Interview: Senah Tuma on the Norman Rea Gallery’s Represent Campaign

The new campiagn explores themes of diversity, equality and representation, and can be found at Derwent College.

(Image: Norman Rea Facebook Page)

The interview finds Senah Tuma entering their last term as director for the Norman Rea Gallery 2020/21. The gallery’s latest zine, crafted by a team of curators, artists, and academics, explores themes of representation and diversity through an accumulation of interviews, poems, drawings, paintings, and more to address issues surrounding gender, race, and sexuality.

The gallery is YUSU ratified, and can be found in Derwent College, at the University of York. Through collaboration and curiosity, many exhibitions curated by the Norman Rea Gallery are rooted in diversity. It’s evident that members of the gallery are passionate about equality and progressive societal change, and an egalitarian attitude shines through their most recent campaign. The latest zine, on the theme of representation, can be accessed for free via the gallery’s social media platforms. 

N: What initially inspired you to create and develop the Represent Campaign?

S: This year, we – as a committee – dedicated ourselves to tackling topics of race and representation within the arts. This decision was prompted by several considerations, including the connections that our team felt in relation to this cause, and our position as a gallery uninhibited by the usual consideration of ‘gallery neutralism’ that other institutions may face. Represent York was a personal passion project for me – I did not want to graduate without giving it my best shot to make a direct impact on the diversity of the arts on campus, and our team and members who supported me. Together, we wanted to reflect on these topics through our locality and make a difference on campus.

N: What do you think is the campaign’s greatest achievement?

S: The campaign has expanded beyond our original intentions – our stated goal was accomplished. The campaign has raised around £5,000 to purchase local, representative artwork to donate to the university. However, I feel that the campaign’s greatest achievement has been its ability to go beyond our original plans in its depth and breadth, in the forms of a zine, and the fact that the university is now planning a Represent York exhibition and symposium on campus in the summer. 

Additionally, I, and the others, have been inspired by the reaction of our members to the campaign. Despite COVID-19, we’ve had more members than ever get involved, and it’s been inspiring to have them passionately rise to the challenge of tackling subjects that can often be shied away from.

N: The online ‘zine’ format is a digitalised version of a physical magazine. What provoked the team at Norman Rea Gallery to launch the Represent Campaign in this way? Do you think the way in which we at York consume art has been changed by the pandemic?

S: The original plan for the zine was to be an award for those who had donated money to our Represent fundraiser, as a way to say thank you. It was meant to be a short collection of images and thank you notes – that’s not what it ended up being at all! When we put together members to create the zine, we were struck by the amount who got involved, and their desire to fully explore the idea of what ‘representation’ meant to them. I realised that the zine had the potential to independently be its own self standing work, rather than a support to the fundraiser, where members could freely respond to the topic. What we ended up with is a zine of over 60 pages, including interviews with academics, curators and artists.  

The way in which we consume art at York has absolutely been changed. It cannot be emphasised enough the drastic nature of showcasing art from primarily physical to digital means in such a brief time. The pandemic has challenged all societies on campus to adapt the way that they exist, and the Norman Rea Gallery is no exception. In terms of the gallery, we have actually benefited from increased engagement and positive feedback from members. Although all of our projects this year have been similar in nature (focusing on raising awareness) we have aimed to give as much freedom in expression as possible. As so many forms of expression have been taken away this year, the aim was to allow the gallery to host as a place for this. The pandemic here in York has been associated with more than just COVID-19, it has been characterised by profound engagement with politics. Within the oppressive and often harrowing nature of our circumstances (such as the pandemic), I think that the engagement with art on campus has been one of empowerment through expression. The arts community on campus have really embraced the opportunity to be a support network for people. 

N: How many people does it take to create a successful zine? Can you give us some insight into the creative process which drives a project such as Represent Campaign?

