Category Archives: art students

Engaging with Black Bloomsbury

[Kevin Guyan is working as a student engager at the UCL Art Museum over the duration of our Black Bloomsbury exhibition. He has kindly agreed to us cross-posting his blog post ‘Engaging with Black Bloomsbury’ which can be found here:  As part of the series of public events linked to our exhibition, Kevin will be talking on the subject of Going Dancing: Black Bloomsbury and Dance in the 1940s exploring the Black presence in 1940s Bloomsbury and focusing on histories of cultural interaction in social spaces such as dancehalls. The event takes place at UCL Art Museum on 15 November, 2 -3.30pm.]

Engaging with Black Bloomsbury

By Kevin Guyan

Kevin Guyan

 

'Life Painting', Slade School of Fine Art.

‘Life Painting’, Slade School of Fine Art. George Konig, Keystone Press Agency.

The idea of Bloomsbury is as much a product of the mind as it is a geographical location.  Like Soho, its borders have been established through a mixture of real and fictional ideas, dependent more upon common opinion than municipal rulings.  The borders of Bloomsbury have been a common theme discussed by visitors to UCL Art Museum’s ongoing exhibition, Black Bloomsbury.

In my role as a Student Engager, it has been my task to draw links between the exhibition material and my own research interests.  My work explores how domestic spaces impacted upon the production and reproduction of masculinities in the postwar period (c. 1945-1966), a topic not unrelated to some of the themes emerging from the exhibition.  Afternoons spent engaging in the museum have helped shape my own research; offering a refreshing and reflexive dimension to my work.  Discussing people’s opinions on historical ideas has challenged visitors and I to reconsider our views.  The process usually begins with a casual, “is this your first time at the exhibition?”  After this pleasant introduction and explanation of my role within the museum; around half of the visitors will continue to explore the exhibition on their own, the other half will return with their thoughts, their opinions or questions on the work.
Although my own research focuses upon a different time period (1945-1966 rather than 1918-1948) and a different subject matter (White men rather than Black and Asian men and women), I have located some common themes running across both examples:

Space and identity

The relationship between space and experience, particularly within the context of identity, is one key example.  Black Bloomsbury is co-curated by Dr Caroline Bressey and Dr Gemma Romain, from the Equiano Centre based in UCL’s Geography Department, and because of this geographical context, an effective sense of people and place emerges throughout the exhibition.  For example, upon arrival, visitors are met with a large map detailing around 40 locations and a list of characters linked to the exhibition – showing where the characters lived, worked, met and socialised.

The role of place and space links to a secondary project I have been exploring in the past two years, focusing on how bodies were understood within dance hall spaces in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s.  In my work, the dance hall is framed as more than simply a backdrop for events and instead participates in my historical research as a productive force shaping the actions described.  For example, my research has explored the architecture and spatial arrangement of dance halls, admission policies, rules and rituals – all components that impacted a particular sense of identity when ‘going dancing’.  It appears to be the case that Bloomsbury had a similar affect upon the characters featured in the exhibition.

Methodology

Equally interesting has been a consideration of the exhibition’s methodological approach.  Alongside paintings, photographs are also displayed as a means to show how historians have been able to ‘see into the past’.  Unlike text sources that may make no mention of race, photographs present a visual window through which it is often possible to ‘see race’.  A key example of this approach in the exhibition is a class photograph of art students based at the Slade in 1938.  Although the name and background of every student is not known, the photograph allows modern-day observers to see the racial diversity of those attending the school at that time.

This is something I intend to echo in my own historical writing, in which actions and behaviours of men in domestic spaces are often hidden or beyond the vision of typical research methods.  Of course, it is very unlikely for source material to indicate that a household task was conducted in a ‘manly fashion’ or read personal accounts by men of domestic space, in which their sense of gender is discussed.  This therefore leads to questions over how best to trace these actions and behaviours?  This can be remedied by examining family photograph albums, documentary footage or any other visual source offering uncontrived access to spaces of the past, allowing historians to ‘see’ what men were doing in the home and how they were interacting with their environment.

Importantly, like Black Bloomsbury, my work also intends to not simply describe the actions and behaviours located or analyse them only within the confines of what is being discussed.  Instead, there is a need to conduct historical leaps – in which ‘everyday examples’ are used to consider what these performances say about wider ideas of race, gender and nation.

