Shape speaks to artist Bella Milroy as she prepares for her solo exhibition ‘File Under Female’ at Kingsway Corridor, Goldsmiths College, from 12 October to 3 November. In this interview, she tells us what guides her work and gives some insight into the upcoming show.

Shape: We’re delighted to hear that you will undertake a solo exhibition, ‘File Under Female’ at Goldsmiths, University of London. Can you tell us how this all came about and the idea behind the title?

Bella Milroy: My residency at the Women’s Art Library (WAL), Goldsmiths College, came from winning the Birth Rites Collection International Bi-Annual Award 2015.

Entering the competition was a huge step in my practice, as it was one of the first pieces I made after contracting Meningitis in 2012, and I saw the call-out by chance whilst on leave of absence from my Fine Art BA course at Nottingham Trent University due to my ongoing ill-health. Winning the award gave me the self-confidence I needed and a belief that I could make work, really good work, and that I could exhibit, engage and connect with the world in a new way as a disabled artist.

Although I finally completed my BA in 2016 it has taken time and effort to plan and organise my residency. Althea Greenan, (Curator of WAL) and Goldsmiths have been incredibly supportive with this, funding the PA support I need in order to make work, and making it possible to organise the residency to be completed in stages. The surprise has been the time and space this created for the project to evolve and expand, in both scope and ambition, as I hadn’t anticipated applying for and achieving funding for the project from Arts Council England (ACE).

I started work at WAL in June 2017, approaching the archive very speculatively, not wanting to pin myself down to any particular way of thinking. The archive is like a universe; each box containing a world that you may or may not know about, and it made no sense to choose what to look at in any order. So I just went round on my first couple of days picking boxes at random.

A black and white image of pages from a book under a plastic sheet on a white table

What I found particularly fascinating was these additional pieces of scrawled texts and drawings you find embedded in the formal documentation of the archive. One of these was a piece of hand written text by the artist Symrath Patti, and “File Under Female” comes from this particular piece of text. Holding it in my hands I could feel what a powerfully explosive piece of writing this was; how this spontaneous action butts right up against the formal documentation of the archive, capturing the feeling and movement of the artist’s hands in a single moment. It seemed to sum up the archive and the themes I wanted to explore in my work. It is due to Symrath’s generosity that I have been able to work with her archival pieces in this way, adding to the richness of engagement that WAL provides.

Having the time, space and access support I need to explore the WAL archive and to reflect on the experience, has transformed what I am now doing and the level of my collaboration with other artists and organisations. Securing ACE funding for the project was made possible because of the crucial access funding ACE provide for PA support for disabled artists to make the application, which is something I didn’t know about until I came to do it.

Your exhibition draws influence from the pieces housed at the Women’s Art Library (WAL) at Goldsmiths College. What sort of discourse is your work intending to create around the works in the archive?

In an a world where most artists have some kind of online platform, I want to celebrate the importance of physical spaces that hold pieces of unique cultural experience and history, and explore how we can shape the way we conserve, display and promote women’s art today. I want to create a collaborative engagement that responds to the continuing challenges women artists face; gender biases, often compounded by ethnicity, religion, sexuality, class and disability. I want to reflect on our progress, the distance we still have to travel to gain recognition for our work and the unique contribution that archived women’s art can make to this journey. 

My experience of women’s archival material during my residency at WAL and the themes of File Under Female raise important questions for me: how do we define ourselves through archived documentation? How does that sit throughout time, and the ever changing and evolving position of the archive, from analogue to digital, paper to live feed? Can an archive be more than one specific place? Could it exist fluidly in many places with contributions from many people in a continual collaborative effort? Could this fluidity reflect the changing nature of how we document, preserve and display women’s art?

A dark, blurry photograph in a plastic folder on a white table in a dark room. It is hard to make out what the photograph is of.

WAL is unique in that it enables women artists to deposit documentation of their work. How important is it that marginalised artists are given a platform through spaces like this to have agency over their own work and significance?

