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Curating Black History Month Online

Black History Online is the brainchild of current MA Curating Contemporary Art student, David Lisbon. Launched as part of the RCA Student's Union's Black History Month programme, this online exhibition features work by RCA alumni and current students as well as an event series aimed at engaging dialogues on the black experience.
We spoke to David about the project’s origins, how curating online opened up more creative opportunities, and what happens next with work from the exhibition.

How did the idea for Black History Online come about?

I want to preface by saying most of what I know/think about Black History Month comes from a specifically American tradition, and I do not claim to be an expert in Black History as it exists in the British context.

The idea emerged from this want/need to connect past struggles with the present. When I was a kid, I always remember my dad making me and my siblings read Martin Luther King's 'Letter from Birmingham Jail'. As a teen, it was The Autobiography of Malcom X These documents, as well as others, are foundational to what I know about black history and I think in some ways they are that for a lot of Black Americans. However, they point to this struggle for equality as something that existed in the past. With Black History Online, I wanted to challenge the idea of unearthing history from the past with the reality that these struggles have moved into digital space and are still unfolding. The idea is that black history isn't as far back as the 1950's or the slave trade, it's as close as yesterday.

Curating the show online has also exposed us to an external audience who wouldn't have seen it otherwise.  And there is a freedom to seeing exhibitions in a digital space. I remember going to Catherine Mendoa's exhibition Intersection/Reconnection for Black History Month last year and how good it was but I did wonder if the site wasn't a bit restrictive in some ways.

Can you tell us a bit about the visual identity you created for the event? What did you want it to tell your audience about the show?

I wanted to explore how bringing black sounds and textures to the web might make the experience more tangible and tactile for audiences used to a rather 'flat' digital art interface. Over the first few months of quarantine, I got a 3D scanner and started practicing with it in various capacities. I always imagined the scanner as a tool for thinking about questions related to the future of curating in a heavily digital arts environment. 

For the audience, I just wanted to make something that would capture my interest as someone with an astronomical screen time. I realise that the promo might have, in some ways, become more important than the actual content. So I'm still thinking of how to balance that relationship more in the future. 

The event includes work from a wide range of RCA students and alumni. What was the selection process for the exhibition like?

Given the limited timeframe I think it was pretty easy to see who was willing to produce and at what speed. There were three to five artists who I would have loved to include, but I'm sure I will have the opportunity in the next few years. I am just grateful for all the relationships the project allowed me to build. All of the artists are creatives who I believe in and whose work inspires me to push my practice forward. 

Andrew Pierre Hart
Andrew Pierre Hart

What brief were contributors given for their videos?

I don't want to go into too much detail, because each work was the result of private conversations with each artist. The main thing I wanted was to prioritise experience over artworks, to talk about the conditions that led to the work as opposed to starting with the 'product.'

How does your exhibition respond to the events of 2020?

Wow big question! I think mainly I don't want to add to the stress people have trying to view art online. I don't want our show to be another obligation in the already packed calendar of people who have been forced online. Not to say these types of events don't have a place in what's happening this year, but that isn't what I wanted. I wanted our audience to have access to the reality of being an artist in 2020, for the month of October.

Finally, I just wanted to make something that is full of rich and diverse insights that can be useful to anyone who visits, not just collectors or curators or other artists.

The exhibition finishes on 19 November, what’s going to happen to the work once it's over?

I can't say with any certainty what will be next, but February is Black History Month in the USA, so maybe expect a continuation from the other side of the pond. I would really like to get as much feedback as I can so that when this concept/content/collection resurfaces it can be everything the public deserves.

Find out more about MA Curating Contemporary Art and how to apply.