Curating the East Midlands: Saziso Phiri

Saziso Phiri is a Cultural Producer and Curator, working independently and in partnership with public and commercial organisations and individuals. In 2016 she launched The Anti Gallery, a pop-up art gallery to engage art away from traditional gallery environments. Saziso works on projects across various disciplines, which have previously included Format International Photography Festival, Migration Matters Festival and Frequency Festival. She currently works within the core organising team for Nuart Festival in Stavanger, Norway, and its sister festival in Aberdeen, Scotland. She is also a founding member of SHEAfriq, a collective of black women artists. Saziso was recently appointed as curator for UK New Artists 2021 Leicester Takeover.

Find out more about Sazio’s practice on her website and Instagram, and about The Anti Gallery

‘A Collective Voice’ art making workshop at Nottingham Contemporary. Photo credit: Tom Auzins

How did you come to curating / producing?

I got involved with a number of creative projects as a volunteer after my GCSEs, and during one summer I was part of a project led by Angel Row Gallery (Nottingham Contemporary’s predecessor) to encourage young people to get into contemporary art. We spent a lot of time speaking about art in galleries and museums in Nottingham, and visited institutions in Birmingham and London. I had my reservations about art beforehand, and felt like contemporary art wasn’t for people like myself (being black and working class). I went on to study arts subjects for AS/A Level, and had the opportunity to practice as an artist before uni. I studied Politics and International Studies, which I felt was a safer option career-wise than studying a History of Art degree, which is what I initially set out to do. After a few years of working in the corporate and health sectors, I decided that I wanted to pursue a career in the arts, but more as an organiser than as an artist. I had an idea to set up some sort of platform/organisation to support artists, and as part of my research and development I started volunteering at spaces in Nottingham (Backlit Gallery and New Art Exchange), where I had the opportunity to dabble in different roles. I got to know the people working within the organisations  – particularly those who worked in curating, community engagement and programming, and from speaking and interacting with them and learning more about the roles and processes I knew that curating exhibitions and producing art-related events was what I wanted to do. The appeal was that curating and programming enabled direct access to artists and the opportunity to learn and work alongside them. I also had notebooks filled with ideas, and the prospect of being able to one day bring those ideas to life through  exhibitions and other projects excited me.

How do you typically begin a project?

It varies from project to project, and whether it’s a collaboration with an organisation or independent. If it is with an organisation, I will normally be given a brief to work towards. Location is normally the first thing that’s sorted, so in most cases my choice of artist(s) may be determined by the location. However, a project may be influenced by an artist’s work, so in some cases the first step is to get  to know them and their work. I’ll spend quite a bit of time researching their work, mainly online through their website, social media, videos, articles, studio visits etc…and any exhibitions/art fairs that they may be part of. Once I am confident in wanting to work with them, I’ll approach them with a brief, and if all is good, the next thing is for me to spend as much time as possible getting to know them more, so lots of time speaking over coffee or on the phone. It makes the process easier, and I am able to understand their needs, concerns and expectations. I think it provides a base for a healthy working relationship, and ongoing communication is really important for that. My most unpleasant experiences as a curator have been when I haven’t made the effort to know artists or have regular communication, which has caused problems in the past, so this is really important.

Whimsy Wood screenprinting at The Anti Gallery’s launch party at Rough Trade, 2016. Photo credit: Hisham Ammar

What did you set up The Anti Gallery to do?

I was aware that many of the artists that I knew didn’t feel as though they could fit in with contemporary art galleries, and so I wanted to provide a platform where they could showcase their work to the public, but within environments that were less formal, and where visitors could feel more relaxed. The name ‘The Anti Gallery’ was inspired by ‘Anti-Agency’, a modelling agency that at the time was very different to other agencies. They represented models of all shapes and sizes (before other agencies made this normal practice) and focused more on the personalities of the models,  embracing their talents and creative interests. It was just as important for them to highlight the human behind the model, and that’s what I kind of wanted to do with artists, but also provide an experience for audiences where they could feel like they could be themselves (from conversations I had with gallery visitors whilst invigilating as a volunteer, some would express that they felt like they didn’t belong in those spaces, or felt like they needed to code-switch to fit in). There is an interactive element to most of The Anti Gallery’s projects. I want people to engage with the work, learn about the artist, but also have fun and  gain a little extra something from their experience. The interactive element may be them having a go at creative something for themselves that will either be added to the exhibition/project or to take away with them.