I think one of the most exciting and important aspects of the WAL archive is the democracy of artists the curation creates, where rock-star names of the art-world sit alongside less well-recognised women artists. Althea Greenan, curator of WAL, talks about the archive in a way that reflects her love for what WAL does in valuing not just careers of women artists, but who they are. Working with Althea has been an amazing privilege! 

Her relationship with each archival deposit is an incredibly rich resource itself and brings the space to life. It is a vast archival resource accessed through a knowledgeable advocate for women’s art, someone who has been intimately involved with the collection over many years and whose work continuously celebrates and promotes women artists.

Having such a space for marginalised artists allows weight to be given to all aspects of these careers faced with barriers and under-representation. It provides a stage from which the documentation becomes more than just another resource for other marginalised artists, but artists in their own right. I like to think of archives like this acting as a megaphone; putting your voice on this supporting platform that is then broadcast to the world beyond your own network.

Much of your work pays particular attention to the more ephemeral “additions” in the archive – what is it exactly about their existence and inclusion in a resource like the WAL that you find so interesting?

I am continually drawn to the physicality of objects and materials, and approaching the archive in this way I address a core concern of my work: How does this thing, this stuff, sit in my own hands? What is the weight of it? How do I convey this density both materially and emotionally, and more importantly in this context, how did it sit in the hands of these artists?

These “additions” of hand-written drawings, writing and doodles are spontaneous and expressive. Some are almost throwaway, appearing on top of, next to and alongside formal documentation of artworks, publications and photographs. They seem to capture the action of a singular moment of spontaneous movement of the artist, contextualised within the formal space of the archive. I am interested in how I meet these pieces in this space, holding them in my own hands.

A blurry black and white image of a human hand with spots of light on it.

By using these abstract shapes, drawings and texts within my own artwork through interrogating and exploring the very idea of how they physically occupy the space of the archive, the work aims to reveal new perspectives on such archived material; exploring the formal submissions that preserve the careers of women artists, and opening a window to the lives of the artists at that moment in time.

What potential do you see your project having in terms of shaping the way art is approached, conserved and presented?

The project is inspired by archived material held by a publically accessible special collection in an academic library, which prompted the collaboration with Derbyshire Libraries and Chesterfield Library in particular, being my home town where I live and work. Producing a printed publication as an associated output from the exhibition and linking with public libraries by partnering with Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP) for National Libraries Week, Derbyshire Library Service (DLS) and WAL, has expanded the audience reach that is possible, and introduced new dimensions and scope for longer-term creative developments from the project, something I am really excited about!

Working with different artists and with the support of libraries through CILIP, DLS and WAL has created an inspiring collaborative cross regional cultural project, working across multiple platforms. I would love to think that this could this be a model for future creative projects. A way to enrich broad public access to a wide range of art and artists, further enhancing public libraries as the go to space for diverse cultural experiences and knowledge in our local communities, something I feel passionately about in opening up new avenues of art engagement.


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All images c. Bella Milroy 

File Under Female

Bella Milroy’s original artworks, along with the publication co-produced with Gabrielle de la Puente and Zarina Muhammad of The White Pube, Althea Greenan, Curator of WAL Special Collections, and graphic designer Keir Mucklestone Barnet, will be exhibited at the Kingsway Corridor, Goldsmiths, University of London from 12 October to 3 November 2017 (private view Saturday 14 October from 2 to 5 pm).

The artists will also host a creative exchange event at Chesterfield Library Lecture Theatre on Friday 27 October from 6 to 8 pm. The accompanying printed publications will be exhibited in all 45 public libraries in Derbyshire and available to take away; the publication will also be distributed via CILIP as a PDF, to be accessible to all libraries across the country during National Libraries Week from 9 to 14 October 2017.

File Under Female is a project created by Bella Milroy and supported by Arts Council England Lottery Funded Grants For the Arts, Women’s Art Library Goldsmiths, University of London, Derbyshire Library Service, Chartered Institute for Library Professionals (CILIP) via national Libraries Week, Shape Arts, West Studios, Chesterfield College, Brampton Picture Framing (Chesterfield) and Whittington Moor Printing Works (Chesterfield).