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Posted 25.11.19

Students lead protest in Tate Britain

By Phillip Buchan

Over sixty of our UAL Foundation Diploma in Art & Design students were invited by curators from Late at Tate to travel to Tate Britain, London, in the first weeks of their course and hold a protest for the gallery’s Late at Tate Britain: Social Justice event.

Tate Britain’s ‘1819: The Year’s Art’ display focuses on work from the year of the Peterloo Massacre, in which fifteen people died in St Peter’s Field, Manchester, when a meeting calling for political reform was brutally broken up by soldiers.

"Plymouth College of Art's innovative and radical approach to education and themes of social justice were inspiring for us as Curators."

– Adrian Shaw and Michael Irwin, Curator and Assistant Curator at Late at Tate

18-year-old Poppy Cowan said: “Marching and shouting through the galleries of Tate was a surreal experience, to make that noise beside paintings that were hundreds of years old. We were anxious at first, because it’s such a naturally quiet space and you really have to fill it yourself, but it was an amazing experience that felt like it was just for us. I don’t expect that I’ll ever be allowed to scream in Tate again.”

Acknowledging that protest and demonstrations often play a key role in affecting political change, we worked with Tate Collective Producers to encourage the Foundation Diploma in Art & Design students to respond to the ‘1819: The Year’s Art’ display. This builds on themes of social justice already being taught across the curriculum to all ages in our continuum of creative education.

Adrian Shaw and Michael Irwin, Curator and Assistant Curator at Late at Tate, said: “We first encountered Plymouth College of Art at a Tate Exchange symposium the college were leading. Their innovative and radical approach to education and themes of social justice were inspiring for us as Curators. One of our events responded to the ‘Year 1819’ display at Tate Britain (which involved images based on the Peterloo Massacre and social reform in Britain) and we could not think of a better group of educators and students to partner with for this event.

“We welcomed in over 1,500 people who all arrived to witness the Plymouth College of Art takeover of the galleries. It was an incredibly rewarding project to work on, welcoming the students into the gallery and supporting them to have ownership of these arguably exclusive spaces. This programme exemplified the potential of regional partnership work and we can’t wait to see what the future holds going forward in 2020.”

The Foundation Diploma in Art & Design students travelled by coach to London as one of their first activities after joining the college, bonding on the journey before working on a DIY banner-making workshop with artist and illustrator Soofiya, whose practice and writings tackle current issues of gender, race, politics and bodies with a thoughtful and therapeutically informed approach.

21-year-old Pippa Fincham said: “Travelling to London together was a great way to start the course. The early starts and long coach trip really helped us all to get to know each other and begin to make friends. I’ve never done anything like the protest in Tate Britain before, so it took me outside of my comfort zone. I don’t feel like I’d have been ready to do something like that alone, but it was great doing it in a group and I know now that I could do it again.”

Students protest at Tate Britain with artist Soofiya

18-year-old Rhiannon Witt said: “During the workshop it was great to get a better understanding of what everyone else classed as social justice. My banner said ‘Respect Our Rights or Expect Our Fights’, because I don’t think people in authority should expect us to bow down to them if they don’t treat us with respect. The protest around the galleries helped me to realise that I’m entitled to express how I feel, but also made me more mindful about respecting the beliefs of other people too.”

Working together to think about what social justice meant to them individually and as a group, the students made placards and banners with Soofiya before leading a procession of protest around the Tate Britain galleries.

19-year-old Brodie Butchart said: “The artist who led the placard-making workshops was really cool. It was exciting to meet an artist like Soofiya, who’s one step ahead of us, working with a national institution like Tate. When we took our banners on a procession around Tate Britain, that really solidified the idea for me that I enjoy protests as a form of art. Working together with other people in that way collectively is something way more community-based than it is anarchic or individual.”

Other activities taking place within Tate Britain as part of the Social Justice event included a screening of the film Peterloo, followed by a conversation with internationally-acclaimed filmmaker Mike Leigh.

18-year-old Nicole Ruby said: “Before applying for the Foundation Diploma in Art & Design I didn’t know where to go or what to do. My art teachers suggested that a Foundation Diploma would open my eyes and give me a new outlook, and they were right. I spoke to some really inspiring artists who were working in Tate Britain and each had arrived there from different pathways, with totally different experience levels.

“The whole experience has reassured me that I can take my time and whether I choose to become a professional artist, a curator, or something else entirely, all of the experience that I pick up along the way will help me. I understand now that we might all be in a race, but you don’t have to rush to the finish line.”