by Taous Dahmani
This year, Photo Oxford focuses on women. The 2020 festival highlights the variety of their viewpoints and relationships with photography. Asking myself what photography meant to others, I interviewed 6 women working with/for/on photography. They are all women for whom I have tremendous respect and it was a pleasure to be able to ask them 4 questions each, curious to hear their personal and professional photography stories. All these interviews are considered as a continuation of the conference « Let Us Now Praise Famous Women : Discovering the work of Female Photographers » This interview features Gilane Tawadros.
Gilane Tawadros was the founding Director of the Institute of International Visual Arts (Iniva) in London, chaired by Professor Stuart Hall, which, over a decade, achieved an international reputation as a ground-breaking cultural agency at the leading edge of artistic and cultural debates nationally and internationally. She has curated numerous exhibitions: Veil (New Art Gallery, Walsall; Bluecoat Art Gallery & Open Eye Gallery, Liverpool, Modern Art, Oxford, 2003 and Kulturehuset, Stockholm, 2004). Fault Lines: Contemporary African Art and Shifting Landscapes, 50th Venice Biennale (2003), Zarina Bhimji (inIVA, 2004); Sutapa Biswas,(2004); David Adjaye (inIVA, 2004), The Real Me (ICA, 2005). Tawadros has written extensively on contemporary art and edited the seminal volume Changing States: Contemporary Art and Ideas in an Era of Globalisation (inIVA, 2004). She is Chair of the Stuart Hall Foundation. In 2016, she established the Art360 Foundation. Today, Gilane Tawadros is the Chief Executive at DACS, a not-for-profit visual artists’ rights management organisation. Her forthcoming anthology The Sphinx Contemplating Napoleon: Global Perspectives on Contemporary Art and Difference is due to be published by Bloomsbury in February 2021.
Taous R. Dahmani: Where does your interest in contemporary art and more specifically photography come from? Can you tell us about your first enthusiastic reaction to a photographic work?
Gilane Tawadros: When I was 17 years old, I was a trainee technician at The Photographers’ Gallery in London under a scheme called the Youth Opportunity Programme. I spent six months completely immersed in photography and I was enthralled. It’s difficult for me to remember my very first reaction to a photographic work but I do remember seeing Roy DeCarava’s photographs for the first time. They made a deep impression on me, in particular the way in which DeCarava used the spectrum of black and white tones to create images that are as rich and nuanced as colour oil paintings. DeCarava’s exhibition was shown at The Photographers’ Gallery alongside David A Bailey’s critically important D-Max exhibition which brought together some of Britain’s most important young black photographers at that time.
Taous R. Dahmani: As a writer and curator you have been championing the work of women of colour image makers such as Sonia Boyce, Maud Sulter, Zarina Bhimji, Ingrid Pollard and Sutapa Biswas to name but a few. Your career is a perfect example of how to concretely "break the hegemony of Western culture". Can you tell us about your intersectional approach to your curating and writing carrer? Can you also tell us about its relevance it today’s cultural landscape?
Gilane Tawadros: From the very beginning, my curating and writing has been driven by a desire to satisfy my own curiosity and fill gaps in my knowledge. There was very little if any writing on black women artists so I set out to find these artists, to learn about their work and share what I had discovered through writing and curating. I was attracted to the work of many of the artists you mention because I recognised in them some of my own experience and way of seeing the world that were not shaped uniquely by a Western cultural perspective. These artists were finding new ways of expressing - through the visual – experiences, feelings and perceptions that had not previously been articulated. Their innovation demanded an equally innovative response ; by which I mean new ways of writing about and of curating their work. For example, I’ve always been interested in playing with different forms of art writing – from more traditional critical writing to fictional narratives – and experimenting with different ways to put into words the ideas and effects produced by contemporary artworks that often prove elusive and hard to pin down.
My personal and intellectual formation has been cast in the shadow of the colonial and postcolonial, hinged between the two as Stuart Hall would say; in my case between post-independence Egypt and post-war Britain. Observing the world through bi-focal lenses has nurtured a double consciousness or double vision; a way of seeing the world from here and there at one and the same time. This bifurcated vision is one I share with many of the artists that I’ve written about and curated, most of whom have sought to interrupt and re-orientate cultural discourse by introducing ideas, experiences and approaches unfamiliar to the mainstream.