Politics and historical baggage

One key focus of the exhibition is on artists and their sitters, based on work developed with the Drawing Over the Colour Line project.  The relationship between artists and sitters has evoked several questions among visitors over the identities of these sitters and how they fit into wider social contexts of early 20th Century London.  What is often most interesting in the photographs of artists and their sitters is not located in the foreground but what is actually taking place in the background of the images.  A particular talking point has been a photograph of a Black male model, sitting perched in a loin cloth in the middle of the room, surrounded by several White, female students.  It is difficult not to see this image of a near-nude Black male and young, White women without setting-off historical alarm bells.  Yet, due to the spatial context of where these people are situated (in an artist’s studio rather than on the street) certain social customs appear to be excused, creating a situation far removed from the moral panic that may be found elsewhere in 1940s London over the association of Black men, quite often American servicemen, and White women.

Engaging upon ideas that are not resident in the distant past, has the potential for divided opinions and clashes over differing histories.  In my own public engagement events on experiences of ‘going dancing’ in London in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, there was often a tension between ‘official histories’ and personal reminiscences.  How can a workable history be extracted from memories – whose memories should matter most?  Should historians try to be as objective as possible or acknowledge that the past can be mined to satisfy contemporary political needs and desires?  These themes also emerge throughout Black Bloomsbury.  Some visitors have questioned the purpose of the exhibition and the political motivation for attempting to expand people’s image of Bloomsbury.  As I see it, it is not an attempt to evict Virginia Woolf, Lytton Strachey and John Maynard Keynes from their associations with Bloomsbury and replace them with a new assortment of characters but instead to complicate this image and suggest that, as was the case with areas like Soho, there was an equally cosmopolitan presence in early 20th Century Bloomsbury.  Through the production of historical geographies or geographical histories, the exhibition and people’s responses to the material continues to show the importance of space in shaping the actions of historical actors and how historical figures are perceived by those living in the present.

New exhibition: Black Bloomsbury

UCL Art Museum, 23 September – 13 December 2013

The Equiano Centre’s Caroline Bressey and Gemma Romain have co-curated the UCL Art Museum’s autumn exhibition Black Bloomsbury which runs until 13 December.  Based upon research carried out as part of the AHRC-funded project Drawing over the Colour Line: Geographies of art and cosmopolitan politics in London, 1919 – 1939, the exhibition explores and documents the black presence in Bloomsbury from 1918 to 1948, highlighting the geographies of the Black presence in Bloomsbury and interwar politics including anti-colonial and anti-racist activism. The exhibition presents a small number paintings, drawings, and archival documents from UCL highlighting how this Black presence was represented in the artworks of Slade students from the period.  It features the work of Slade students Ivy MacKusick, Ann Tooth, Leila Leigh, JHM Innes, Denis Curry and Ernest Pascoe, and also displays Winifred Knights’ 1920 oil painting Portrait of a Young Woman, one of the works featured in this summer’s Art Everywhere exhibition. The second strand of the exhibition is the documentation of the African and Asian Bloomsbury presence in connection with London’s artworld. Archival material is displayed from UCL Special Collections, the Slade Archives and UCL Record Office related to the presence of Indian Slade students during the 1920s and1930s, including Mukul Dey, Janardan Gondhalekar, Shiavax Chavda and Indumati Sathé and Egyptian and West African students including Amy Nimr, A.A. Yousef, and Ben Enwonwu.

Black Bloomsbury events

Alongside the exhibition we have a number of events including a walking tour of Black Bloomsbury on Saturday 26 October, 12 noon until 1.30pm, to be given by Kevin Guyan exploring topics including geographical settlement, student organisations such as the Indian Students Union, Black visitors to the British Museum’s Reading Room and the fight against the ‘colour bar’ in the area. To take part, meet at the UCL Art Museum.

Co-curator Dr Gemma Romain will also give a talk about women from Egypt and India who studied at the Slade during the interwar period. Join us at UCL Art Museum on the 26 November, 1 till 2pm.

Co-curator Dr.Caroline Bressey will give a talk about African American entertainer Florence Mills, focusing on her time in London in the 1920s. Join us at UCL Art Museum on the 3 December, 1 till 2pm.

Kevin Guyan, a PhD student in the Department of History, UCL will give a talk about the black presence in 1940s Soho and Bloomsbury, focusing on histories of cultural interaction in social spaces such as dancehalls. Join us at UCL Art Museum on the 15 November, 1 till 2pm.

