There’s no mistaking the stunning Bowes Museum in leafy Teesdale. Constructed in 1892, this purpose-built building contains world-renowned collections of fine art; many a North East child has been taken to see the famous Silver Swan over the years.
It was the beautiful brainchild of John and Joséphine Bowes, and it is massively important to honour their vision. However, what is refreshing about this museum is that it retains its original charm, but isn’t afraid to be bold and move with the times. One of the ways they achieve this is by having The Bowes Centre housed there, which manages artist projects and participation.
Now in its second year, The Bowes Centre brilliantly secured three years of funding to run their programme #UNTITLED10. From an open call, ten artists are selected; their practice must be fresh and diverse. They undertake the clever task of being inspired about an element of Bowes and creating something innovative, explorative and new, whilst engaging with the public.
The museum is grand yet welcoming and homely due to the staff and surroundings; you can feel the Bowes’ legacy in the air. The ten pieces are spread over the three floors, and you can follow a well-produced guide to find them. Each experience is different and ranges from ceramics to woodwork to tailoring. A generous touch was Ceramic artist Judy Dibiase lovingly producing 200 stunning cups for Josephine, to which the public luckily got take home and treasure.
Activist and drag king Lady Kitt has created a thought-provoking exhibit. They are fascinated by the hidden stories in galleries and museums, especially the lack of visibility and presence for the LBGTQ+ community. Deciding to explore and research this, they were drawn to the sculpture Sappho by James Pradier. This silver wonder represents the lesbian poet from 570 BC, who is now a queer icon. From this, they were inspired to create large, impressive paper sculptures in a rich purple colour.
For the launch of #UNTITLED10, Lady Kitt and Drag GenderQueer Alternative executed two performance pieces in the picture galleries. First was ‘Our love is a stow away. Always?’, which was a response piece to the painting ‘Amarillis Crowning Mirtillo’. Three people took their place on the floor and started to move their bodies fluidly. Their costumes had elements of drag but were very subtle and understated.
The dancers moved together then separated round the room. Echoing the paintings, they created shapes that mimicked the artwork, sometimes teasing what was behind it and the hidden meanings and stories. As this was going on, Miss Penny Press, dressed as Sappho, was on hand to discuss any questions and take you to see the paper art and original Sappho sculpture; this was a lovely touch. You could drop in an out, which was the intention of the hour-long piece.
Now here is an interesting fact: before marriage, Joséphine Bowes was an actress who played men during her career. She would have worn short trousers, which wasn’t allowed in the 19th century. In response to this, ‘Gentleman Joséphine’ was created. An integral part of drag performance is lip-syncing, and that was used here. Short and sweet, It was quirky and upbeat, as the performers moved around the space. Revealed at the end was a rainbow flag with the words ‘We will not hide’ on. Everyone left the room uplifted.
Hats off to all involved. Having the LBGTQ+ community present and visible is a jolly good step in the right direction, but having them produce thought-provoking, well-researched and eloquent work is brilliant. The new work against the old background was an effective juxtaposition. There were lots of guests chatting to the artists and learning something new. I do not doubt that John and Joséphine would have approved. #UNTITLED10: where traditional and diverse beautifully meet.
Runs until February 28th, 2020
Article by Beverley Knight