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RWA’s landmark reopening exhibition brings a new take on our obsession with the selfie

RWA hold their first exhi­bi­tion fol­low­ing the Light and Inspi­ra­tion’ cap­i­tal project to make their Grade II list­ed build­ing accessible.

Graham Johnson

From 2nd May 2022 RWA in Bristol will be celebrating the completion of the £4.1m ‘Light and Inspiration’ capital project by opening a new landmark exhibition bringing historical context to today’s ‘selfie culture’ with an illuminating overview of 300 years of self-portraiture. The Light and Inspiration project was funded by National Lottery Heritage Fund and other generous supporters to transform the Grade II listed building into the most accessible gallery anywhere from London to St Ives.

The redevelopment is delivering urgent repairs to save it from risk of permanent closure and bringing a number of major improvements, including free to access galleries on all three floors, a huge new lift to carry four wheelchair users and their carers, a new wheelchair-accessible toilet and Changing Places facility, a quiet room for visitors with sensory requirements or autism, a Family Activity Space, a new café and outdoor events space.

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Image: Harold Offeh (b.1977), Selfie Choreography, In the Castle of My Skin, 2019, selfie image, photograph, 40 x 60 cm. Courtesy and :copyright: the artist

RWA are welcoming people into their accessible space with ‘Me, Myself, I: Artists’ Self-Portraits, by curator and artistic director Tessa Jackson OBE, traces the fascinating ways artists over the centuries have chosen to present and define themselves – from the highly personal and psychological to the controversial and political. The exhibition will present a diverse representation of artists exploring debates around gender, sexuality and identity, making this a perfect way for the building to welcome new audiences into its inclusive space.

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image - Sir Antony Gormley OBE (b.1950), CONCENTRATE II, 1996, cast iron, 30.5 x 192 x 52 cm. Courtesy and © the artist. Photograph by Stephen White, London

Curator Tessa Jackson says: “Whilst the selfie is a relatively recent phenomenon in our visual culture, our fascination with self-representation has existed for hundreds of years in art history. Self-portraits reveal so much about the artist and how they wished to be seen, as well as the society they lived in and the preoccupations of their time.

“Researching and compiling this exhibition has been an intriguing and personal journey for me, after decades as a museum curator involved with art, and I have come to realise that my own choices on how art reflects society have surfaced through it. The exhibition also has its own unique story to tell in the challenges of trying to curate it during the course of the Covid pandemic and the impact that has had on the resulting collection of artworks it features.

“I’m thrilled that the exhibition will be the first one to take place in the stunning and newly transformed galleries of the RWA, following the completion of the most significant refurbishment of the building in over a hundred years. I hope that it will play its part in encouraging greater and more diverse audiences to the galleries, welcoming returning visitors and new ones to enjoy the exhibition and spark thought and discussion.”

The exhibition will run from 2 May – 19 June 2022 across all of the RWA’s main gallery spaces. Tickets are on sale for the exhibition now at rwa.org.uk/whatson.

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