Recent campaigns that call to account our cultural institutions in their representation, or rather lack of representation, of the communities and groups that they purport to serve has brought attention to artists, curators and intellectuals who have been seeking to challenge and interrupt mainstream cultural discourse.
Taous R. Dahmani: You are currently the Chief Executive at DACS, a not-for-profit visual artists’ rights management organisation. Can you tell us about the role of DACS regarding photographers specifically. If we look at the situation through the lens of gender and race, could you tell us about how financial issues are an important aspect of the development of some careers and what is DACS doing to help in order to shift these financial landscapes?
Gilane Tawadros: DACS’ exists to support the financial sustainability of artists and photographers. The organisation was established by artists for artists and its mission has never been more urgent than now. In the wake of Covid-19, the livelihoods of artists and photographers have been dramatically curtailed. As in all other sectors of the economy, black and female artists/photographers have been disproportionately impacted by the effects of the pandemic. We have been researching these impacts and drawing up a Manifesto for Artists that sets out proposals for steps that the Government can take right now that will make a material difference to the financial sustainability of all artists/photographers both now and in the medium and long-term.
Taous R. Dahmani: In 2016, you established the Art360 Foundation, helping artists & estates shape their archives and legacies, making cultural heritage available for the future. As a researcher who has too often been faced with incredible archive with no home, I find this initiative pivotal, especially if we consider creatives too often ignored by mainstream institutions. For example, you look after Rut Blees Luxemburg’s Archive and Maud Sulter’s Estate. How did the idea for the foundation came to you and how do you operate now?
Gilane Tawadros: We established the Art360 Foundation in response to what we saw as a potential looming crisis. Significant amounts of investment have been made into cultural buildings and ‘bricks-and-mortar’ heritage in recent years but little or no investment has been made in safeguarding what we call ‘soft cultural heritage’, by which we mean artists’ archives and legacies. As you say, this is particularly important in relation to artists who have not benefitted from the support of major cultural institutions or commercial galleries. There is a significant risk that if we do not attend to this ‘soft cultural heritage’ that we shall lose vital swathes of our shared cultural history. There is so much work for the Foundation still to do and we are fundraising to secure additional resources to safeguard the archives and legacies of hundreds of artists for the benefit of future generations.
Check Out Gilane Tawadros’ writings :
Tawadros, Gilane, and Russell Martin. The New Economy of Art : Value, Patronage and Emerging Business Models in Contemporary Visual Art. London, 2014.
Gilane Tawadros (et al). The Fertile Crescent : Gender, Art, and Society. New Brunswick, New Jersey, 2012.
Tawadros, Gilane, Transmission Interrupted (with Suzanne Cotter), Modern Art Oxford, Oxford, 2009.
Tawadros, Gilane. Life Is More Important than Art. London: Ostrich, 2007.
Tawadros, Gilane, ‘Strangers and Barbarians: Representing Ourselves and Others’, Brighton Photo Biennial 2006 exhibition catalogue, Brighton Photo Biennial & Photoworks, Brighton, 2006.
Tawadros, Gilane, ‘Alien Nation with John Gill and Jens Hoffman, Institute of Contemporary Arts, Institute of International Visual Arts and Hatje Cantz, London, 2006.
Tawadros, Gilane, Changing States: Contemporary Art and Ideas in an Era of Globalisation, Institute of International Visual Arts, London, 2004.
Tawadros, Gilane. Sonia Boyce : Speaking in Tongues. London: Kala, 1997.
Tawadros, Gilane. "Black Women in Britain: A Personal and Intellectual Journey." Third Text: Art & Immigration 5.15 (1991): 71-76.
Tawadros, Gilane. "Beyond the Boundary: The Work of Three Black Women Artists in Britain." Third Text: 'The Other Story: AfroAsian Artist in Britain' 3.8-9 (1989): 121-50.