When I started, the aim was to work with different spaces that were not art galleries. I got to do a project in the Henderson Gallery space at Malt Cross where I invited artist Isaac Waring-Thomas to live paint a mural directly onto the gallery walls with spray paint, with participation from the public and a hip-hop soundtrack. We then turned the gallery space into a performance space where Gang of Angels choir performed against the backdrop the following day. I really enjoyed being able to work in a traditional gallery space.  In 2017 I was invited by Nottingham Contemporary to do a project, so I started thinking about engaging in traditional environments in a way that people wouldn’t usually do so. I continued to work with them on a few other projects, as well as other cultural spaces, but if I am honest, as much as I enjoyed and benefited from these experiences, as well as building a good relationship with them (as did participants and audiences), I do feel like I played it too safe, and went against what I initially intended to do with The Anti Gallery at the beginning. I wouldn’t rule out working in gallery spaces again, but would definitely think more about using the spaces differently.

Tell us about your current or recent exhibitions and projects.

The Anti Gallery recently teamed up with Elroy the Artist, a Nottingham-based artist to create a typographic mural on the Nottingham Arts Theatre building on Broad Street in Nottingham. It’s part of an ongoing series that I have been curating on that wall since 2018. It was important to go for a typographic piece with a phrase or song lyric to lift the spirits of passers by in the wake of what’s happened in the past few months. I was inspired by a lyric from ‘Morning Matters’, a song by Nottingham-based singer Yazmin Lacey. The original line in the song is ‘Blessings greater than my problems’. With Yazmin’s blessing,  we changed ‘my’ to ‘our’ for the wall to invoke a collective spirit.

The Anti Gallery will be releasing a special edition print to coincide with the wall and a portion of each print sale will go towards funding future activity for The Anti Gallery.

I recently joined the project team for UK New Artists (formally UK Young Artists), for their Leicester 2021 takeover as curator (visual, digital and applied arts). We’ve been working remotely and having meetings online – so I haven’t met most of the team in person yet –  but will hopefully be working together in person from September! I’m really excited about getting stuck in and working with emerging artists that are making important and exciting work.

In May,  I started working with a project by Sabato.Studio, a London-based design studio run by Sabato Urciuoli, a former studio member at Backlit. It’s an online installation called Postcards from Isolation which  consists of a collection of interactive postcards representing cultural shifts caused by the shared lockdown experience. The project has already won various awards, and we’re now working towards taking the project into physical spaces.

Pop-up exhibition by The Anti Gallery for Breakin’ convention. Photo credit: Hisham Ammar

How do you select or identify the artists you work with?

I use Instagram as a way to discover and get to know new artists the most, so I will usually follow and observe them from there. I particularly like when artists use their social media to document their process. Newsletters from publications like Artsy are also useful in keeping up with what’s new. I’ll also visit art fairs as and when I can, and graduate shows.

What have the last three months looked like for you?

Like many freelance creatives, I ended up going from being booked to suddenly having no work as a result of the pandemic. Work was either postponed indefinitely or until 2021. With all the extra free time I had, I was able to slow down a bit, focus a bit more on my health and reconnect with others (digitally of course). I was fortunate enough to have received a grant from the Arts Council England Emergency Grant Fund, which was not only helpful in covering some of the income I had lost because of the pandemic, but in working towards sustaining my career in the arts. I’ve been able to work on my personal professional website, plan and re-strategise for The Anti Gallery’s future and learn new skills through online courses and workshops. Work started to pick up again with new projects towards the end of May, so I have been very fortunate.

I have been engaging in a lot of online activity – probably to the point of getting ‘Zoom fatigue’ in some cases. Mainly talks and conferences with artists and fellow creatives from around the world. One particular series of events involved American multidisciplinary artist Genevieve Geinard who is in residence at Gallery 51, part of MCLA (Massachusetts College of liberal Arts). It was wonderful to learn more about Genevieve’s work. She’s an artist that I had been following, but didn’t know so much about before. The sessions took place over 3 Wednesdays and as time went on we a small community developed as it was pretty much the same people attending every week. There was not only a common interest in Genevieve’s work, but also the shared experience of lockdown. A few weeks after the meetings ended, Erica Wall, Gallery 51’s director bought us all back together in response to the events that followed the murder of George Floyd. The session allowed a safe space for us to share our grievances and be there for one another during a moment that was very difficult for many of us. I am very grateful for the community that developed from this.

