Birmingham-born artist Marlene Smith on her art practice, her experience as a founding member of the BLK Art Group and being an advisor for the Tate's Women in Revolt! exhibition
Reader's Digest: How would you describe your art practice?
Marlene Smith: Through my work I explore the intersections between race, class, gender, lived experiences and the ways that these can create a space where memory can be centred. Often, I use domestic archiving, familial memory, and the way that we value familial objects and items.
" I try to explore the questions and tensions of gender and embodiment"
By using objects and materials from the home I try to explore the questions and tensions of gender and embodiment. In my series Ad (dress) Rehearsal I wear my late parents’ clothing, treating the clothing as both costume and veil. Elsewhere in my work I choose familiar objects, such as a vase of plastic flowers or a family photograph.
When did you know you wanted to be an artist? How did you get into the art world?
I don’t remember the moment I decided to be an artist. At 17 I decided to do a foundation course (which is a year before going on to a degree course) to find out if I could be an artist. I started by showing my art in an exhibition with other members of The Blk Art Group. You never know who might see your work once you've made the decision to show it.
Who or what are your main influences?
I feel that I have a whole host of influences, artists, musicians, writers. I first read Toni Morrison and bell hooks when I was 18 and their work continues to inspire me. I saw Carrie Mae Weems’ exhibition at the Barbican a couple of weeks ago, I love her work. I first saw it in the Nineties.
I came across the work of Betye Saar and David Hammonds when I was writing about black artists for my A-level. There's a touch of the magical in all these artists' work. They manipulate objects and make them speak. That's what I try to do.
How did you come to be a member of The BLK Art Group? What was the purpose of the group?
I went to the opening of the group’s show at the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham in May 1982 where I met Keith Piper, and he invited me to the next group meeting which was at Eddie Chambers’ parents’ home in Wolverhampton. The purpose of the group was to make work, exhibitions and events that discussed what it meant to be black.
How do feminism and anti-racism factor into your work?
I’ve been a feminist all my adult life and debunking the myth of races is very much at the centre of my personal ethos. So those ideas are important right the way through the making process.
"I’ve been a feminist all my adult life and debunking the myth of races is very much at the centre of my personal ethos"
In one of the pieces, I am showing I am joining a conversation about what art is and who makes it. In the other, I am concerned with telling the story of a woman who was injured for life following a police raid at her home. Having said that, the aesthetic questions are equally important, otherwise it stops performing as an artwork.
Can you tell us a little about the Tate’s Women in Revolt! exhibition and your role in advising on it?
I was deeply honoured to be asked to be one of three advisors to the project. This show is presenting the work of a generation of women whose work has been under-appreciated by the art establishment.
As an advisor to the project, I have been involved and consulted on the artists taking part and what they are showing, as well as the programme of events and the publications. Griselda Pollock and Althea Greenan are the other advisors, and together we have written a foreword for the catalogue.
What is the importance of exhibitions like Women in Revolt! for platforming artists who have formerly been left out of art world narratives?
They are game-changing landmark exhibitions that tell a fresh story of how we got here. A show like Women in Revolt! relies heavily on expanded scope of research to bring forth alternative narratives and storytelling about who has been making art and what they have been making. It can tell us who has had an impact on artists making today.
The art world has historically been dominated by certain groups—do you think it is becoming more accessible?
There have been a greater number of black artists’ work shown in the years following the Black Lives Matter movement and the murder of George Floyd. I hope this is more than a moment and that we won’t slip back into business as usual.
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