Image: Rachel Jones at Tate Britain
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Rachel Jones at Tate Britain Tate Britain unveils its first rehang in 10 years, with a particular focus on female artists

24 May 2023

It has been 10 years since Tate Britain carried out a major rehang. Much has happened in that time – the Brexit referendum, a global pandemic, the #MeToo and the Black Lives Matter movements – and, like many institutions, galleries have been challenged to consider whether they are adequately reflecting the breadth of talent in today’s multicultural society. At the same time, a growing body of curators and critics has begun to highlight the omissions in our traditional art canon.

Among those challengers are Tate Britain’s own team of curators, who, in the run-up to the unveiling of its rehang this month, have been working to increase the visibility of marginalised artists past and present. "If we’re going to tell the whole story of British art, we need to make sure we have all the important works," explains Tate’s director of collection, Polly Staple, who has spearheaded acquisitions by female painters dating back to the 17th century.

She highlights a couple of notable finds: Mary Beale’s Portrait of a Young Girl (circa 1681), a skilfully executed, softly lit work by a woman who only ever had the opportunity to paint domestically; and Marianne Stokes’ A Fisher Girl’s Light (1899), a vignette of a Catholic pilgrim that Staple says "has a touch of modernist abstraction despite its traditional subject matter". 

For Tate Britain’s director Alex Farquharson, setting up a dialogue between historic and contemporary art was an important aspect of the rehang. One of the solo rooms is dedicated to the late-Victorian painter Annie Swynnerton, and includes her 1889 portrait of Dame Millicent Fawcett; this is juxtaposed with the maquette for Gillian Wearing’s 2018 Parliament Square statue of the suffragist. "We’re trying to enrich the historical narrative by giving it a present-day lens," says Farquharson. "I want us to offer a dynamic picture of art history – one that isn’t sealed in aspic."

That dynamism is reflected in the volume of new pieces in the contemporary rooms – now featuring a roughly 50/50 split in terms of artist gender. There is a visually arresting work, Expiation (2021), by the London-based Zimbabwean painter Kudzanai-Violet Hwami that uses the medium of collage to explore questions about identity and the relationship between physicality and spirituality.

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye is represented following her major solo exhibition earlier this year: her portrait Razorbill (2020) – whose subject, as with all her work, is fictitious – has a wonderfully animated quality despite its small scale. And Lubaina Himid’s H.M.S. Calcutta (2021) boldly reimagines a 19th-century James Tissot naval painting with two strong, confident women in the frame.

It is hard to underestimate the significance of such a shift in representation for women artists who have spent decades fighting for recognition. Claudette Johnson, who played an instrumental role in the 1980s Black Art Movement in Britain, says: "As a young artist, it wasn’t even an aspiration to have work on the walls of Tate – I wouldn’t have imagined it to be possible." She hopes that the rehang, which includes her Figure in Raw Umber (2018), will "encourage wider conversations about British art history and the intersections of work across the gallery spaces".

Similarly, the radical feminist punk-rock singer turned photomontage artist Linder Sterling, whose 1981 suite of black and white photographs She/She are on display, says a lack of role models was the biggest barrier she faced in her early career. "If I’d visited Tate in 1970 and seen works made by women artists, my creative path would have been a far easier one," she says. "There would have been a sense of female lineage and an ambition to one day take my place with the great and the good on the walls. I hope that young artists seeing the rehang will instantly feel at home at Tate."

One such artist is Rachel Jones who, since completing her fine-art master’s degree in 2019, has already gained critical and commercial success for her distinctive, vibrant canvases. Jones, whose piece lick your teeth, they so clutch (2021) forms part of the rehang, says the representation of Black female artists like herself is vital to painting a full picture of humanity. "When an organisation is only reflective of one type of person or group, there’s all this loss in terms of the conversations that can be generated and the way people understand their place within history," she says. "What excites me is that Tate Britain as a space will be representative of the world we inhabit."

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