Isaac Waring-Thomas painting his mural on the walls of the Henderson Gallery, Malt Cross for The Anti Gallery’s re:MIXED exhibition. Photo credit: Gavin Conwill

What’s happening behind the scenes for you at the moment? Which artists and/or partners are you working with or talking to at the moment?

I am currently going through the final selection for the UK New Artists exhibitions. There was a longlist round, and we’ve just completed the shortlisting. There were nearly 300 entries for visual, digital and applied arts alone, and so many talented artists. I’ll be working towards selecting the final artists over the next couple of weeks and they will be informed by the end of August.

I was recently commissioned by Real Creative Futures, a creative business development programme based at New Art Exchange, to create two videos for their new digital programme. I am about to  make the second video in which I will be answering questions from other freelance practitioners and artists about being self-employed in the creative sector.

With The Anti Gallery, I am currently working on future programming. I should be moving into a new work studio/office space in the Autumn, and hopefully have an intern supporting me with developments.

What or who are you really excited about?

Working on the future programming for The Anti Gallery which will involve launching a new podcast and a video series of artist studio visits towards the end of the year. With there still being uncertainty around COVID-19, the focus will be digital content and engagement – at least until the New Year.

I am looking forward to seeing art in person again! Phoebe Boswell’s solo show opening  at New Art Exchange in October is on my list.  I first got to see her in the UNTITLED group exhibition back in 2017, also at NAE. It was the first show during my time working in the creative team there, so I’m sure there’ll be a sense of nostalgia. A couple of favourite artists have shows opening up soon; Toyin Ojih Odutola will be launching her first UK solo show at The Barbican this month, and it’s a new body of work which I am really excited about. I’m equally as excited to see Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s exhibition at Tate Britain which opens in November. I’d admired her as a painter for some time, but only truly fell in love with her work when I visited her solo show at Jack Shainman Gallery in New York last year.

Street artist Kid30 taking his practice into the digital realm during his virtual reality residency, a collaboration between The Anti Gallery and Near Now at Broadway Cinema. Photo credit: George Mapp

What dates should we put in our calendars?

27th February – 1st March 2021 which are the dates for the UK New Artist Takeover in Leicester. With COVID-19 it’s difficult to tell how things will be next year, but we’re hoping that we can safely deliver the programme and exhibitions!

Whose work or what spaces would you most like to curate or work in?

In terms of artists that I would like to work with, there are too many to list here!  Reginald Sylvester II is at the top of my list. He is a Brooklyn-based painter whose work has evolved from figurative to abstract in the last few years (very much inspired by Willem de Kooning), and I am really interested in his thought process and visual expression of race, spirituality and religion.

I’ve been observing quite a few textile artists and designers recently. I really like Sandra Poulson, an Angolan-born fashion designer and artist living in London who has recently graduated from Central Saint Martins. I first came across her work at the 2019 Lagos Biennial.  There’s also Nicole Mcloughlan, an American designer who creates footwear, clothing and furniture using recycled textiles and objects.

In terms of spaces, a dream would be curating an exhibition on The Highline in New York! Another dream space for me is 180 The Strand in London. I’ve been interested in putting on an exhibition in a skate park for some time now too, as have been working on research related to skateboarding culture for the past few years. Oh, and curating a project on billboards across Nottingham is also on my dream list!

‘Blessings’ by Elroy the Artist, part of The Anti Gallery’s Hockley Wall residency series. Photo credit: Saziso Phiri

What do we need to see more of in the East Midlands?

I think that the East Midlands has a good support network of artists, organisations and institutions. There’s a good mix of projects involving local, national and international art, and a variety of accessible development programmes are available. If you asked me this question a few years ago I would have said more support for practitioners from working-class and ethnic minority backgrounds. Things have improved, and I think some of that has been down to practitioners forming collectives and putting out their own projects, however it’s nice to see relationships being built between them and the bigger institutions.


Saziso was interviewed in August 2020.