A new exhibition at Bristol Museum & Art Gallery invites three photographers to interrogate the histories we remember and display
Most museums tell a story. Its collections, halls, walls and gift shops each add to the narrative, creating an archive of the past. The last decade has seen a major change in museum practices, as previously marginalised and forgotten stories are slowly finding their place on its walls. The museum displays what we want to remember, where we came from, and how we got here. Many are now seeking to reveal the whole story, or at least as much of it as they can.
One of the exhibitions in this year’s Bristol Photo Festivalattempts to do just this. Beyond the Frame – museum Interventions invites three artists – Heather Agyepong, Jessa Fairbrother and Lua Ribeira – to select a collection from the Bristol Museum & Art Gallery and reflect on the work with their own practice. The exhibition began with no direct intention, but instead gave the photographers free reign to form a response, creating and curating works that instigate a new dialogue around the permanent collection.
Bristol Museum & Art Gallery is a historic building located only a mile away from another of the city’s most famous sites: its port. It is the place where, four centuries ago, thousands of African slaves began the second leg of their journey to the Americas. This is the historical context Agyepong explores through her section of the exhibition: Memorialization in the Age of Forgetting. Agyepong is a multimedia artist, concerned with mental health, invisibility, the diaspora and the archive. “I’m interested in questioning our responsibility,” she explains. “Who do we remember? Who do we commemorate? What is missing?”
In her intervention, Agyepong presents costumed images of herself. She plays on the image of the blackamoor: the steropycial and exotised African figure found throughout early modern art and culture. Agyepong situates herself through the dawn of the empire under Elizabeth I, through to the life of the West African god daughter (and “gift”) of Queen Victoria, Sarah Forbes Bonetta. The images hang between British portraits from the same era, now recontextualised through their new neighbours.
“I wanted to create delicate images of Black womanhood that challenge the trope of perpetual strength,” she explains. “The work spotlights the life of Forbes Bonetta, but also the hidden and overlooked images of Black female vulnerability, and the power in that. History is never really complete, and the same goes for art and what is collected, exhibited or stored. Absence can often result in violence, creating a distorted view of the contributions and lives of many.”
Meanwhile, Jessa Fairbrother’s intervention reflects on the work of the Pre-Raphaelites: a brotherhood of English artists founded in 1848. The photographer situates herself within the Victorian context of gender, bodies, and loss. Fairbrother’s part of the show, In Conversation and In Character, becomes a call and response between the artist and the Pre-Raphaelites, as she uses embroidered images and psychoanalysis to respond to the collection. “There are a number of things going on when working with a national historical collection,” she says. “You are always placing pieces ‘in relation to’ the built-in languages, original ownerships and patronages that come from another time.”
Her intervention meditates on the contrast between images of women created by women, and those produced by the brotherhood of painters. “I was interested in how we hold space for someone who has died, how we record a person’s existence.” she explains. The work explores a loss in the family, resonating with brotherhoods’ own depictions of grief, while focusing on the theme through a female perspective. Through her joint mediums of photography and embroidery, Fairbrother pushes the brotherhood, mixing her own contemporary explorations of mourning with those found within the paintings “The series was made during an intensely sad period in my life, they reflect the end of the maternal line,” she explains.
In Craving Gaps by Spanish artist Lua Ribeira, the Renaissance and modern galleries are interrogated to launch an exploration into a spatial transportation. Renaissance depictions of purgatory – the space between heaven and hell – becomes Ribeira’s starting point, as she investigates art’s ability to “transport” the viewer through sensory, aesthetic, and religious ways. “I want the photographs to connect with the desire for catharsis and transcendence that is ongoing beyond the frame,” she explains. ”The images should be interpreted with a less testimonial quality, and more like an open mirror.”
The museum reflects contemporary society; its values, its diversity, and its memory. History is ever-evolving, a story that is retold and re-understood. It is through complicating history that we find a more genuine reflection of our past, present, and futures. “The hardest part is looking back, but often that is the only way through,” Agyepong says. “Re-addressing our archives enables us to reconcile the past, understand each other, and give us a clearer picture of who we were and how we got to where we are now. It is really the only way to move forward collectively.”
Beyond the frame – museum interventions is on show at Bristol Museum & Art Gallery as part of Bristol Photo Festival until 10 October 2021.
Isaac Huxtable joined the British Journal of Photography in October 2020, where he is currently the Editorial Assistant. Prior to this, he studied a BA in History of Art at the Courtauld Instititue of Art, London.