Across summer and autumn 2016, artist Tanya Raabe-Webber delivered her ambitious project Portraits Untold. Thanks to lottery funding through the Arts Council, Tanya held four live portrait sittings with high profile sitters in well-known venues across the UK. With audience involvement, both live and online, the sittings enabled Tanya to have conversations with the sitters as well as answering questions from the public. Audiences were invited to create their own drawings, with some being incorporated into Tanya’s final canvases. Here Outside In Manager Jennifer Gilbert interviews Tanya about Portraits Untold, looking back at the successful project.
First things first – where did your idea for this project come from? And why did you choose these four particular people?
The idea was born out of a lifetime of creating paintings of myself and of high profile disabled cultural figures in traditional portrait studio settings and a natural interest in pushing the boundaries of my practice as a painter of people; who I portray, where I portray them and how I portray them. I wanted to step away from directly portraying figures of a Disability Cultural Sector and to visualise the diversity of humanity in a forever changing society. Telling stories that are of the untold. What I mean by ‘the untold’ is that as human beings we all have our own stories that reflect our lives, passions and interests.
I wanted to have these conversations with sitters who had achieved a sense of perceived greatness. They had to be people who were not necessarily disabled but needed to somehow connect with a diverse audience and have life experiences that I could draw from in their portrait as a woman, a disabled person, an artist, as a disabled artist and to seek out ‘what makes us all human’. It was important to me that these portraits were set outside of the usual portrait studio space, in public spaces that were in some way connected to the sitters.
As a disabled artist, the notion of my own diversity drives my interest in people and the exploration of the human condition and the belief that everyone has the potential to be creative if given the opportunity. I am well known as a painter of people, however I have wanted to develop a way to engage audiences more fully in the subject matter of my work and also within its physicality. I developed this project with Independent Producer Mandy Fowler and the venue partners to enable creativity to be as accessible as possible.
When I originally sat down to choose the sitters with Mandy, we looked at people who had achieve greatness in their lives. I wanted sitters who I could connect with through our shared passion and drive for humanity. So we came up with a short list of high profile people who represented diversity, humanity and artistic integrity.
World renowned musician Evelyn Glennie for her legacy to ‘teach the world to listen’ – while looking to open a centre that embodies her mission: to improve communication and social cohesion by encouraging everyone to discover new ways of listening.
John Akomfrah for his life’s works as a founding member of the influential Black Audio Film Collective, which started in London in 1982 alongside the artists David Lawson and Lina Gopaul, who he still collaborates with today.
Neil Baldwin for his philosophy on life to ‘be happy’. He is best described as a national treasure and is known through the BAFTA award-winning BBC television drama, Marvellous first broadcast in 2014, telling the story of his life. Particularly his circus days which resonates with me as a disability historical cultural perspective as well as having the circus in my own family history. Neil was diagnosed with a learning disability as a child, a label which he has simply ignored. He has and continues to achieve remarkable things throughout his life in a range of areas and can boast many famous friends including the Archbishop of Canterbury, sportsmen and politicians.
David Hoyle for his ability to entertain and change perceptions – a kind of anti-drag queen whose lacerating social commentary – targeting both bourgeois Britain and the materialistic-hedonistic gay scene, which he called “the biggest suicide cult in history” – was offset by breathtaking instances of self-recrimination and even self-harm. David is also a great friend and I have worked with him on several Fittings Multimedia productions. As an admirer of his paintings I wanted to paint alongside him too in this collaborative process.
Having been present during the National Portrait Gallery sitting it was great to see how involved the audiences were, but also how engaged they were. Why did you want to include parts of their drawings into the final works?
I’ve always been really fascinated by other people’s drawings and the processes they use instinctively to be creative. This was an extension of my continued research into ways to break down that which is perceived as the ‘professional artist’ and that which is perceived as the ‘amateur artist’. To bring the two together to unite us in our common humanity through the divergence of drawing humanity in what you see in front of you. I am always greatly surprised by what emerges on the paper, canvas or digital tablet when it’s made accessible to anyone who wants to have ago. I guess this comes from deep within me. I have a basic need to want to draw, to illustrate the world around me and, in fact, to be drawn. It’s that sense of self and awareness of others that comes through this process drawing us together.
You then also live streamed the events and used some of their contributions too – was that successful?
