Mary Stephenson – A Fine Balance – 2018, Courtesy of Collezione Taurisano
Recently on Art Nomade Milan I discussed about the concept of “women artists” with Georgian artist Rusudan Khizanishvili: we both dreamed of an (utopian?) future where there will be no need of a gender-based division in artists’ definition and identity because there will be no unequal access to the sector. However, until this becomes true, we must talk about women artists and women in the art world to tackle this inequality and contribute to a necessary shift. In fact, according to Artnet, in 2019 women artist represented only the 2% of the market.
Positioning herself as a key driver to this change, Mollie E Barnes – independent curator and founder of “She Curates” – is building an incredible work and network in order to “champion equality in the arts”, focusing on empowering both female-identifying artists and queer artists. She also recently curated the online exhibition “YOLK” for the renowned Collezione Taurisano, which explores a selection of 21 works by female-identifying artists, discussing their place in relation to Italian traditional collections and challenging the wider discourse of women in the arts.
In this article, we enter into conversation with Mollie E Barnes about her work and vision as a curator, spanning from the challenge of tackling inequality to an in-depth look into YOLK exhibition.
In Conversation with Mollie E Barnes
Mollie, I’m so excited to conduct this interview with you today. There are so many things I would love to touch in this conversation – from the online exhibition “YOLK” which you curated for Collezione Taurisano to your wonderful platform “She Curates”. You are very young, yet you have a multifaceted career in the arts as a curator, art advisor, gallery consultant and much more…thus, my first question is: Who is Mollie Barnes? Would you like to introduce yourself for our readers?
Thank you Valentina, for such a generous and warm welcome and introduction. I am Mollie, an Independent Curator based in the South of England. I work, primarily, to champion equality in the arts, with a broad focus on Women and Queer Artists. My recent exhibitions include ‘Heart of the Matter’ for Gillian Jason Gallery featuring the incredible emerging talents of artists such as Sahara Longe and Sikelela Owen, alongside Bridget Riley and Tracey Emin. I also recently curated ‘Get a Load of This!’ – a 25 artists exhibition featuring women artists internationally. YOLK has been a really incredible project. I have been working with Sveva [Taurisano] on the exhibition for a long time now, and we are excited to be bringing it to life next year in Italy. The works featured are 21 pieces from the collection, each a powerful voice of today.
Your platform “She Curates” is born under the vision of championing equality in the arts – and I believe that you are doing an amazing job in tackling one of the biggest issues in the art world – which today is more than necessary. I would love to ask you what led you to start this project, and what is your take on the status of the art (but also cultural) system today.
She Curates was a project and platform I began in March 2020 at the start of the Pandemic. It was a way to create a resource for me to interview and connect with artists and art professionals around the world. It has been a testimony to the kindness of everyone and the support of so many.
It has led to so many exciting projects – with lots to come in 2022!
My take on the art world system is a positive one – I think I have met so many people, including Sveva, who are doing all that they can and more to promote equality, fairness and inclusivity in the art world. We just need it to continue.
I think, also, that we need to remember that Movements are just that – and not moments. Institutions are often as guilty as commercial brands in jumping in on movements, for example International Women’s Day, and then forgetting about it the next month.
Everyone needs to be represented, fairly and included. Institutions and cultural centres should be at the forefront of that.
As a researcher in cultural studies myself, I’ve come to learn more and more how issues of representation matter incredibly, especially for women and minorities. I also believe that the arts have an incredible power in interacting with and shaping society, and today perhaps I believe that what I would call a “political take” (with its very different nuances) on the arts is necessary. What is your vision on the matter? How do you think that representation issues in the arts should be tackled? Can the art world contribute to change society, or at least – initiate a conversation?
I think representation is of the most vital importance, and true representation is the goal. As mentioned I think cultural institutions should be at the forefront of these movements towards representation.
Arts can absolutely contribute to the changes – by supporting those artists, those muses and models, those voices of curators and visionaries, the arts can champion those opinions and ideas and help move societies
I would love to ask you a question on the role of collecting art today and how it can contribute to shape the inequality in the art market. Recently you hosted a panel called “Collecting with a purpose” in the framework of YOLK exhibition. Which suggestions would you give to collectors today, and why does their role matter for the wider scope of championing equality in the sector?
Collectors play such an exciting and vital role in the arts. I’m not sure I can add further than the incredible panel of voices did, and I highly suggest watching that panel discussion if you can! Nish McCree who featured is an iconic and exciting collector and Patron. She shows the role of a collector can be to champion equality. As part of her collecting journey, she is making revisions to ensure a diverse and equality-promoting art collection. She recently decided to focus on predominantly female artists, for example. Alongside her collecting she has also launched the COWRIE Culture platform, alongside exhibitions.
To be a collector is to be invested in the artist’s journeys, and support them while caring for the collection.
I would suggest forming a true relationship with the artists you collect, where possible. Reach out to them and support what they are currently doing, and what they may begin doing.
This year you curated the exhibition “YOLK” for the renowned Collezione Taurisano, which showcases online on the platform “Artland” 21 bidimensional artworks by female identifying artists. There are many aspects of it that I would love to investigate with you, but first let me ask you, how was this experience for you, especially working in synergy with Collezione Taurisano?
Working the Taurisano Collection, and Sveva, has been a real dream. It is so exciting and dynamic to be around people so supportive of the arts and artists. Sveva and I have taken calls when she has been all around Europe meeting exciting talent, and launching her art award.
The collection is a showcase of a modern collection – supporting artists long after they have acquired their works, championing their voices and producing initiatives to carry on their legacy.
