How do artists situate themselves in relation to different histories, and those around them?

Accounts of artists’ works are often reduced to their biographies – a narrow field of engagement that most artists typically reject. The varied range of self portraits in this section, however, show artists’ continued fascination with the creative possibilities of identity.

Ira Aldridge as Othello, the Moor of Venice

Ira Aldridge as Othello, the Moor of Venice 1826

James Northcote (1746–1831)

Manchester Art Gallery

James Northcote’s portrait of the young African-American Shakespearean actor, Ira Aldridge – the first work acquired by Manchester Art Gallery – is a point of departure for this section.

Keith Piper, Gilbert & George and Hetain Patel present complex stories of the self in fragments. Viewers are invited to engage with the stories, encounters and references from popular culture that the artists have used.

Portrait of Another Kind

Portrait of Another Kind

Said Adrus (b.1958)

Bradford Museums and Galleries

Viewers are challenged by the work of Li Yuan-chia, Conroy/Sanderson and Said Adrus. The works refuse to rest as spectacle, evoking instead a discordant range of emotions – anger, resignation, resilience and melancholy.

The Tailor

The Tailor 2010

Lubaina Himid (b.1954)

Manchester Art Gallery

Lubaina Himid, Pushpamala N. and Yara El-Sherbini work with typologies, filmic costume changes and stereotypes. They question the role of what we wear in determining who we want to be and how we are seen.

Housewives with Steak-Knives

Housewives with Steak-Knives 1985

Sutapa Biswas (b.1962)

Bradford Museums and Galleries

Sutapa Biswas, David Hockney and Wyndham Lewis critically engage with the past. They quote from various forebears in art history – Artemisia Gentileschi, William Hogarth and Raphael. They do so in ways that complicate the need to ‘make it new’ – one of the main edicts of modernism.

Portrait of the Artist as the Painter Raphael

Portrait of the Artist as the Painter Raphael 1921

Wyndham Lewis (1882–1957)

Manchester Art Gallery

Rasheed Araeen photographs his lonely reflection in the windows of an empty Circle Line train on a Christmas day in London. His blurred efforts are thwarted by the variable lighting of a moving train, and dominated by his hands holding the camera. Steven Pippin’s self-portraits record the artist’s performative streak across a laundromat; their fuzziness evidences the transformation of washing machines into cameras.

What reflections of ourselves do we see in these artists’ self-portraits?

Hammad Nasar, exhibition curator

The free exhibition 'Speech Acts: Reflection-Imagination-Repetition' was on at Manchester Art Gallery from 25th May 2018 to 22nd April 2019.

The exhibition is presented in partnership with the Black Artists & Modernism (BAM) project. BAM was a three-year research project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council lead by UAL in collaboration with Middlesex University.

This text has been reproduced with permission from the publication produced by UAL with Manchester Art Gallery to accompany the exhibition, curated by Hammad Nasar with Kate Jesson.