Working alongside Kids in Museums, Manchester Art Gallery hosted a national ‘Culture Babies’ conference today which focused on the importance of engaging children aged 0-2 years and their parents/carers in creative gallery sessions.
After having run Mini Art Club for a good three years at the gallery, we had reflected on the need to engage younger children aged 0-2 years as it was identified that there was a slight lack of activities available specifically for parents with very young children. Artists Naomi Kendrick and Najia Bagi went on to set up a Baby Art Club in which they further explored multi-sensory environments aimed specifically at babies who are not quite ready to walk! As Naomi is now about to have a little one herself, I stepped in to deliver a special one-off taster session, as part of the Culture Babies conference today.
As always, our inspiration comes from artworks in the gallery, in this case the 17th Century gallery on the 1st floor. A key artwork in this gallery is the painting ‘Sir Thomas Aston at the Deathbed of his Wife’ by John Souch (see link below for image). The subject matter in this artwork is rather dark and macabre, however the gallery space also exhibits other similar artworks which depict family life in the 17th Century through formal portraits. It is an interesting exercise to respond to artworks that we may overlook or deem unsuitable or inappropriate for certain groups and then try to tease out interesting thoughts, ideas and responses.
I thought it would be useful to begin to pull out key themes and imagery from the artworks and, having spent some time looking, began to notice the intricate, lacy details on the clothing of the characters in the artwork, as well as the heavy contrast of dark and light / black and white. Black and white became the theme for our sensory installation downstairs and this proved to be a theme that could be accessed, explored and questioned at different levels.
Black and white materials were laid out and contrasted in the studio environment downstairs which created a strong visual contrast aimed specifically at young eyes. We also wanted to question the stereotypical understanding of the symbolism of black and white. Black is not often associated with young children. In Western cultures, white is often viewed positively as something which symbolises purity, light, life and innocence, whilst black is often associated with death, shadows, darkness and even the occult.
We somehow wanted to invert this so that black could be cast in a positive light and could even be portrayed as something that had the quality of something light, whereas white became heavy. Furthermore, we wanted to explore ways of interpreting the sensory qualities of black and white, i.e. what would black sound like/feel like/taste like, as opposed to white?
A small group of mums with babies entered the space and were invited to explore a variety of materials and objects with all the senses, i.e. heavy white balloons filled with water and black beans, heavy white cobbles, light black balloons, white and black velvet, black and white lace, black and white flowers and vegetables (chrysanthemums, cauliflower, aubergines, beans), and even a black and white keyboard! Meanwhile, conference delegates were invited to visit the space, make observations and ask questions.
Most of the mums hadn’t attended Baby Art Club before and many were pleasantly surprised by the taster session. In particular one mum commented on how she thought it was “refreshing” that the session wasn’t adult-led, but rather allowed time and space for her to spend time with her baby to play and explore.
It was a lovely session to run, even if it took us all morning to set up the installation. Many thanks to Andrew Moseley, Jess Wild and Alex Thorp for all their help!