Despite its relatively large scale, vibrancy and imposing character, this coloured chalk drawing by Leeds-born artist Phil May (1864–1903) had been largely overlooked by previous curators and researchers. Before the project started in Spring 2021 there were lots of unknowns about the context of its creation, the date when it was made, the sitter and the conditions in which it was collected.
As a result, the project aimed to reassess the drawing exploring three main areas: the artist, the curator, and the sitter.
- Firstly, we researched the artist’s life and work to better understand the context in which the drawing was made and the artist’s approach to this particular subject.
- Secondly, we wanted to unpick any racist curatorial practices that may have taken place when collecting, accessioning or previously interpreting this work, particularly around the title.
- Finally, we set out to shed light on the sitter’s identity and to put an end to her anonymity and the current racist reduction of her individuality.
The project has allowed us to undertake in-depth research on the drawing and, more importantly, to work with Leeds black communities. After an initial session where a number of potential research questions were proposed, the group discussed and expanded the many relevant issues raised by the portrait through a series of online workshops and sessions in Autumn 2021. The responses to each of the project themes were recorded and can be listened to in the sections below. Ultimately, these responses will also be documented and archived to ensure a wider range of voices are represented when researching or interpreting our collections in the future.