Interview with Helen Legg

Amber Akaunu 18/04/2019


Question 1: Helen, could you give us a brief overview of yourself and your role, and what it entails, at Tate Liverpool?

I’m Helen Legg, the Director of Tate Liverpool. I am responsible for leading the gallery, working with the programming team to develop and deliver exhibitions, displays and public programme as well as with the operational, development and audience teams. Overall I am responsible for developing the important work the gallery does and ensuring it continually remains relevant to all segments of our audience.


Question 2: For our readers that have not had the pleasure to see Arthur Jafa's Love Is The Message, The Message Is Death, could you give us a quick outline of the piece and tell us your impression when you first saw it?

Love is the Message, The Message is Death is a critically acclaimed artwork by American artist and film-maker Arthur Jafa (b. 1960). The work is a seven-minute montage of historic and contemporary film footage tracing African American history and experience and the footage is edited to Kanye West’s gospel-inspired track Ultralight Beam. Jafa has worked on feature film and music videos with figures including Spike Lee, Beyonce and Solange so he’s fluent in a pop cultural visual language that is very familiar. As such the work speaks with great immediacy and feels very much of our moment. It’s a powerful and affective film and like most people, I experienced strong emotions me when I first saw it.


Question 3: This is the first time the piece has been shown in the North, do you think this new audience will impact the way the piece is perceived and have any new/unique interpretations of the work came up?

The people I’ve spoken to about having seen the film have tended to express a range of emotions – anger, grief, and as there are moments of strength, dignity and celebration within it, joy and respect too. It’s the interplay of these positive and negative emotions that make the film so emotionally taxing. I don’t think these responses are specific to people in the North, but of course showing the film from a site on the Liverpool docks – a site once known as the European capital of the transatlantic slave trade – adds a certain resonance. The presence of African Americans in the USA and the subsequent history of racism and violence towards them is a direct legacy of that history. I’m keen to explore more of these localised histories, which are at the same time global histories, through the programme in the future.


Question 4: We at ROOT-ed Zine feel that art by Black and POC artists are not exhibited enough, especially in the North. Do you think the showing of Arthur Jafa's work will hopefully inspire other galleries in the North to show more work by BAME artists and also encourage exhibition goers to see more work by BAME artists?

I’d like to think so. There are signs of things changing; in the past few months I’ve seen Jade Montserrat at Bluecoat, Kannan Arunasalam and Rasheed Areen at the Tetley in Leeds, Simeon Barclay at the Holden Gallery in Manchester and Barby Asante at Baltic. Lubaina Himid is eternally active in Preston and there’s also an amazing sounding project happening at the Whitworth that focuses in on histories of The Reno, a soul and funk club in Moss Side that was used by young mixed-race Mancunians in the 70s and 80s. All of these artists are worth our attention. We’re also very excited that later this year Tate Liverpool will launch the first major museum show of Theaster Gates in the UK. We’re working with him to show a new project exploring social histories of migration and interracial relations using a little known episode in American history as his point of departure.


Question 4: Interpretation in Galleries is very important, was there a particular approach to the wording of text displays and the layout of them too, seeing as this work may attract a new audience to the gallery who may not have encountered contemporary art before?

We think very carefully about how best to introduce and explore the work we show through interpretation. It’s all about striking the right balance between saying too much and not enough, using language that everybody will understand and alerting visitors to aspects of the work they may find upsetting while trying not to put them off. We also do our best to ensure that there are no hidden biases or unintentional value judgments in the language we use and we might consult with specialist interest groups to help us with this. An often overlooked aspect of our interpretation work is the knowledge that our front of house team carry with them and are able to share both through programmed talks in the gallery and the casual conversations they have with visitors every day. A text on a wall is a relatively blunt instrument – it can’t flex itself to the specific needs of each viewer. The members of our gallery team, on the other hand, are both very approachable and friendly and have a deep knowledge of the collection and the work included in temporary exhibitions. I would encourage anyone visiting the gallery, whether for the first time or as a regular visitor, to talk to them wherever you feel you need more help or background knowledge, or simply want to share your own thoughts and ideas.


Question 5: What has been the most enjoyable part of exhibiting Arthur Jafa's work and the least enjoyable (if there is one)?

Love is the Message, The Message is Death is one of the most memorable and deeply affecting films I’ve seen in the last few years so simply having the opportunity to bring it to Tate Liverpool has been fulfilling. There’s no doubt that it’s a tough film though. It’s powerful, thought provoking and direct, and there are moments of humour, but isn’t an easy viewing experience.


Question 6: And lastly, do you have any words of wisdom for artists in Liverpool looking to work and exhibit at art institutions such as Tate?

Just focus on making the best work you can. Try to be objective and self-critical as a way to develop what you do, not to undermine your confidence. Show it with care, where you can, and ask other people for their feedback. Institutions just want to show the strongest work they can and they’re out there looking for it all the time.

Love is the Message, The Message is Death will be at Tate Liverpool until the 12th May, 2019 and we really really recommend EVERYONE to see this amazing piece of work!

Helen's Twitter: @elenheggl 

Tate Liverpool's Twitter: @tateliverpool