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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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.