The queer performance artist, Liv Wynter, talks to BRICKS contributor Jessie Williams about quitting her job as an artist in residence at the Tate, her new exhibition with the Indigo Project, and why arts education is so vital.
Liv Wynter is a Virgo. She tells me this as she swirls her iced latte around in a plastic cup. Wynter doesn’t appear to be your typical Virgo. Shy and quiet she is not. A sleeve of tattoos creep out from under her tracksuit, several piercings decorate her pale face, and grey-blue eyes stare from gold-rimmed glasses. A head of shaved bleached blonde hair and a peppering of expletives exude a ‘Don’t give a fuck’ attitude. But, as I find out, Wynter really does give a fuck.
Wynter is a text-based artist, activist and youth worker. But the 25-year-old prefers “story-teller”. On the eve of International Women’s Day, Wynter announced that she was quitting her job as artist in residence on the Tate Schools and Teachers Programme in protest at the institution’s failing of women who have suffered sexual harassment. Wynter says the catalyst for her decision were the comments made by the Director of Tate, Maria Balshaw, when she was discussing allegations of abuse in the art world. During an interview with the Times Balshaw said: “I personally have never suffered any such issues. Then, I wouldn’t. I was raised to be a confident woman who, when I encountered harassment, would say, ‘Please don’t’… or something rather more direct.”
Wynter describes this as being a slap in the face for survivors of domestic violence. “When that happened I really began to question what I was doing inside the institution as a survivor, working for Maria, and her profiting off of the work that I quite blatantly make about trauma… and I thought ‘is this really the right place for me to do this?”
If you are so ignorant about these facts, why are you a director of the UK’s largest arts institution? And what does that mean about the state of our arts sector if you are someone on an all-white board of directors able to behave like that?
After meeting Balshaw in person last week, Wynter says there was “a complete lack of accountability”. She claimed her sexual harassment comments were taken out of context, and that she did not realise there were racial connotations surrounding other comments she made about black men eating fried chicken. Wynter said she responded by saying: “If you are so ignorant about these facts, why are you a director of the UK’s largest arts institution? And what does that mean about the state of our arts sector if you are someone on an all-white board of directors able to behave like that?”
Wynter is adamant that she made the right decision. She said she asked herself “what side of these walls do I want to be on? Which side of these walls am I more useful on? I’m more useful outside and if the most radical thing I can do here is remove myself then that’s what I will do, and it’s what I did.”
Her hope is that her resignation will start a conversation about diversity and the treatment of women at the institution. “My dream is that for the next week the Tate gets scared at the top and very confident at the bottom; that would be a good outcome.”
This is not her first protest against a major institution, in 2016 she stormed the Tate Modern with a group of activists working on WHEREISANAMENDIETA to protest an exhibition by Ana Mendieta’s alleged murderer and husband, Carl Andre. And last month she joined the direct action group, Sisters Uncut, when they stormed the red carpet at the BAFTA’s to protest against the government’s domestic violence policies. This is typical of the kind of work she is passionate about. Using honesty, wit and words, Wynter explores gender, class, sexuality and domestic violence. She draws on her own experiences but also stories from down the pub.
“All of my work is essentially social commentary, so most of it starts from conversation. I’m very invested in working class story-telling. I work at the Marquis of Granby [in New Cross], which is quite a working class pub, and the way working class people tell stories is just really exciting and really engaging, and I just try to replicate that.”
Wynter describes her work as being like a very brutal form of therapy – she says it’s visceral and people can find that quite upsetting. “I dealt with so much shit growing up, and got into abusive relationships and really hated myself for a long time, and art just really helped me work all that stuff out. My focus with most of my work is trying to remind everyone that it’s going to be ok, or even if it’s not going to be ok, it’s not going to be the end of the world forever.”
Her latest exhibition ‘From Bedroom to Battleground’ is at Hackney Museum, which she created with the Indigo Project, a local LGBTQI+ youth group.
The project is a culmination of six month’s work, which was led by the young people. “I went in at the start and was like, what do you want to talk about? So we had a big chat, and we wrote our manifesto. So my job there really is to not do a lot; hang out with them, and they’re not all completely able, it’s about learning how to work with their abilities. So we’ve got a kid who can’t see very well so making a quilt for them was very hard, and we’ve got other kids who are not particularly verbal, so speaking is difficult for them, and it’s just about kind of reading the room, and making sure that everyone feels like they’re getting heard.”
“I learn so much from the young people, and also because accessibility is really important to me; working constantly with a massive variety of people means I’m constantly having to check myself and how I’m speaking and what I’m speaking about. That’s pretty important.”
My focus with most of my work is trying to remind everyone that it’s going to be ok, or even if it’s not going to be ok, it’s not going to be the end of the world forever.
It’s been a busy few months for Wynter; at the start of February she launched a new installation at Wysing Arts Centre with a performance called ‘Housefire’. Based on Aesop’s fable of the “Boy Who Cried Wolf”, it is from the perspective of a woman whose house burns down repeatedly, stirring up questions about the fatigue of constantly having to speak out.
The need for self-expression is rooted in her childhood. She grew up hanging out in Croydon and bunking off school. “I was definitely always a little shit. I was quite a loud-mouth; I was very confident.” She did Art at GCSE and A-Level, before studying Fine Art at Goldsmiths.
Art was always an escape for her. She describes how when she was bunking off school, she would almost always be in the art room – or at the Tate. “Arts education pretty much saved my life growing up.” Which explains why she is such an ardent believer in it; “The moment a kid gets to do something creative, they just blossom and grow. It’s so obvious and evident to anyone who’s ever given a kid a piece of paper and a crayon.”
Wynter says her proudest moment was getting the Tate job as she had wanted to do it since she was 9 years-old. “I think my family thought for a long time it wouldn’t happen, because I had really bad mental health issues and dipped in and out of drugs, so to see it all come together, my mum was just like, well thank fuck for that.”
That’s what made her decision to quit so difficult. “It’s really upsetting, I was equal part angry and equal part upset that something that I held on a pedestal was so able to objectify and hurt me as a survivor, but I think if there was ever a perfect metaphor for how survivor’s are treated then that’s it.”
‘From Bedroom to Battleground’ runs from 1st Feb – 5th May at Hackney Museum. ‘More of an avalanche’ runs from 10th Feb – 8th April at Wysing Arts Centre. Wynter is also in a queer punk band called Militant Girlfriend, who play regular shows in London and Brighton.