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Diversifying Art: Represent York

Elizabeth Walsh speaks to Norman Rea Gallery Director Senah Tuma about their latest fundraising project Represent York.

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Image Credit: Aphra Bennett, 2020

One of the defining moments of 2020 was the Black Lives Matter Movement which gripped both America and the UK following the senseless death of George Floyd in May. Crowds came together to demand change. Not just a temporary change but a permanent one. A change that recognises and incorporates the voices and work of black people as being central to society.

Here at York, the Norman Rea Gallery is working towards tackling racial injustice in the art community, specifically within the university’s art collection, through their latest fundraising project Represent York. Partnering with the York Anti Racist Society and Racial Justice Network, the gallery’s goal is to raise £3,500. Half of which will be donated to the Racial Justice Network and half will be used to commission works of art by local representative artists. I recently had the pleasure of speaking to the gallery’s Director Senah Tuma about the aims of the fundraising project and how they are looking towards increasing diversity in art in the long term.

Senah explained that this year the gallery has centred their ventures around the collective  identity of it’s diverse committee with the aim of becoming social curators. She noted that, ‘we are trying to respond to what we feel is at stake.’ Involving themselves in issues that matter most to them, the committee have focused largely on topics of race and representation with Represent York being born out of this. As The Norman Rea Gallery is student led, Senah told me that it is not burdened by the usual formalities of financial pressure and institutionalised politics leaving them, she believes, free to focus on and tackle these pressing issues.

As Director, Senah feels especially passionate about the topic of representation as it matters to her on a personal level. Identifying as both American and as a person of colour she feels the need to push these topics further out into the university's discussions. York University currently has more than 650 pieces of artwork in its collection. It has at times been challenging for the gallery to gauge the level of representation as information about each artist is limited.  Senah explained, ‘we have been careful not  to make assumptions based off of someone’s name, but at some points it is all we have to go off of.’

However, the gallery have committed to analysing the collection and have found that it features many local artists from the 1960s-2000s and of these a very small percentage represent non-white artists. Leading on from this observation Senah points out that, ‘ the climate that York finds itself in today, versus when it first opened in the 1960s is that of an environment that is increasingly diverse.’ Although the diverse student population is not  yet reflected in the artwork of the institution, Senah believes that the campus does however value its internationalism and so this needs to be addressed.

Discussing the type of artwork the gallery is planning to commission with the funds raised, Senah highlighted that the original collection focuses primarily on Yorkshire. This is a theme that the Norman Rea Gallery plans to carry forward. ‘ We feel it is important to illustrate how York has become increasingly international and encompasses such a wide range of people,’ she explained. The concept of being from the region is something that they plan to adapt by touching on non traditional ideas of being ‘from here’. In order to achieve this, the gallery has asked their student members what they would like to see. So far suggestions have incorporated traditional mediums but also multimedia works including sound and projection which Senah feels will make the collection more reflective.

If this project is successful the gallery would like to work towards regular donations to the University Art Collection themes including one for female artists. Summarising her main aims for the project Senah said that: ‘My main aim is that this campaign encourages conversations surrounding the university collecting and commissioning artworks that moving forward  in a positive direction will be purposefully and mindfully representative.’ As she will be graduating this year Senah also voiced her hope that when next year's committee takes over they will  be ‘bold with their tackling of topics that may be difficult to address’. This is a sentiment I would like to think we can all carry forward. The art world needs to continue to be bolder and tackle prominent issues  that are still far from being  resolved.

If you would like to contribute towards the gallery’s fundraising efforts you can donate by following the link: https://yustart.hubbub.net/p/RepresentYork/

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