Ben Uri Gallery and Museum, London

Art, Identity, Migration

Sunshine and Contemporary Portraiture at Ben Uri Art Workshop

Ben Uri held its first Summer School in August, a three-day project that coincided with the gallery’s exhibition ‘Looking In: Photographic Portraits by Maud Sulter and Chan-Hyo Bae’. The course gave participants the opportunity to explore the themes of the contemporary photographic works from the two artists and create their own work in response to the exhibition.

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Over the three days, participants took part in lots of games and activities to get them thinking about how we might interpret contemporary portraiture. On day one we focused on the themes of identity, something that features heavily in the work of both Maud Sulter and Chan-Hyo Bae. We began by getting to know one another (and the artworks) a little better with some fun games and then looked at the exhibition in closer detail, working together to draw out themes and concepts. After discussing the artworks and what the artists were trying to convey, we concentrated on the idea of costume and concealed identity, making our own disguises.  Everyone produced some weird and wonderful disguises that would be at home at the Notting Hill Carnival (held on the same day!), which we then paraded outside the gallery to understand how it might feel to stand out within a community.

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The second day focused on objects, something both Sulter and Chan-Hyo Bae use in their work to symbolise ideas and provoke questions. In order to begin understanding the significance of these objects, participants looked at their own objects that they had brought in for the session, using them in a series of  thought-provoking games and activities. Thinking about which objects hold personal significance, we then spent time creating self-portraits working on large-scale photographs of ourselves and using collage to embellish them with symbolic objects.

On the final day participants reviewed what they had learnt about the exhibition throughout the duration of the project and addressed the question ‘What is a portrait?’. We began the day with a quiz that asked participants to identify famous people from simple images that we associate with certain celebrities; from Harry Potter’s lightning bolt scar to Dali’s distinctive moustache. This activity got us thinking about abstract portraits and how a simple icon can represent a person. Using photography we explored this idea further, selecting a single symbol that represented ourselves and creating an image depicting this symbol. For the last activity of the Summer School, participants drew on all the knowledge they had gained over the past three days, creating their own ‘self-portrait’ in response to the exhibition, choosing from a range of materials to produce a final, considered piece of work.

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Ben Uri’s Summer School was a fantastic three days that saw the creation of lots of brilliant artwork from its participants. It got us all thinking about portraiture in new ways and ‘Looking In’ much greater depth at the thought-provoking work of Maude Sulter and Chan-Hyo Bae, which we discovered we are all able to relate to in some way.

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