The much anticipated Leeds Artists Show opened on Valentine’s Day at Leeds Art Gallery. It’s the first open show for the Gallery in over a decade and celebrates the incredible quality and breadth of work being made across the city. It highlights current themes and concerns that the artists are exploring, including identity, cultural histories, mythology, storytelling, nature, domestic settings and the built environment, to name just a few.
Promoted as a ‘love letter to art in Leeds’, the show features the work of 90 artists who were selected via an open call-out which attracted over 630 submissions (numbers that exceeded the expectations of the Gallery team and gave the selection panel a challenging task). It also features the next generation of artists with artworks by 21 pupils from Leeds primary schools.
It is a beautifully curated exhibition that feels both expansive and cohesive. Leeds Art Gallery has dedicated the Entrance Hall plus five galleries to the show and this has allowed each piece to have its own sense of space. This allows visitors to consider the works individually but also allows them to consider a dialogue between the works and themes that emerge.
Leeds is a cosmopolitan city and this is reflected in the exhibition. The artists range in ages, backgrounds, education and mediums including drawing, painting, sculpture, augmented reality, film, performance, printmaking, textiles and more. Diversity is obviously incredibly important and something Holly Grange (exhibitions curator) cited in her opening speech where she shared a range of statistics including:
“Two thirds of the artworks in the show are by women or non-binary artists, 17% are global majority or dual-heritage artists, of those surveyed 17% identified as being disabled or living with a long-term health condition. About 15% of the artists are entirely self-taught or having never attended art school and around half of those surveyed identified as being working class.”
The quality of work throughout the show is exceptionally high and there were many stand out pieces. The first piece you encounter in the Entrance Hall is the bold, monolithic sculpture called Age of Silver (2022) by the Canadian artist Ian Kirkpatrick. It’s made of artificial leather, embroidered patches, gold chain, zippers, Velcro and cardboard. Taking inspiration from ancient cave art and Greek mythology through to graffiti and computer graphics, his work uses materials associated with graphic design and capitalism to initiate conversations about global issues of our time.
In the initial room after reading the introductory text on the wall there is a collection of works, many of which reference the artist’s fathers and aspects of their backgrounds. You remind me of the colour blue (2021) by Safia Rezai is a sculptural piece that takes the form of a fountain with red water flowing. The work is derived from an Iranian nursery rhyme ‘Lili Lili Hozak’ (translating to ‘Little Pool’) which the artist’s father shared with her as a child. She is particularly interested in oral storytelling as a way of preserving family history and heritage.
Birdman (2020) by Egyptian artist Walid Elmahdy was painted during lockdown and was inspired by thoughts of evolution in human survival and is a portrait about his late father who was a pilot.
Father Tongue (2022) by Hannaa Hamdache is a short film that looks at what it means to be mixed heritage, addressing her own experience of being British and Algerian. Spoken word is used to explore feelings of inadequacy for being unable to perform one’s identity as expected. The film investigates the consequences when integration is prioritised over preservation, yet simultaneously celebrates the joy and defiance that comes from being born of two cultures.
Bouncing between rooms and revisiting works, one that really made an impact on me was Rosie Vohra’s Beetle with Women (2022). This large-scale painting depicts a giant jewel like beetle with shimmering wings that is supporting two aerial performers who are swinging from its front legs. It is beautifully executed but there is a tension that comes from the closely cropped beetle that just fits onto the canvas within a wooden frame.
The artist shared that she was thinking about the wooden jitterbug toys that you open to see the beetle wriggling in a small box. The tight composition and framing of the painting is reiterating this feeling of confined movement. The impossibly large, bulbous beetle is tightly contained in comparison to the two circus performers who have a weightless sense of freedom and movement so much so that they could almost fly beyond the confines of the frame. There is something really interesting about this contrast.
Two other pieces that combine this sense of whimsy and tension are Kwik Fit (2023) by Zoe Spowage, a painting of a fight between a woman and a tiger, and Hotel (2022) by Rufus Newell, a drawing that allows the viewer to see the action taking place through the windows of a hotel!
Whilst these three works are very different, there is something that unites them. Their sense of scale, energetic expression of the fantastical, combined with more sombre suggestions of containment, isolation and violence. It’s probably not surprising to learn that Rosie, Zoe and Rufus are all part of Precious Art Collective and have studios at Assembly House.
Though of course not all artists are part of a collective or have a dedicated studio space with an artistic community around them. This is one of the things that this exhibition does really well. For those in the show, it helps them feel like part of something bigger than just themselves or their immediate surroundings.
It acknowledges that they are active participants who are contributing to the current art scene in Leeds. Obviously, there are many more, hugely talented artists who are all contributing to this vibrant city beyond the 90 selected to take part in this exhibition. Leeds has a strong art scene with a continuous supply of art students and graduates who supply a fresh perspective and ensure a dynamic art scene.
There is so much amazing work being made, but just not enough spaces or opportunities to showcase them. One artist helping to address this is Sarah Roberts, who co-founded and curates the artist led curatorial project Hyde Park Art Club at Hyde Park Book Club. Sarah is part of the exhibition and is showing Baggage: a love letter to all the houses I have lived in and all those thathave been died in (2023), a mixed media tableaux. This piece is an homage to the houses the artist has passed through, and the embedded material stories that they encapsulated.
When asked about being part of the exhibition, she said:
“The Leeds Artists Show is a great opportunity for me, for my artist-peers, and for our city. The revival and re-imagining of this historic open show by the curatorial team at the gallery and selection panel seems to reflect a determination to make Leeds Art Gallery genuinely accessible, for artists and visitors in Leeds and beyond, and that’s pretty special.”
Jane Bhoyroo, principal keeper at Leeds Art Gallery said:
“There are many brilliant and dedicated artists working in the city today and I see Leeds Artists Show 2023 as a declaration of love to the Leeds art scene.”
With so much love being thrown around, let’s hope we don’t have to wait over a decade for the next open call out at Leeds Art Gallery. And that this is the start of a long-term relationship, one in which artists working across Leeds can be celebrated in the city in which they’re working. And this is a plea that we find more high-quality spaces across the city to show work in a way that is befitting the incredible talent we have in Leeds.
Leeds Artists Show is being shown at at Leeds Art Gallery between the 15 Feb – 30 April 2023. Be sure to check it out!