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In The Game to Change The Game: Representation is Essential

On the Down Low 2015 © Gaby Sahhar

Sufea Mohamad Noor asks that those who are in a privileged position use their power to make space for those who have been historically marginalised from decision-making in museums and galleries

Sufea Mohamad Noor is an artist, curator and fundraiser based in Liverpool. As a teenager and a young adult, she spent nearly 10 years participating in a wide range of gallery youth programmes, including Circuit – a national programme for 15–25 year olds led by Tate and funded by Paul Hamlyn Foundation. Although she has largely spent her professional life working for institutions, Sufea has also worked for artist-led spaces and community-led spaces such as The Royal Standard and The Granby Winter Garden. Sufea draws on her experience of wearing many different hats when writing about institutional critique. She currently works at Tate Liverpool whilst maintaining her practice as an artist and a curator. She was recently commissioned by The Tetley for 2019 Artist Book Fair in Leeds and is currently working on another commission on the importance of cultural capital when writing about contemporary art that addresses the lived experience of artists who are PoC.

The lack of representation in galleries is what I would consider the key barrier when it comes to inclusive participation and diverse representation in audience and programme for young people. I feel very strongly about the need for representation when a curatorial team programmes events intended for audiences that the gallery is not currently engaging with. Representation is key when programming an event for a specific audience because without it, the team (whether it’s the professional staff or volunteer participants) does not have the cultural capital needed to connect with the audience that the event is intended for.

I ask that those who are in a privileged position use their power to make space for those who have been historically marginalised from decision-making in galleries. Good intention alone is never enough for me. Sure, it allows for an event to be programmed but representation is needed for there to be a meaningful impact. I recognise that representation is not always possible because sometimes things just don’t work out. When this happens, good intentions can be proved as genuine when privileged individuals give their time, skills, knowledge, contacts and much more without expecting an exchange that benefits them.

My Experience of Circuit
Circuit was a key formative period for me. It taught me how to advocate for the gallery whilst retaining a conscious and critical stance that is required for organisational change to happen. A change that I would like to see is for the gallery to recognise that the term peer-led cannot be used as a catchphrase to describe a gallery youth programme that is an inclusive collective of young people. Peer-led and the concept of inclusive collective cannot exist together because they are contradictions. The term peers refer to a group of people who are like one another and inclusivity can only occur when there is diversity – in simple terms, people who have differences! In the context of a gallery youth programme, a peer-led collective of young people can easily consist of a group of privileged young people.

We go back to the need for representation. The curators must review how the young people’s collective is formed to ensure that the youth programme provides inclusive participation and has diverse representation of its audience. The young people themselves need to establish a democratic process to accommodate individuals with different needs, approaches and ambitions. This way, the individuals in the group have equal access to opportunities in relation to the work they put in.

Glitch Session 2016 ArtPolice © MOSTYN

Transition: Voluntary Participant to Paid Professional
Advocacy is the skill that I gained from volunteering as a participant in Circuit that has allowed me to transition into my paid work as an arts professional. However, there is a big difference between the two roles. When I compare my experience of volunteering and paid work, the financial gain from the latter gives me a realistic view of the art world because it helps me to determine how much I should invest into a project. Paid work encourages me to assert my worth, be strategic with my time and demand recognition for my contribution.

It’s important to highlight that my transition into an arts professional took a lot longer than those who I worked alongside with as a participant and then as a producer. My refusal to change who I am as a person to fit a job was probably the reason for this. I have no regrets because I have found a team with a boss who supports both my work and practice. I’m very grateful to have a supportive boss who allows me to grow without the fear of getting things wrong and limiting myself. With the encouragement of my boss, I have been able to host Museum Detox at the gallery and organised a studios tour in Liverpool for the gallery’s supporters. My advice to my younger self and those who aspire to go into the arts would be “stay true to your values and find the people who would nurture your growth”.

Balancing My Artistic Practice
Although I am currently working in fundraising, I spent the last 7 years working and studying to be an artist-curator. I am a polymath. Working as an arts professional by day and making art at night is a very natural and fulfilling lifestyle for me. I used to split my time between Liverpool and Leeds and so for the longest time I balanced my work and practice by dividing them between these two cities. I would work for institutions in Liverpool and develop my art in Leeds. This boundary is becoming slightly blurred now that my practice is gaining more recognition. Individuals, collectives and galleries in Liverpool are slowly taking interest in my art so one way in which I maintain the boundary is by introducing myself as an artist-curator when I am outside of work. I take my lanyard off when I leave the office and don’t present myself as an arts professional working at an established gallery – both in real life and online.

I admit that there have been multiple crossovers. One perk of wearing multiple hats is that my work at the gallery allows me to meet artists and curators I admire – giving me a good insight into their practice which in turn prompts me to reflect on mine. Another crossover is how I am currently supporting the gallery to build its network of artists in Liverpool by tapping into my own network and knowledge of the local arts scene.

Why Work with the Institution?
I am critical of institutions but I purposely put myself in these places in order to help make the changes I want to see happen. Public institutions have a duty to serve their public. Public galleries are public spaces for the public regardless of their gender, race, class, sexuality and education amongst many other factors that set us apart from one another. Those who have historically been marginalised from public galleries need to be in these spaces. We don’t exist if our bodies are not visible in the gallery. The more we engage with the gallery, the more relevant it becomes in regard to catering to our interests, needs and narratives. It will eventually become inclusive and representative of us.

Sufea Mohamad Noor

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