The collection is also over 60% female-identifying artists, making this project even more interesting as a subject around traditional Italian art collections.
I feel like the title of the exhibition itself, YOLK, assumes so much meaning. Would you like to explain more about the choice of the title and what it represents?
Thank you – I couldn’t even tell you where the idea originally came from – it just came to me! I suddenly rang Sveva and said “We need to call it YOLK”. Then all the ideas came flooding.
Eggs are being reclaimed from art history’s examples of Dali, Koons, Miro and Da Vinci. Female identifying artists, such as Judy Chicago and Sarah Lucas are producing works surrounding this symbol. Sarah Lucas’s ‘One Thousand Eggs: For Women’ saw the artist, alongside family, friends throw 1,000 eggs at a gallery wall. Lucas had used eggs to playfully engage ideas of fertility and femininity, thinking of them as opposition and pretension. We see reclamation in the works of Agnes Martin, Urs Fischer, Deborah Czeresko and Heather Glazzer. ‘Womanhouse’ from Miriam Shapiro and Judy Chicago exhibited an immersive domestic home, including fried eggs protruding like breasts from the walls, subverting a woman’s supposed ‘place’.
‘Yolk’, as opposed to ‘egg’, titles the exhibition to avoid and subvert biological assumptions of a gender binary or classification of a single female identity or experience. Moreover, each human begins as a type of egg. Yolks yield birth and entrance, each through nourishment, energy, and rebellion. Visitors are encouraged to take lessons from the Taurisano Collection and the network they have created and nurtured.
There is also a link between the number of artists (21) being a Fibonacci number, mirroring ideas of the golden ratio that is often applied to things like shells, eggs and yolk.
On the other side, eggs are often a symbol of discontent across cultures, thrown at politicians and celebrities. Famously, Ethel Moorhead, a militant personality in the suffrage for women’s right to vote in the UK, threw an egg at Winston Churchill in 1910. They simultaneously exist as fragile perfect forms and potential revolt.
The title, therefore, was rebellious, nurturing and all-encompassing at one time. I found it very exciting.
I read on the curatorial text that the exhibition explores two phases of life for both underrepresented and rediscovered artists – Rebirth, and Establishment. Also, the number of artists exhibited is not casual, but is chosen in relation to the fact that in 2019 there were only 21 works by female identifying artists among the 2,3000 presented in the London National Gallery. It also relates to the scarcity of representation in established museums in Italy. YOLK tackles all of that in one exhibition, especially in relation to Collezione Taurisano. How was the experience of shaping the exhibition through these themes and how do you envision this as a conversation opener?
With so many voices, powerful, exciting voices, speaking in one exhibition, each of whom is channelling a different persona, a different narrative and often a different issue, the space could become very overwhelming. The overarching adjoining factor is highlighting these voices from female-identifying artists, but then thinking about the broader idea of Italian art collections had me thinking about the collecting cycle.
Suddenly these two spheres became apparent – the wildness, anonymity and discovery of ‘Re-birth’, and the boldness, recognisability, confidence of subject and represented narrative of ‘Establishment’.
I hoped, as a conversation starter, the discussions could encompass different things to different people – with these different spheres a viewer could discuss a single work, two works, the entire room, ‘re-birth’, ‘establishment’ and YOLK as a whole, encasing the exhibition.
I hoped the ideas of these phases also provided a base for people to delve into each artist’s narrative, from known space.
In relation to all the interesting concepts that the exhibition explores, I would love to talk about the selection process of the artists. How was the selection curated and in which way does it relate to all the discourses we touched upon?
The selection process was really exciting for me. It was hours of really fascinating research through the Taurisano Collection’s database, picking out works that grabbed me. I then read artists statements, bios and contacted all the artists in the exhibition to ask them more about their works. It was so exciting to meet these artists and discuss the works in detail.
Is there any work featured in the exhibition that you would like to talk about, or that holds a peculiar meaning in relation to the exhibition’s purpose and/or your work?
The work from Amanda Ba will always have a special place in my heart. I exhibited this work with the Daniel Raphael Gallery back in May for ‘GET A LOAD OF THIS!’ – a mammoth exhibition we worked together on. Sveva purchased this work for the Taurisano Collection, and it is a dream to exhibit the work again – how often are you able to do that as a Curator?! I suppose the connection holds a strong meaning to me as the role of a Curator – to care for the artists even more so than the artworks, and to continue to support them even after you have worked together/ the work is collected.
I believe the pandemic powerfully shaped the relation that we have with technology, highlighting the possibilities that it offers for the arts. I also believe that somehow it shaped something in the way we approach the artworld. What do you think? Did the pandemic shape in anyway your practice and approach to both art, technology, and their relations?
I completely agree. The pandemic hugely shifted my work. Before the pandemic I was working exclusively in a beautiful local gallery (I still do!), and the pandemic forced me to reach out to so many new voices, artists and places. By being locked indoors, so many people branched out through the internet and made these exciting connections.
I launched She Curates 5 days into the lockdown, and it transformed my practice through the connections to amazing people I made. I will always be grateful to the generosity of people to me during that time.
One last question: which suggestion would you give to young art passionates or professionals who want to contribute to tackle issues of inequality in the arts?
Honestly, my advice is to always do what seems good and right to you. Research the artists you want to work with, and reach out to the ones whose voices you want to amplify. Research the galleries, teams and institutions you may work with, and make sure they are speaking on important issues. If they aren’t, never feel embarrassed to bring it up to them. Be true to yourself and your message, and reach out to people if you are unsure.