readers. I’d love you to support Crystallised on their mission by signing up to participate in ‘Does Culture Matter?”

Remember – signing up is LUSH and is contributing to a project that could support your favourite arts and culture organisations to learn, pivot, recover, restart and fingers crossed – GROW.

Signing up takes seconds and participating in the project takes approx. 5mins a week.

You can sign up by HERE and feel free to share the project with your friends and networks – spread the word! #ganon

#AD Observe Experiment Archive – a photography exhibition at Sunderland Museum & Winter Gardens

Photography exhibitions for many years, were my comfort zone in art gallery spaces. In my late teens and early twenties, I didn’t feel empowered enough in my own creative sense of self to comment on paintings, sculpture, textiles etc. But photography to me always told some kind of a story! The first photographer that I ever became truly aware of as an “artist” was Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen, a Finnish photographer that ended up living in Newcastle and has an extensive body of work. I loved her depiction of Byker and the sense of place, people and home – she managed to create.

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Neon at Sunderland Museum & Winter Gardens

I’ve always been a fan of photography as a means to communicate and explore difficult issues – to display various shades of the same thing and of course, to capture a moment. In fact, I’m working up a project funding proposal at the moment with photography at the heart of it. But my love of photography and respect for it as an art form, has grown exponentially as a social media and marketing professional – it’s ALL about the high quality, visually impactful visuals. And that’s why I invest so much money and resource into the photography of events, projects, people, audiences, places, venues and moments. The right image can have far reaching impact and tells a story….

I was recently, invited to view Observe Experiment Archive – a group photography exhibition curated by North East Photography Network at Sunderland Museum & Winter Gardens – support by Sunderland Culture. For those Culture Vultures unaware, yes Sunderland Museum & Winter Gardens does have a beautiful gallery space so add it to your gallery culture crawl list…. It’s where the Da Vinci exhibition was housed AND they are one of three new venues, to have been selected to present work from The Arts Council Collection (first exhibition in February) until 2022!

It’s great to see how many folks have followed my “story” showcasing my exhibition visit and how many of you have followed up my social media posts, championing the exhibition, telling me that you’re going to visit or have visited!

Observe Experiment Archive is available to view until 5 January and presents multidimensional view- points of our ever changing world. It’s for the curious seekers, experimenters, future innovators and creative thinkers – my visit lasted over an hour, I read ever interpretation cover to cover, it got me thinking, reflecting and full of wonder for the natural world and how we have interacted with it in the past, present and the possibilities that lie in the future. The exhibition explores human interventions, innovations and inventions and the global challenges that can no longer be ignored.

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The exhibition showcases the skill and diversity that exists within contemporary photography, reflecting scientific and environmental concerns through both a modern and historical lens. I went in with an open mind – I’d read the blurb before going in, on the website, which in no way captured how truly fantastic this exhibition was. It’s certainly in my top 5 of 2019.

Beautifully curated, inviting and thoroughly interesting. The supporting pamphlet that you can pick up on entry, was the perfect thought fuelling accompaniment to the exhibition as I walked around taking it all in. All 8 photographers featured are very different in style, subject manner and provide a gateway for folks like me, to consider, explore and observe the world in a new way. I learnt a lot, thought about things that I hadn’t really considered in a world that is so busy and it certainly triggered my appetite to learn more.

This exhibition is in no way passive – it invites you to think, reflect, go on google, check out the photographers, participate in their narrative and really demonstrated to me, the unbelievable power of a photo to capture a moment, tell a story, challenge a pre-conception and to trigger thought and potential change. The thing I loved, is that the current state of play around themes like the “environment”, “intrusion of technology”, “human intervention”; the press and on social media present it in an often angry and preachy manner – things MUST change dogma and those who are not participating in the change…. Well, they are unfavourable. What this exhibition manages to do, is explore and present, many of the same elements, impacts and what humans have done, doing and may continue to do but invites you to question and reflect on WHY.

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I’m going to give you a little overview of my thoughts on each photographer’s work in the exhibition – without hopefully spoiling it, as you have until 5th January to visit so go go go! Order presented is based on how I worked my way around the exhibition.

Robert Zhao Renhui’s work is a colourful guide to the flora and fauna of the world – it presents a catalogue of curious creatures and their life forms mixing fact and fiction, whilst demonstrating the present and possible effects of human intervention. His pieces are visually stunning and thoroughly Insta ready and his work explores the symbiotic relationship between humans and nature. To accompany the exhibition, there is a wonderful A3 size hand-out which I skimmed over, but properly read when I grabbed a tea at Holmeside Coffee. Very interesting!

