chloe austin is an art historian and curator-in-training, who specializes in twentieth and twenty-first century art relating to race & diaspora. after graduating from the university of nottingham with a degree in art history, she completed a curatorial traineeship with the barbican center and the institute of international visual arts. currently, she is the exhibitions and research manager at maximillian william in london.
on her blog, austin vividly describes her relationship to art, indicating that “she loves art like a cheating boyfriend, it’s rogue, often makes her question her life choices but at the end of the day she’ll never leave because secretly she loves the drama.” in today’s interview, we discuss issues around diversity in the art world, racist monuments, and looting in the museum tradition.
AK: what inspired you to become an art historian?
CA: the most exciting memories of my childhood were made on trips to museums and galleries with my family, but it wasn’t until i was at university that i became interested in seriously studying art history — in all honesty, i fell into it!
i originally went to uni to study architecture, but it made me miserable so i dropped out three quarters of the way through first year. the one aspect of my course i did enjoy was the architectural humanities module because i was interested in learning about the context and theory of design.
after dropping out of architecture, i knew i wanted to keep studying so i opened the uni prospectus and decided my next move. i chose art history because it allowed me to research and write, and still gave me the option of a creative career.
AK: who are some of your favorite artists?
CA: this is tricky. some of my favourite artists are those related to the 1980s blk art group; claudette johnson, lubaina himid, and keith piper for example. the work they made in the 80s was so dynamic and important and they continue to experiment and produce amazing work. there’s a much repeated toni cade bambara quote:
“the role of the artist is to make the revolution irresistible,”
and that’s what these artists did for me.
AK: why should we care about art right now?
CA: through art we can approach subjects from novel angles — we need that now more than ever. the world is dark right now. we need to be thinking creatively to solve the problems we’re dealing with and art allows us to reject the accepted ways of thinking and propose something else.
AK: what art historians and critics do you read?
CA: right now, not a lot. while i was working at Iniva, i was based in the stuart hall library one day a week and i started to read more broadly, understanding art in a wider context and not necessarily reading a lot of straight art writing. i’ve also started learning about art and culture through listening to podcasts and tuning into webinars, which either means i’m leaning into an auditory and kinaesthetic learning style, or i’ve become a bit lazier!
i’m subscribed to a lot of art mailing lists and probably click on contemporary &’s links the most. i do miss reading third text, so i might try and make a habit of doing that more. i avoid mainstream art criticism because it can be unnecessarily jargon-laced — i think i’m particularly annoyed by this because i view art as a communication tool, pompous writing can make art more obscure and inaccessible, which kind of misses the point.
in terms of reading, i’m currently working to remedy my ignorance on the writing of women of colour. i’ve been reading classics like alice walker’s in search of our mother’s gardens and ntozake shange's for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf, as well as new releases like lola olufemi’s, feminism, interrupted: disrupting power and i’m very excited to start margaret busby’s new daughters of africa which is a huge anthology of black women’s writing. i have a whole blog post about creating new literary canons in my drafts, but i need to read more before i publish it.
AK: what is it like as a woman of color in the art world?
CA: it really depends on what spaces you occupy. sometimes it’s incredibly frustrating, having to deal with imposter syndrome, microaggressions, class differences and never truly knowing if you’ve been given an opportunity because of your skills or because someone has a diversity agenda. recently, i’ve felt like a lot of my energy has been going towards calling people out on things – like my marc quinn instagram rant. it needed to be said, but it takes energy away from actually researching artists and doing the real work to respond to these situations.
when i’m in the right spaces it’s really rewarding. whenever i’m feeling a bit down about the industry i try and surround myself with art and supportive peers. coming back to the art always reminds me why i do what i do and my peers understand the struggle implicitly.
AK: what are your thoughts on individuals taking down historical monuments?
CA: now this is a can of worms! anyway, i think edward colston getting chucked in the river avon is one of the most poetic actions i have ever seen. however, local councils boarding up or taking down monuments in reaction to it doesn’t have the same power or significance.
removing monuments is an action against the symbols of a racist society — this act alone does not create an anti-racist society and when it becomes a headline it can distract from the much needed structural changes which are yet to take place.
in some cases, a monument has the potential to do more for anti-racist education by remaining standing. i say ‘potential’ because the monuments need to be activated through public engagement — whether through contextualisation or creative interventions (aka vandalism). what we saw in bristol was public engagement which lead to the removal of the statue but to me it’s the public engagement which is the powerful element, not just the removal.
AK: do you think museums should return looted artifacts?
CA: ayodeji rotinwa wrote a brilliant article about the sale of looted igbo sculptures which compared the lack of legal protection for objects stolen from colonised people to the clear laws in place to ensure the return of art stolen by the nazis. the double standard is clearly racist.
in terms of objects already in museums – we all know it’s wrong but no museum wants to give away its collection. i watched a talk on monuments the other day and the conversation moved to looted objects and an artist made the very good suggestion that museums could 3D print objects, returning the originals and displaying the copies. i think the current state of things is a missed opportunity for education — the experience of seeing a 3D printed copy of the benin bronzes in the British Museum with a well written caption explaining how the originals came into the collection and the history of britain’s colonisation of, and interference in, nigeria would be incredibly educational.
AK: sun, moon, & rising?
CA: more so than being a brown woman, the thing that makes me an outsider in the art world is that i don’t believe in astrology. i have a very good understanding of how stars work from studying astronomy at school and i just can’t let flaming balls of gas influence me!
WHERE YOU CAN FIND CHLOE: