The Wick -  Rachel Thomas, Chief Curator of the Hayward Gallery. Photo: Arnaud Mbaki. The Wick -  Rachel Thomas, Chief Curator of the Hayward Gallery. Photo: Arnaud Mbaki.
Monday Muse

Interview Chief Curator of the Hayward Gallery Rachel Thomas

Interview
Rachel Thomas
Photographer
Arnaud Mbaki
02 July 2023
Interview
Rachel Thomas
Photographer
Arnaud Mbaki
02 July 2023
The Hayward Gallery tackles what’s arguably the most important issue affecting the planet today in its latest exhibition. On until September, Dear Earth: Art and Hope in a Time of Crisis explores how contemporary artists are evolving climate debate and activism to spark active and imaginative responses.

Rachel Thomas, this week’s Monday Muse and chief curator at the Hayward Gallery, leads its curatorial team. Thomas joined the gallery in April 2022 from the Irish Museum of Modern Art, where she was the head of exhibitions and senior curator for a decade.

Her curatorial practice focuses on feminism, post-colonialism and on broadening the representation of LGBTQ+ BIPOC artists. She is also interested in Indigenous artists, mental health within contemporary art, nature and the environment.

THE WICK:   Why do you think curators are important?

Rachel Thomas:   Curators bridge the gap between art and individuals to connect with new audiences. This allows art to be for enjoyment, reflection and cemented as a welcoming space for all.

TW:   What role does art play in advocacy for climate change?

RT:   It could be said that we are at the centre of an ecological turn in exploring ideas of hope and care in the arts. As debates about climate change proliferate across the globe, artists are adding their voices to an urgent call to change our relationship with the world, away from exploitation and towards compassion.

TW:   How does art help us connect with nature?

RT:   The two are bound together; we can see this in the work of artist Otobong Nkanga in the exhibition, where there are multiple connections between the human body, the Earth and its resources. We can see this most clearly in the work of Agnes Denes, a pioneer of environmental art.

TW:   How do you think art preserves heritage and culture?

RT:   This is done by the artists and their artworks, as art suggests ways of reframing our Western understanding of nature and the environment, and deepening our understanding of and respect of culture, heritage and nature. I am thinking here of Daiara Tukano, an artist, activist and human rights researcher from Brazil who belongs to the Eremiri Hãusiro Parameri clan of the Yépá Mahsã people (known as Tukano). Her work promotes the protection of cultural diversity and human rights across the Amazonas and draws on ‘Indigenous Cosmovisions’ – a descriptor for numerous local approaches to life. Her work centres on the investigation into the culture of her people and experiments with forms, light, traditions and spirituality. Similarly, Aluaiy Kaumakan’s artworks evidence a care for ancestry, ritual and community across generations.

“Artists are adding their voices to an urgent call to change our relationship with the world, away from exploitation and towards compassion.”

TW:   You recently moved to London from Ireland. Where are your favourite culturally curious spots in both?

RT:   There are so many in Ireland. If I had to narrow it down, it would be to go to the secret jewel that is Marsh’s Library in Dublin. It is a beautifully preserved building and one of the few in Ireland still used for its original purpose. Unchanged since it was established in 1707, it is the oldest public library in Ireland. It contains 25,000 rare and fascinating books, as well as 300 manuscripts. Famous readers have included the Irish writers Jonathan Swift, Bram Stoker and James Joyce. You will see the cages into which readers were locked. Many artists have wanted to film there, it’s an amazing place to feel you have time-travelled.

The second place to go for a date or alone is the magical Glenstal Abbey, for its Gregorian chants at the vespers. It is a Roman Catholic Benedictine monastery located in Murroe, County Limerick.

In London, it is a rare temple and one of the most remarkable buildings in the city. The BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, commonly known as the Neasden Temple, is a beautiful, traditional Hindu temple, standing some 70-feet high, carved entirely out of stone and it’s completely free to visit.

TW:   In the ‘museum of the future’, what would you hope to find?

RT:   A space of storytelling, sharing and community. Artists are the storytellers and shamans of our times, creating works that communicate human experience and emotion. This museum would be a place of conversation, reflection and inspiration.

TW:   How did you get into the art world and what one piece of advice would you give to other women looking to follow you?

RT:   I came through an academic route and was supported by The Prince of Wales’s Trust and some great woman supporters that I am grateful for. Etel Adnan has the advice I would say to other women looking into this path – do what your inner soul tells you to do – regardless of any money or success it will bring you.

TW:   What do you do in turbulent times to stay resilient and bold in your decision making?

RT:   Art and mental health have a long history in how we can look at art to open us up and transcend to different spaces in the mind, especially during troubled times. I wanted to show this when curating an exhibition called Song of Songs, inspired by polymath, occultist and surrealist Ithell Colquhoun with contemporary artists addressing this subject. Song of Songs embraced the many philosophical, material and ideological potentials which emerge when exploring the self in art.

I stay resilient by being inspired by artists and artworks that allow me to see there are always new potentials of hope.

TW:   What is your go-to fashion brand or designer to wear for an exhibition opening?

RT:   Richard Malone, for sheer beauty and his ethics of care are incredible. He also did a brilliant performance to launch the exhibition Dear Earth. I also love Max Mara and vintage YSL from charity shops.

TW:   What three things would you take to a desert island?

RT:   A telescope to look at the stars and navigate, my husband and a painting by Ithell Colquhoun, ‘Dance of the Nine Opals’, as it brings me so much joy.

TW:   Who is your ultimate Monday Muse?

RT:   There are three at the moment; the wonderful scholar and writer Bell Hooks, especially for her book All About Love: New Visions in which she provides a pathway for us to show that love is sacred, and about redemption and healing. Then it is the Lebanese-American artist and poet Etel Adnan, who I had the pleasure to work with when I curated her solo exhibition of breathtaking paintings. The third is Jennifer Higgie who has opened up subjects close to my heart, namely art and spirituality and how radical female artists are pioneers that are rightly being recognised as trail blazers in the new revisionist canon of art history.


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