Why Are We Here? With Black Artists & Modernism

Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art, Middlesbrough, United Kingdom
23 Mar 2019 - 16 Jun 2019

Sonia Boyce, She Ain’t Holding Them Up, She’s Holding On (Some English Rose),  1986. Oil and pastel on paper. Middlesbrough Collection at Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art

Sonia Boyce, She Ain’t Holding Them Up, She’s Holding On (Some English Rose), 1986. Oil and pastel on paper. Middlesbrough Collection at Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art

Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art’s (MIMA) year-long Middlesbrough Collection display reveals new narratives within the institute’s collection. Through a collaboration with research group Black Artists & Modernism, the collection is audited for all contributions by artists of African, Asian and Middle East and North Africa Region descent in the UK in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

In 1987, the Cleveland Gallery acquired a self-portrait by the artist Sonia Boyce (then 25 years old) She Ain’t Holdin’ Them Up, She’s Holdin’ On: Some English Rose (1986). This significant work has become a cornerstone of what is now the Middlesbrough Collection, held at MIMA. 32 years later, MIMA follows up on the conversation with Boyce, now a leading figure in British contemporary art, via the project Black Artists & Modernism.

MIMA, the North East’s most active collecting institution for contemporary art, has commissioned Black Artists & Modernism to undertake an intense period of research, looking at which black (used within Black Artists & Modernism’s definition as above) artists are represented in the Middlesbrough Collection, how their works were acquired and how they have been seen. The results of this research are unveiled as they are uncovered, making new material available to the institution and its publics. They also join an important national database which currently holds information on significant collections including: National Galleries Scotland, Arts Council Collection, British Museum and National Museums Wales.

Fed by this expertise and the institute’s own investigations, a new display shows some of the collection’s well-known artworks alongside those that have been in storage for many years, with some that have never been seen since they were collected. The display is structured around questions that are key for any collection, explored through the perspective of the artwork: Where am I? Why am I here? Who am I? What am I doing? What’s next?.

The Middlesbrough Collection holds 2,500 works, a changing selection of which is on permanent display. It encompasses art and craft made by British and international artists from the mid-1800s to today. It features an eclectic mix of works, intertwining local and international artists, combining various media, styles, periods, and subjects.

While it is known for post-Second World War British art, drawing, twentieth-century British ceramics and European contemporary jewellery, recent acquisitions have focused on artists who are less well represented in public collections including those associated with the British Black Art Movement and artists of colour working in the USA. Collection displays, new commissions and solo exhibitions have brought intersectional conversations around feminism, colonialism, migration and queering to the fore.

The presentation works as a statement of intent. Collaborative research and analysis with Black Artists & Modernism will inform the institution’s commitments for the future of the collection. Through the year, a public charter for the Middlesbrough Collection will create a shared set of values and intentions.

Senior Curator at MIMA, Elinor Morgan, comments: “The contemporary world needs new stories told from a range of positions. Art collections hold a myriad of narratives, told in a plethora of voices. Sometimes the most dominant voices speak over more interesting and nuanced ones. This presentation of the Middlesbrough Collection gives some of the prevailing plots a period of hibernation so that new perspectives are given the space to emerge.”

Artist, Professor of Art at University of the Arts London and Principal-Investigator, BAM, Sonia Boyce adds: “We go to art museums to get inspired, to luxuriate in the visual manipulations and skilful ideas of artists, and for the museum, itself, to bring forth new stories from what we think we already know. As an artist in the collection, and as the lead investigator for the Black Artists & Modernism research project, I am delighted to be in dialogue with MIMA again. For gallery-goers, those returning, and those who may be visiting for the first time, I hope this display encourages you to take part in a productive discussion about the breadth of artistic expression on display in public collections today.”

This research project is a collaboration with Dr. Anjalie Dalal-Clayton and Prof. Sonia Boyce of the Arts and Humanities Research Council funded Black Artists & Modernism project. Their three-year research project is a collaboration between University of the Arts London and Middlesex University.


Black Artists & Modernism (BAM for short) is a three-year research project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) as a collaboration between University of the Arts London and Middlesex University. Further information can be found here: http://www.blackartistsmodernism.co.uk/about/


Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art is part of Teesside University. It plays a key role in the cultural ecology of North East England, particularly Teesside, and is internationally recognised for its mission. Its programme includes Middlesbrough Collection displays, exhibitions, learning activities, commissions, community-focused projects and events. It is funded by Arts Council England and Middlesbrough Council.




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