Alumna reviews Birmingham Heat 2021

By Emily Feibusch

ARTiculation Alumna (recent graduate of History of Art, University of Birmingham)

The Midlands ARTiculation Regional Final was hosted by The Barber Institute of Fine Arts on Zoom Webinar (11.02) and was a spectacular and engaging morning. Dr Sarah Turner, adjudicator and Deputy Director for Research at the Paul Mellon Centre, congratulated the five presenters for their ‘panache, passion and polish’. The contestants highlighted the power that art-historical perspectives hold, each offering personal and challenging conclusions that drew on different cultures, emotions, events and politics. The morning explored a range of mediums and styles from the twentieth century. The presenters diminished the Zoom/internet boundary by truly engaging the audience with their enthusiasm. Congratulations and thank you to Jessica, Bailey, Jacob, Olivia and Rosie for providing the audience with thought-provoking interpretations. 

Thank you to ARTiculation for delivering another seamless online delivery – it is comforting to know that art-historical conversation and creative thinking cannot be stopped by a pandemic! As an alumna of the University of Birmingham and having studied in The Barber Institute of Fine Arts for three years, it was a pleasure to see the institution’s continued engagement with budding art historians. 

Jessica began the morning with Steve McCurry’s Afghanistan photographic series from 1984, focusing on the country’s true natural beauty, instead of the stereotypical mainstream media depiction of a war zone. Jessica strongly portrayed her passion for McCurry’s transformation and positive projection of Afghanistan. The audience was presented with the beauty of the country’s culture and citizens. It was particularly interesting to understand that McCurry did not stage the photography, rather the images captured the natural and true hustle and bustle of life. Jessica highlighted this approach by using a photograph of a market stall in Pul i Khumri, where the abundance of colourful fruit contrasts with understated wooden crates. Jessica also indicated that the tension between light and dark in McCurry’s photograph of the Hazrat Ali Mosque emphasises the paradox between the country’s underappreciated beauty and its destruction as shown through the media. 

Following this, Bailey explored the social realistic and enourmous 1953 canvas, Atlantic Civilisation by André Fougeron. Bailey captured the audience’s attention by amusingly comparing the size of the canvas, 5 ½ x 3 ½ metres, with an African bush elephant. After this evocative start, the painting’s monumental scale was in the forefront of our minds throughout the presentation. Bailey focused on how Fougeron communicated his criticism of the Americanisation of the East by drawing on the painting’s symbolism, its sombre palette, its size, and its distorted composition. The thorough navigation and contextual analysis of the painting’s elements was particularly interesting; the electric chair set on a podium being indicative of the espionage of Soviet spies in 1951, and the figures sleeping under corrugated iron representing the threat of nuclear weapons. It was interesting to discover that the artist changed his recognised painting style in order to comment on American culture, feeling it was a necessity as a French communist. 

Jacob then took the audience on an evocative and moving journey discussing Pablo Picasso’s famous anti-war painting, Guernica. In 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, the village of Guernica was catastrophically bombed and destroyed by fascist forces. The attack was aimed at the civilian population and village with no strategic military resources. Jacob systematically approached and led the audience across the large mural-sized painting. It was interesting to learn that the painting does not have specific references to the Guernica attack. This creates a timelessness that has made it a ubiquitous anti-war symbol for many subsequent conflicts.  Jacob’s detailed analysis indicated that the electric light bulb could represent the technology that destroyed Guernica, which was evidenced by his explanation that the Spanish word for bulb, bombilla, sounds like the English word bomb. The reference to earlier anti-war influences, Goya’s The Third of May 1808 and Peter Paul Rubens’s Consequences of War (1638), exposed Picasso’s multi-layered influences. Guernica became a global icon in protests against war. Jacob contextually evidenced this by explaining that when it hung at the United Nations during the Iraq War in 2003, it was temporarily covered up by Bush administration. 

Olivia engaged the audience by starting her presentation with a universally relatable question ‘How do we carry our pain?’. Her discussion of Frida Kahlo’s Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird (1940), highlighted that art is a vehicle for self-expression. Similarly to Jake, Olivia passionately indicated that this painting, which embodies the pain that the artist experienced and fought throughout her life, is still relevant to our lives today. Kahlo’s career and resilience through a multitude of painful experiences are an inspiration, including a near fatal bus accident and her tumultuous relationship with her husband, Diego Rivera. Olivia presented her principal statement with emotion and passion: pain does not have the power to dictate who we are and who we can become. It was fascinating to understand how the painting, by not explicitly depicting her pain, encapsulates Kahlo’s resilience. The paintings symbolism was powerfully revealed, such as the claustrophobic effect of the flora and fauna, the Hummingbird’s representation of physical perseverance, and the artist’s acceptance of her true identity and Mexican nationality. 

Rosie concluded the morning by passionately exposing the symbiotic relationship between art and clothing through the fashion revolutionary, Mary Quant. Rosie looked closely at her designs and business model. The presentation took the audience on a journey through the history of Quant’s revolution in the 1960s, which was exhibited at the V&A last year. Rosie demonstrated how Quant used what was typically men’s fabric to make women’s clothes. For example, mini dresses were made from jersey material: contemporary yet practical and comfortable. Quant furthered this by incorporating tailoring into her bold womenswear designs. Olivia beautifully described how the fashion revolutionary’s androgynous approach to clothing subverted menswear. The presentation was an exciting exploration into the Youthquake period of transformation and female empowerment. Rosie’s personal connection with fashion’s ability to communicate identities and liberate people from stereotypical categorisation was incredibly engaging.   

Thank you to Dr Sarah Turner for adjudicating the heat and providing enthusiastic and insightful feedback to each speaker. Only one speaker could be selected to move on to the next round. Sarah chose Jacob to proceed to the London Final on 4 March 2021 hosted by Clare College, Cambridge.  

The Grand Final will be hosted by The National Gallery on 18 March 2021. 

If you are interested in finding out more, head to:, for the 2021 programme and email to register and tune in for another undoubtedly stimulating online heat! 

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