We hope to be adding more events, so for more information about the exhibition or the related events, please contact Dr. Martine Rouleau, Learning and Access Officer, UCL Art Museum, +44 (0)20 7679 2540, m.rouleau@ucl.ac.uk or check back with us or the Equiano Centre website or follow us on twitter.

Searching for Sharma

A couple of months ago we were contacted by Nyay Bhushan, a film maker and photographer in India who had heard of our project from the Royal College of Art archivist Neil Parkinson. I had recently carried out research at the RCA archives exploring documents relating to Indian students who were based at the college in the 1920s and 1930s and Neil suggested that Nyay Bhushan might want to contact us. Nyay’s research project on his great grandfather Vasu Deva Sharma is fascinating and he has kindly produced a blog post for the December entry of The Equiano Centre’s Black Presence blog explaining a bit about his great grandfather’s life and the research he is carrying out. I have cross-posted it here below.

Searching for Sharma: Vasu Deva Sharma, an Indian student at the Royal College of Art, 1923

by Nyay Bhushan

Vasu Deva Sharma in 1920s Berlin. Photograph courtesy of Nyay Bhushan

Vasu Deva Sharma in 1920s Berlin. Photograph courtesy of Nyay Bhushan

My great grand-father, Vasu Deva Sharma, studied at the Royal College of Art and graduated in 1923 with a diploma in decorative painting. Based in Lahore (then in undivided India, now in Pakistan), he was a professor of drawing and was offered an RCA scholarship. He was 39 years old when he sailed from Bombay (Mumbai) on the ship Kaisar-I-Hind on the P&O line arriving in London on September 25th 1920 (thanks to Gemma Romain for sourcing this information from The National Archives, UK – Incoming Passenger Lists, 1878-1960).

After his graduation, he travelled across Europe (France, Germany, Scandinavia, Greece and Italy) to study and practise art in various cities before he returned to India.

One of my project aims is to look for any surviving paintings and artworks related to my great-grandfather. The only document I have is his RCA student file which gives details about his progress as a student; the file also mentions his brief study visits to some provincial UK colleges but their names are not given.

From my initial inquiries at the RCA, they don’t seem to have any other records or artworks related to Vasu Deva Sharma except for the graduation photo of the class of 1923, a recent and rare find for my project (special thanks to Neil Parkinson at RCA who also referred me to Drawing Over the Colour Line). Among his fellow graduates were Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth along with Indian students Uday Shankar Choudhary and Mukul Dey.

Royal College of Art 1922-23 Convocation photograph, highlighting Vasu Deva Sharma. Courtesy of the Royal College of Art archive.

Royal College of Art 1922-23 Convocation photograph, highlighting Vasu Deva Sharma. Courtesy of the Royal College of Art archive.

 

Our family archives have a rare photo of Vasu Deva Sharma which was taken at a photo studio in Berlin, sometime in the mid to late 1920s. The picture is by a photographer named Karl Alexander Berg with his studio address at Joachimstaler Strasse. Looking at the stamp under the photograph one can see that Berg was appointed to a German court, without any indication which court this might be.

Another very significant point of interest is the connection between then RCA president Sir William Rothenstein (from 1920-35) and Indian art. Rothenstein took a keen interest in Mughal Painting and in 1910 established an India Society to educate the British public about Indian arts.

After Vasu Deva Sharma’s return to India in the late 1920s, he practised art in Lahore and was a professor at Chief’s College. He was also commissioned by some Indian royal families for portraits, such as the royals of Chamba (in North India).

From whatever family history I have researched, I am told that Rothenstein travelled again to India in 1944 and visited my great-grandfather at his mansion in Lahore which also housed his studio and artworks.

Vasu Deva Sharma passed away in 1946, a year before the partition of India and Pakistan following the end of British rule. His surviving family members, including his only son – my grand-father – and my father, were forced to flee Lahore in the wake of the partition riots and could not take his artworks and other belongings which were left behind in the mansion.

One of my main project aims is to look for any surviving artworks which could be in the UK, Europe, Pakistan and India.

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Nyay Bhushan is an award-winning fine-art photographer and film-maker based in New Delhi. In addition to researching more about his family legacy, the project also offers transmedia opportunities, from a film documentary to an exhibition. To find out more about his work or to make contact with information about Sharma, please visit http://www.nyaybhushan.com