Curating Super Black

14 November 2019

For its first exhibition as part of Arts Council Collection National Partners Programme, Firstsite in Colchester hosts Super Black, an exhibition that asks, ‘What does it mean to be black in England today?’. The exhibition brings together Arts Council Collection works by artists including Hurvin Anderson, Claudette Johnson, Vanley Burke, Sonia Boyce and Helen Cammock, alongside new work by Southend-based artist, Elsa James.

Rather than being led directly from within the institution, Super Black was jointly devised and delivered by people from Essex’s black community, who worked to arrive at a selection of artworks from the Collection that they feel give an expression of black consciousness.

This more open and democratic approach to programming reflects Firstsite’s wider commitment to exploring new ways of working with local communities. As Firstsite’s Emma Reeve explains, “Super Black signals the start of a new way of working for Firstsite and having support from the Arts Council Collection has meant that we can work together meaningfully with our local community. In this case, the Super Black curatorial team was made up of people from the Black Afro-Caribbean communities of Colchester and Essex, all of whom have an integral role in their locality as an artist, café owner or community activist.”

The curatorial team worked together to develop ideas for the project through a series of workshops and discussions as well as visiting one of the Arts Council Collection’s stores, which presented the opportunity for the group to view and discuss some of the artworks they had selected. The curatorial team comprised artist Elsa James, as well as Lawrence Walker, Chair of Black History Month Colchester, Rachel Walton, co-founder of African Families in the UK (AFiUK), and Simone McLean and Yasmin Carr, of Colchester-based S&S Caribbean Café.


“Having the opportunity to visit the store in London was very exciting for the Super Black group, including me!”, explains Emma, “it was a deeply emotional moment being with the group as we saw the works they had chosen together. Being present in the same room as the artworks brought out new memories and associations, which we chatted about long after the visit.”

“I really enjoyed the discussions and debates and there was a genuine interest in the answers to the questions that were being asked.” explains Yasmin Carr, “The Firstsite team have been amazing - listening to us and being willing to learn...moreover they have followed through, and I feel represented what the community feels.”

Among the works viewed at the store were a series of black and white documentary photographs by Vanley Burke. "The Vanley Burke photographs evoked a great conversation” recalls Yasmin. “The whole idea of baptism, marriage and death is perfectly depicted and is something we could all relate to.”

The Arts Council Collection : Curating Super Black

Reflecting on their involvement in the project and hopes for the exhibition's reception, the curatorial team are unanimously optimistic: “This project has asked questions of us, my hope is that people visiting the exhibition will also ask questions and seek answers which they take back to their day to day lives” says Yasmin, "Firstsite has shown they are in touch and want to continue learning, to show they are not playing lip service to a trend, the space created is real for real people.”

For Firstsite, the Super Black project represents the start of an ambitious longer term shift in the way it programmes explains Emma: “For Super Black we wanted to make the curatorial process as democratic as possible, an ethos that has opened up new ideas and possibilities for everyone involved. The ongoing aim at Firstsite is for half of our entire programme to be created in this way by 2024.”


Super Black is at Firstsite in Colchester until 12 January.

About the National Partners Programme

The National Partners Programme was launched in 2016 to mark the 70th anniversary of the Arts Council Collection by creating a network of regional galleries and museums to present and curate exhibitions drawn from the Arts Council Collection.

Embracing new approaches to working with local communities and introducing audiences to the Collection is a key element of the National Partners programme. Super Black is one of a number of current projects initiated by our National Partners that seeks to enable local people to dive into the Collection in a way that is meaningful to them.

In Sunderland, following an open call to local residents, Sunderland Culture have recruited a group of ‘Arts Council Collection Arts Champions’,  who will work together to nurture their curiosity in the Collection and act as ambassadors when the first National Partners exhibition, Received Wisdom, opens in February 2020.

In Cornwall, young people from Mounts Bay Academy in Penzance make up the first youth curators of the programme, working with Newlyn Art Gallery and The Exchange staff to develop an understanding of the collection and to select works for their first exhibition.


Sign up the the Arts Council Collection newsletter for regular updates on National Partners activity.

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In the first of its brand-new series of Arts Council Collection National Partner exhibitions, Firstsite is staging Super Black, an exhibition exploring the complex questions of identity and the experiences of black people living in Britain today.
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Conservator's View: Movement in Squares by Bridget Riley

8 October 2019

Ahead of Hayward Gallery's major Bridget Riley retrospective, which opens this month, Conservator Rachel Carey-Thomas discusses Riley’s seminal Arts Council Collection work, Movement in Squares, 1961, revealing the intricate processes and methodical approach involved in cleaning this iconic painting.


Movement in Squares is one of Riley’s first fully abstract paintings and is therefore a hugely significant work. The version owned by the Arts Council was preceded by several other iterations, giving us an insight into how she honed and refined the concept and its execution.

The Arts Council acquired the definitive version in 1962 – the year after it had been painted - from Riley’s first solo show at Gallery One. Apparently this show was the outcome of a chance encounter with Gallery One director Victor Musgrave, which happened when Riley sought shelter from a rainstorm in the gallery’s entrance!

Although Riley has maintained a meticulous archive, the type of paint used for these very early abstract works is undocumented. We know that from the late 1960s she was using acrylics for their useful handling properties but Riley talks of using house paint to create her earliest black and white paintings and, in particular, a well-known brand named Ripolin, also used by Picasso.

From a conservator’s perspective, the uncertainty over what medium was used meant that my work would be guided by the results of tests to identify the properties of the paint and the effect of different cleaning agents. 


It has been a privilege to work on such an iconic painting: one of the great pleasures of working in conservation is the opportunity to spend time really getting to know an artwork. Cleaning has given Movement in Squares a ‘lift’. The accumulation of marks and overall greyness reduced the contrast between the two tones and detracted from the purity of the work’s conception.

I am so often surprised by the difference that even a small intervention can make to the enjoyment of a painting. After re-tensioning a slack canvas or restoring a minor scuff, one is suddenly able to view the work without distraction. I like to think that conservation restores the ‘integrity’ of an artwork. 

Our public collections are a wonderful resource and it is hugely important that they are well cared for so that works can be seen at their best now and by generations to come.


Rachel Carey-Thomas works with London-based conservation studio Shepherd Contemporary.


Image right: Installation view of Bridget Riley, Movement in Squares, 1961 at Hayward Gallery 2019 © Bridget Riley 2019 Photo Stephen White & Co.

The Arts Council Collection : Conservator's View: Movement in Squares by Bridget Riley

Movement in Squares will be on display as part of a major retrospective exhibition of Riley’s work at Hayward Gallery, 23 October until 26 January 2020. 

Developed in close collaboration with the artist herself – and in partnership with National Galleries of Scotland – it is the largest and most comprehensive exhibition of her work to date.

Tracing both the origins and the evolving nature of Riley’s innovative practice, the exhibition brings together the artist’s iconic black-and-white paintings of the 1960s, expansive canvases in colour, early figurative works and recent wall paintings.


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Related Content

Works in Profile: Movement in Squares

Senior Curator, Natalie Rudd, introduces Bridget Riley's Movement in Squares, 1961. The painting is a key work in the Collection and was purchased by the critic David Sylvester from Riley’s first solo exhibition in London.

The Arts Council Collection is the UK's most widely seen collection of modern and contemporary art.

With more than 8,000 works by over 2,000 artists, it can be seen in exhibitions and public displays across the country and beyond. This website offers unprecedented access to the Collection, and information about each work can be found on this site.