S: Leading and organising the aspects of the campaign for Represent York in retrospect did not ever feel creative despite it being an arts campaign. To be honest, it felt extraordinarily administrative. I think that my main role was to try to organise and encourage creative groups while ensuring that the original concept was intact. The main aim was ultimately to challenge and change the percentage and awareness of diversity within the University of York art collection. However, members were organised into teams based on their interests to support the project: the ‘Zine Team’, ‘Advertising’, ‘Artist Hunting’, ‘Fundraising’ and so on. There was a large amount of overlap within these teams, and the groups met regularly until the project was completed. The process, in theory, aimed to promote agency and decision making by the members, and to have the campaign be representative of decisions beyond my own, or beyond the gallery’s. The campaign is reflective of our members: students in York who are engaged with art. 

N: Whilst the digitalised format seems fitting for a younger generation accustomed to online learning, I wonder whether this style choice has excluded certain demographics. Of course, the notion of exclusion is at odds with the campaign’s objectives, but do you think it is the case that some generations who could have benefitted educationally from this campaign may have missed out due to the digitalised format?

S: I do think that the format we chose to primarily focus on (digital) is reflective of our current circumstances and limitations with COVID-19, and our committee being split all over the world. We hope to print out physical versions that can be distributed and sold but wanted to prioritise the digital copy first. I think that the reality of the path that the arts is taking is one of digital form, with the pandemic there has been a validity given to these mediums that didn’t exist in this way before. Digitalisation is becoming increasingly mainstream. 

N: Represent Campaign was set up in association with York Anti-Racist Collective Society. Together, over £5,000 was raised; a portion of which was donated to the Racial Justice Network. How pleased were you with this result, and what do you feel you have learnt from this experience? How else is Norman Rea Gallery raising awareness for greater representation in York?

S: I am incredibly pleased with this result! We have been able to donate to the Racial Justice Network, and purchase many works by local, representative artists. More than the tangible results, I think that the campaign has been symbolically successful. My hope is that the campaign will serve as a catalyst for action, leading to greater future results in York. Already, we’ve seen the University of York adopt the campaign title – Represent York – and message into a symposium taking place during the first week of May. While we as students have initiated this, our hope is that the university takes this as a call to action and an opportunity to continue to move forward with events such as ours. I think that we, as students, have made it clear that tackling these topics is important to us. What I learned from this experience is how to begin to champion topics that are important to a group, and work towards meaningful action and support. 

N: With the university commissioning and donating during the last campaign, how supportive have you found University of York and YUSU?

S: The University of York took a long time to show support for the project. With respect, I understand that this campaign – in some senses – could be interpreted as a direct attack on the decisions of the university; in a lot of ways, it is, and I think that tension needs to be acknowledged. I emailed the university to ask for their support, which they provided. They donated £1,750 to the campaign, which doubled our artistic budget and positively impacted our capacity for change. Other than this, the support has been incredibly student-led, and mainly supported by YUSU.

My hope is that the university increases their focus and support on diversity and representation-led initiatives, as it is of utmost importance to support this aspect of our community on campus. It cannot be a one-off acknowledgment, but rather a dedication to the cause. Whilst I am grateful for the support, I really do not feel that we should have had to work as hard as we did for acknowledgment or support for our campaign. It’s my personal belief that the university needs to prioritise its support of its POC & BAME students and staff. 

N: Having read the zine cover-to-cover, my favourite feature is the interview with Sagal Farah, which was accompanied by their spine-tinging poem, Last Moments. What is your favourite piece featured in the current zine, and why?

S: Sagal Farah is a wonderful feature for you to pick, as she exhibited in our first exhibition of the year: Change, which reflected on Black Lives Matter. My favourite piece feature in the zine is the zine itself! Our graphic designer, Nicole Fairey, did incredible work visually organising such a wide range of aesthetics and contributions. It’s a beautiful piece of art in itself, and the broad nature of the visuals reflects how broad representation as a concept really is. 

N: Do you believe that some of the featured artwork could further complicate discussions surrounding equality and representation? For example, one artist, who likes to draw provocative images of women, states that women should not be sexualised. It could be argued that this messaging is contradictory.