With the livestream I wanted to breakdown that sense of isolation you can feel when working at home, especially as a disabled artist. It’s something that I feel particularly passionate about, especially when I’m in my home studio in the Shropshire Hills where I only have my cat Beeny to critique my work! Though she offers me lots of advice it can be tricky as I can’t speak cat chirp and meow! Plus, I wanted to open the doors of these life portrait studio events to an international audience to enlighten the possibilities of new international collections.
I would say it certainly has been a great success. 800 people participated in some way on the livestream every hour in each live event, which lasted 7 hours per event. We had many livestream viewers following, drawing, being involved with the conversations and even planning for the next event as we went along. Our live streamers were even having tea parties!
Part of what you were doing was chatting with the sitter and some of them even got creative too, e.g. with Dame Evelyn Glennie your canvas was attached to microphones that Evelyn used varying accompaniments to make sounds with. Why was this interaction important to you?
I’m always looking for new ways to collaborate in my portrait practice. It was especially important in these live portrait events to find ways for us both to share a commonplace in our practices where we could all influence the making of the portrait. I believe that a portrait is so much more than a one-way street. For me it’s a three-point turn! There’s me the artist, the sitter and the audience. I spent time with each of the sitters drawing them, getting to know them and figuring out how we could connect though our untold stories in a physical, intellectual and nonverbal way. These are all elements that I consider to be essential to a successful collaborative portrait. This was a fascinating process and often happened naturally and organically. I love the element of an accidental happening and then making it into something of value.
With David Hoyle it was me drawing him, him drawing me and the audience drawing us. With Evelyn, it was Evelyn drawing the sound of me drawing her. We miked up a canvas so that the audience could hear the drawing. This was something we discovered during our preliminary portrait session. I explained to her that the act of painting produces sound which she had not known before as Evelyn is a deaf musician. To Evelyn movement is sound. We liked that idea and wanted to explore this together. With Neil it was about creating a portrait with him. Together we illustrated his life in the circus, football, his love for life and his own love of drawing the budgies that he keeps at home. With John Akomfrah our collaboration was much more subtle and was based purely on the idea of exploring each other’s cultural perspective and our shared diversity within that. It was the conversation and the probing of each other’s lives that was the interaction.
Why was it important for you to involve such high profile venues and what are you hoping has been achieved by this?
There were several reasons for this. It was important to match each high profile sitter with a high profile venue that they would be connected to in some way. This was so that the sitter would have a basis for conversation through their association with that venue. The venue would already have an audience who would again be interested in engaging with such an event. But I also wanted each event to really push the boundaries of how they interpreted the notion of diversity within the infrastructure of their institution. Through the intervention of hosting Portrait Untold events, each venue have had their own challenges and have in turn began to make fundamental changes from top to bottom. There have been many pioneering moments along this journey including running the first ever all-inclusive portrait master class at The National Portrait Gallery and a first for having a live portrait event in a National Trust property.
One of your aims was to engage audiences in a debate about diversity – do you think that happened in each venue? And do you think it will have made audiences think differently about disabled artists now too?
Yes, this definitely happened in each venue but in many different ways. Some more subtle than others. The National Portrait Gallery seemed quite formal at times but then became more open as the audience relaxed into it. At Stoke City Football Club, just being there as a living breathing disabled artist, standing there, painting a portrait offered ways in for the audience to engage in the debate about diversity. At Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery the question of diversity was definitely in your face, as it were. As with John Akomfrah the conversation was definitely focused on disability culture and black arts and culture as we all conversed about the lack of diversity and cultural reference in our historic public art collection. This also resonated with the Evelyn in the reformer room at National Portrait Gallery and with David at Beningbrough Hall as we talked about the lack of LGBT cultural reference in the National Trust collection.
Has anything surprised you during the course of this project?
I’ve really been surprised by the generosity of all the sitters and how open they have been with their telling of their untold stories in such an open way. Some say it’s the way I approach my questioning and some say it’s the portrait studio stage set that I created in each venue which somehow gave the sitter a relaxed and open approach to tell their unbound stories! I’ve also found that putting together a great team of experts to support the making and delivery of such an ambitious project was vital to it success.
Where can people see these works next and are there any accompanying events to this?
The finished Portraits Untold paintings will be exhibited from 28 January – 26 February 2017 at Artlink Hull as part of the Capital of Culture. This includes a residency at Artlink Hull 13 – 18 February where I will be doing live streamed portraits of 4 well know people of Hull. Keep an eye on my Facebook and Twitter feeds for live video posts.
Free tickets will be avialable to book for attending the live portrait events at Artlink Hull. Event date and times to be confirmed.
Visit the Portraits Untold website for more photos, videos and information about the project