Getting two awards for the OXYGEN: breathTAKING exhibition was truly phenomenal but very richly deserved by all the hugely talented artists involved. Recognition from peers in this way is something that I have never ever experienced before in Brighton but it has made the long journey here all the more worthwhile. One of my curatorial ambitions was that it was absolutely vital that this work had a mainstream platform and wasn’t in any way ghettoised or exoticised as it usually would be. Through the collaboration with Phoenix Art Space this was most definitely achieved, and even more importantly, the exhibition engaged many new and diverse audiences who had never previously been in a gallery environment as they felt it just wasn’t for them or that they weren’t welcome in the space. The incredible feedback from the visitor book and social media demonstrates just how significantly breathTAKING has resonated with people from all walks of life.
African, Caribbean and British heritage is inextricably intertwined, yet for whatever reason not everyone is aware of why this is or just how profound our connections are. As painful and challenging the exhibition may appear at times, these narratives need to be heard and experienced by the wider community. We simply have to get used to the notion of being comfortable with discomfort – these realities have been obscured for far too long and this has been the root cause of many racial tensions, misconceptions and traumas. The breathTAKING exhibition is a necessary and timely intervention intended to bring about a better understanding of different life experiences and cultural perspectives to ultimately help shift negative perceptions and to promote intercultural dialogue.
Up until now the opportunities to gain this kind of exposure in a professional exhibition environment have been very few and far between – for me personally it has actually taken 35 years of living and working in Brighton to be offered the time, space, creative freedom and practical resources to produce this kind of event here. A situation that is totally unacceptable on so many different levels, but because I also work a lot overseas I hadn’t quite fully appreciated just how long I’d been stagnant here or the depth of marginalisation I’ve encountered in my home town. I know that this sounds very hard to believe but the simple fact is that exclusionary practices are so deeply embedded in a biased system that to protect yourself and your mental wellbeing you develop a very thick skin and become immune as it were to being demeaned and relegated so often. I recognise that this status quo has to change, and my ambition now is to help to shorten this journey time from aspiring to professional status for my contemporaries and the next generation of creative practitioners. Phoenix Art Space have thankfully been prompted to step up to the challenge of facilitating change, making space for different voices to be heard and developing a more inclusive creative ecology, through innovative opportunities for immersive incubation and presenting work. What they have already achieved in partnership with us at urbanflo and Brighton University’s Centre for Arts and Wellbeing to support the OXYGEN Art Series and the breathTAKING exhibition is quite astounding and actually groundbreaking – this kind of initiative just hasn’t happened before. The key objective is to achieve equity by levelling the playing field without elevating one community above another – complementing existing work, not competing with it. Our hopes now are that this amazing collaboration will help to also open the eyes of other mainstream cultural providers in the city so they can recognise the immense talent of artists from diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds right here on their doorstep.
As Phoenix Art Space’s director Sarah Davies notes, “This long-term collaboration with urbanflo Creative and the exhibiting artists marks the start of many projects we will deliver together from the perspective of communities still impacted by the legacies of colonialism.”
–– Jenni Lewin-Turner
Further reading: Q&A with featured artists Judith Ricketts & Josef Cabey
‘breathTAKING’, 16 June – 25 July 2021, curated by urbanflo Founder/Director Jenni Lewin-Turner, guest creatives include Judith Ricketts, Josef Cabey, River Sweeney and AFLO. the Poet. Funded in part by Phoenix Art Space and the Centre for Arts and Wellbeing at the University of Brighton.
Image credit: urbanflo creative