As we celebrate our first 150 years, Newnham College has commissioned artist and researcher Erika Tan to create a new work for the Anniversary. Her response will engage with the way Newnham’s histories are understood and how we might imagine our collective futures.
Newnham has a long tradition of engaging artists to recognise significant events, including recent commissions from Cathy de Monchaux and Saied Dai. For the Anniversary, the College is commissioning a work of art that considers Newnham’s place in the world today and our aspirations for 150 years to come, alongside exploring diverse responses to feminism and contemporary social concerns. From an international shortlist of artists, we were delighted to select Erika Tan.
Erika Tan is an artist, researcher and lecturer at Central Saint Martins. As an artist, her work is deeply informed by her background in social anthropology (she studied Social Anthropology and Archaeology at Kings College, Cambridge). Her current research focuses on the postcolonial, transnational and decolonial. She works with archival artefacts, received narratives, contested heritage and the transnational movement of ideas, people and objects.
“This is a timely and exciting moment to think about Newnham’s incredible histories and founding stories, and to critically challenge the way in which the act of commemorating can also be an act of forgetting,” Erika explains.
The ‘Forgotten’ Weaver (2017), Diaspora Pavilion, Venice. Projected video works onto a deconstructed ‘loom’. The piece was supported by National Gallery Singapore; University of the Arts, London; ICF International Curators Forum; National Arts Council Singapore, and Grants for the Arts, Arts Council England. Images © Erika Tan 2017
Erika Tan’s series The ‘Forgotten’ Weaver (2016 – 2019) unearths the contemporary significance of the life of Halimah Binti Abdullah. Halimah was a Malayan weaver who worked as part of the 1924 British Empire Exhibition in London, both as a producer of textiles and an exhibit in herself in the Malaya Pavilion. Halimah’s significance to the artist is that she died during the Exhibition and was buried in an unmarked grave in Woking.
The ‘Forgotten’ Weaver explores how focusing on minor histories can inform the re-telling of major histories and may work towards a form of imagined restitution. The series includes live filmed debates, expanded looms and video works, and have been shown in Venice, Holland, China, Singapore, Malaysia, and the UK.
Barang-Barang (2021), Stanley Picker, London. Still from film recorded March 2020. Supported by Stanley Picker Gallery, Kingston School of Art. Images © Erika Tan 2021
Her current project Barang-Barang is on-going and will be shown later in the year as part of her Fellowship with the Stanley Picker Gallery, Kingston School of Art. Here Erika revisits and weaves together the disparate lives of 4 female artists, Dora Gordine, Georgette Chen, Kim Lim and Fay Tan. In reality, these artists occupied very different positions, although all of them are in some way connected to Singapore, the location of Erika’s birth. Barang-Barang explores transnational entanglements, speculative meetings, and the creation of an historical event within filmic space.
The nature of the artwork that Erika Tan creates for Newnham will be shaped by her research into the College’s history and future, and the time she spends working alongside Newnham students, staff and Fellows.
Erika is interested in extending her approach to collective ways of working and producing history collectively. She will be undertaking research on Newnham’s less-celebrated or known histories as a way to explore and engage with decolonial methodologies.
Erika’s work for Newnham will, she explains, “approach history, legacy, ancestry through the ‘minor’, the ‘forgotten’, the entanglements, the speculative and the situated so as to explore what a radical or decolonial feminist ancestry might look like.”
The commission is being funded through the Eleanor Lee Fund, a legacy from a Newnham alumna who wished the college to be able to commission and purchase new works by contemporary artists. The Lee Fund has previously allowed us to commission a site-specific installation A Means of Liberation by Sinta Tantra, and to acquire a special edition maquette of Gillian Wearing’s sculpture of Millicent Garrett Fawcett.
Erika Tan is looking forward to working with Newnham students, Fellows and staff. Please get in touch with our Curator, Laura Dennis (Laura.Dennis@newn.cam.ac.uk), if you are interested in finding out more and getting involved.