Robert’s work at Sunderland Museum & Winter Gardens

Maria McKinney’s recent projects have examined the relationship between humans and cattle collaborating with cattle breeders and genetic scientists. From this work, there is LOTS of learning, especially for me as someone who doesn’t have much knowledge around how humans influence breeding of animals and their genetics. Contemporary cattle farming is depicted in large scale animal portraits, which really do remind me of large scale cow portraits from 18th & 19th century, that can be seen in the collections of Bowes Museum, Northumberland and Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle.

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Maria’s work at Sunderland Museum & Winter Gardens (Robert’s in back ground)

Mandy Barker’s work, I found I kept on going back to on my visit to view again! Mandy’s work investigates and showcases marine plastic debris by collaborating with scientists. Her main aim is to raise the awareness of plastic pollution and effects of plastic on marine life. Her photographs are visually beautiful – it wasn’t until, I got up close that I realised exactly, what I was looking at. Whilst, we know humankind treats the sea, like our dustbin, seeing this…… well, it really demonstrates that fact and I think Mandy’s naming of this work, as “SOUP” is just perfect. You can see toys and possessions that I imagine at some-point were much loved and now, they end up floating in the sea creating a kind of “plastic soup” – the plastics float forever, attracting marine life to them, which will eventually lead to their death by poisoning or choking.

Mandy’s work at Sunderland Museum & Winter Gardens

Liza Dracup’s work, embraces an ethos very close to my heart and something, I try to practice as Culture Vulture in my own work; looking at the extraordinary in the ordinary (we are all extraordinary in some way) and the perfection that exists within the imperfect. Her work was full of colour, light and made me smile. This collection of work is inspired by Joseph Swan, inventor of the incandescent electric light bulb – which makes sense as the theme of light and bringing to light nature features in her work. Also loved that she had included the practice of taxidermy, as a means to connect the past and present natural world – I’m fascinated with the practice and it’s having a huge revival!

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Tessa Bunney’s work was super interesting – contemporary farming is not something that I really think about (I probably should – as you know, I rely on it to eat…). In her work, she showcases the faces and new world of farming, a mix of traditional practices, innovation and artisan. A theme that runs through this work concerns, the changing nature of rural life and how humans have really shaped that landscape. I’ve worked on a few “rural” arts projects recently so I’m aware of the disconnect between the rural work that we rely upon and the urban world, that for folks like me, is our work and playground.

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Penelope Umbrico’s work was one of my favourites- especially as I’ve just wrapped a large scale outdoor event that was all about celebrating the moon! Penelope displays screenshots of photographs since 2015 that are tagged “full moon” from Flickr. These screen shots are presented both in print and in digital form. I could have stared at the digital screen for hours – one moon with MANY different representations! Really interesting and beautiful – I liked the element of collecting content from a digital platform, consuming it and then sharing it with a wider audience…… in that way, so many people have contributed to the work and have ownership of it.

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Penelope’s work at Sunderland Museum & Winter Gardens

Sophie Ingleby’s work ‘Seed’, explores human fertility treatment. Now this is something that I am extremely aware of, with lots of my friends having fertility challenges (1 in 6 couples struggle to become parents). I guess, as a trigger warning, this element of the exhibition might not be right for you, if you’re very close to that journey right now or potentially at the recent closing of that capture – but none the less it’s fascinating, showcases the process, the science, the embryologists leading the way, the people hoping to become parents one day…..

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Sophie’s Work at Sunderland Museum & Winter Gardens

Last but not least, Helen McGhie’s work explores the nature of darkness and astronomical observation. Again, coming out of wrapping a project all about the moon which also explored space, time, the stars, and moon-landings etc. – this work was just fascinating to me. Helen captures her own personal encounters with the night sky, which are just beautiful to look at and also presents a collection of photographs of objects used as a Northern Astronomer. I spent ages looking at each object capture – really interesting and certainly a bag of tricks.

Helen’s work at Sunderland Museum & Winter Gardens

This exhibition was organised by North East Photography Network (check out their insta!) who were established in 2009 to promote and develop photography in the North East of England and beyond. They work with photographers, artists, curators and a wide range of cultural partners, to create a lively and informed context for photographic activity and to encourage new audiences for photography. NEPN are really going great things – providing commission opportunities, ensuring visibility of photography within the cultural landscape and showcasing what contemporary photography is and could be in the future. Observe Experiment Archive is not only an opportunity to check out an amazing exhibition, but it’s also an opportunity to get a sense of what NEPN is all about. So if you’re an aspiring photographer or photographer in the North East, they are THE organisation to connect with.

Observe Experiment Archive is on to view until 5th January at Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens, check it out this week or this weekend….you honestly won’t regret it! It has certainly, reignited my interest in photography and given me A LOT to think about.