S: What is unique and valuable about our gallery to me is its ability to respond quickly and actively to the world around it, largely uninhibited. In giving as much agency as possible to members that put together the zine to create, and to choose who to feature in the publication, contradiction is a risk. The aim of the zine is not to give the correct perspective, or even a consistent perspective on what ‘representation’ is. The aim of the zine is to highlight that representation is broad and can be interpreted widely. In the brief given to members, we pushed that ‘representation’ was to be undefined and interpreted personally. I do personally believe that some of the featured artwork could further complicate discussions, but all conversations are encouraged and are conversations worth having. 

N: You said that whilst you were proud of the team at the Norman Rea Gallery for establishing such a moving campaign through your last exhibition, you stated that this process led to many difficult discussions. Could you give us some insight into what sort of topics were discussed, the issues raised in relation to representation and how they made you feel?

S: I knew that I wanted to discuss race in some capacity this year, before these discussions were held. I’m a person of colour. I’m a woman. I’m an international student from America. When I became Director, I wanted to use my position to champion my own voice – a voice that is historically underrepresented within the artistic canon. Yet, beyond my own aims, when the current committee was elected last year, it was not elected with the consideration of any of our personal lives coming into play. In the summer of 2020, we realised that as an artistic display space directly engaging with our environment, difficult discussions were part of our environment. The concept of hosting discussions of discrimination, reactions to violence and lived experiences in regard to race within a group that had just met is daunting. However, our group was a group because we wanted to run a gallery, and that was, in principle, all that we initially had in common. 

Initially, there were conversations about what our role was, and who we wanted to be as a committee: do we want to dedicate a year to these topics? Do we feel safe voicing our opinions in this space? Do we feel that the gallery has ever been an encouraging environment for exploring these topics – and do we want it to be? Is our role on campus to simply exhibit art, or to push ourselves to be a catalyst for social change to the best of our ability? Iterations of these conversation were ongoing throughout the year, and although there were sometimes tensions and disagreements, these were conversations that, I believe, educated our team, and made us better at tackling difficult conversations – conversations that needed to be had. 

N: Reading the stories of each artist and the hardships they’ve faced due to discrimination or marginalisation was heart-wrenching and made me ponder the supposed tolerance of Britain. How important was it that each person’s story was documented, and how did the members of the gallery collectively cope with addressing such staunch issues?

S: One of our considerations this year was that with the continuous engagement with emotionally taxing content, there would be fatigue. As mentioned before, we fully emphasised freedom of individual expression within our documentation. This meant that task briefs were kept as vague as possible, to avoid controlling the personal narratives of those who we worked with. We wanted to be a platform for voices, rather than speak over them. 

I pride myself on the fact that members have said that they felt supported during our projects and discussions, and that a positive attitude ran throughout the regular meetings we held. Within our environment, these issues seem a lot less daunting, and more approachable. The fact of the matter is that these issues need to be addressed despite their often-harrowing nature. It is because these issues are often difficult to manage emotionally that a positive environment needed to be provided for our members. 

N: Finally, ‘Creative’Yutes’ is a lifestyle movement featured in the latest zine, promoting poems, paintings, pictures and more to encourage creativity and positivity. How important is creativity and art in relation to representation and societal progression, and how can more people get involved with the Norman Rea Gallery?

S: The Norman Rea Gallery is a dedicated artistic space on campus where people can try their hand at curating, contacting artists, hanging up a painting or planning events. Having dedicated spaces like ours on campus provide an outlet for not just creativity, but for our voices as students. In my experience, positivity comes out as a result of engagement effortlessly. Simply by getting involved, you meet like-minded people and have a positive experience! This results in a positive environment where the opportunity to have a platform where societal topics and student voices are championed. We welcome all to give the gallery a go – if you contact us on any platform with your interests, we can connect you with a project to help develop your ideas. Please also visit us at our regularly held opening nights, where committee members would always be happy to have a chat.