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Yayoi Kusama
Yayoi Kusamavia

Tate Modern’s new director on celebrating women artists

As the gallery’s new building opens, we talk to Frances Morris about women and non-European artists, and what Sadiq Khan means for London’s creative scene

Today, Tate Modern has thrown open the doors to its ten-storey, £260 million new wing – a ginormous pyramidal construction poking out from behind the original Bankside Power Station building. Ahead of its opening, we spoke to Frances Morris, the gallery’s newly-installed – and first female – director about setting Tate Modern’s new agenda. Having curated three retrospectives of women artists at the gallery, Morris has shown that she’s keen to present a broader history of art – a work she plans to continue in her new role. “It isn’t like we are celebrating women for six months and then all the chaps come back,” she said in a recent interview. “There is a commitment now to show the real history of art and the contribution made by many women who have been overlooked for many reasons.”

Unfortunately and slightly ironically, Tate Modern is currently being criticised for doing just that: overlooking a woman. On Tuesday evening, on the same day this interview took place, activists went to the gallery to protest the exclusion of Cuban-American performance artist Ana Mendieta’s work and the inclusion of her husband Carl André’s work, despite the fact that he is alleged to have murdered her. However, speaking in the ‘Between Object and Architecture’ gallery on the second floor of the new extension, Morris told us how the gallery is seeking to increase its representation of women and non-European artists.

You’ve said that you want to bring people who have been overlooked in the past out of the shadows. Could you explain what you meant by this?

Frances Morris: Well, I think if you look at the history of women’s practice in the second half of the 20th century, there were women who had long and productive lives, who made interesting and innovative work, and who are more challenging than the more conventional aspects of practice. But they weren’t necessarily represented by galleries, nor did they enter the marketplace. So they have been invisible to the public beyond their immediate communities. We’ve had the pleasure of meeting some of those artists – not even by digging deep, just by asking artists of a younger generation who taught them, who their mentors were. I suppose an example from this country would be Phyllida Barlow, who was working very productively under the radar for 40 years before she was recognised, which is an interesting but quite common occurrence across the world. Artists in the new display who are also in the genre would be Ana Lupas from Romania, or Magdalena Abakanowicz from Poland, so there are some really amazing practices that deserve to be better known.

And you were talking specifically about women artists. How are you attempting to achieve that?

Frances Morris: Well one of the things I love about the display here, ‘Between Object and Architecture’, is that there are three artists in here and their works are the most exciting, and arguably important works historically, and they are all by artists whose husbands are better known than they are. But their husbands haven’t made the grade. So it’s interesting isn’t it? One of the things we’ve tried to do from the start at Tate Modern is, if you put the cannon one side if you rearrange things, all sorts of new relationships than hierarchies come into play. So if you just step aside from the cannon and try to see things from fresh eyes, we’ve tried to do a little bit of that here in the collection display.

And this includes non-European artists too, right? Can you talk to me a bit about that?

Frances Morris: So we live in a city that is a world city. We are surrounded by a community that is of non-British descent – of descent from Africa or Asia – and so a very cosmopolitan audience. But of course, for many years we have been noticing on our travels, great art made from all around the world. So we started acquiring work more internationally from 2000. And the really interesting thing I think we’ve done is to try and relook at the history and then perceive a much more internationally-networked history that was maybe just apparent through the lens of European and American art. So that’s the beginning of a process of broadening the history.

“There are three artists in here and their works are the most exciting, and arguably important works historically, and they are all by artists whose husbands are better known than they are. But their husbands haven’t made the grade” – Frances Morris

Which non-European artists are you excited about?

Frances Morris: In this particular room we’ve just come out of, I think Liu Jianhua is a very interesting artist – he was born in China and spent some time in Taiwan and Italy and then he came to the UK which exemplifies that kind of journey. You know, it’s the century of immigration, of emigration. And then I love the work of Saloua Raouda Choucair, the Lebanese modernist and the work in here, which is a kind of stack of Lebanese bricks which is a kind of echo, well it precedes Carl Andre’s bricks in fact. So there’s a beautiful moment in time where there’s a female artist from the Middle East and an American artist from New York working at exactly the same trajectory from different perspectives.

What about any new acquisitions that you’re really excited about?

Frances Morris: I’m really, really pleased to see Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s work installed in the east tank, it was a work that I thought was a brilliant acquisition at the time and I never thought we would have the opportunity to work with Apichatpong to realise and it was a sight specific installation here, so that’s been very exciting. And I’ve also for the first time in my career persuaded the conservatives that we can show Robert Morris mirrored cubes, Rasheed Areen’s “Zero to Infinity” and Charlotte Posenenske’s revolving vane in public spaces without barriers, and to return the works to the public realm – that’s pretty incredible.

Sadiq Khan has spoken about prioritising culture under his adminstration, and I wondered what you thought of that and whether it is a new creative dawn for London?

Frances Morris: I think it’s hugely hopeful. I’ve heard him say it twice now, and I think he gets the idea that culture can have an enormous impact on people’s lives and on the environment. We’re in danger of becoming a city that only cares about cash and real estate and we have to address that.