Curated by 11-year olds from Stanley Grove Primary Academy, the Whitworth Art Gallery’s new exhibition explores what it means to be an 11-year-old living in Manchester today. I was slightly surprised to hear the stress of SAT exams was their main concern, claiming that “life’s getting more serious”. It was interesting to see that adult issues affect children in modern society.
They were also worried about fitting in on their move to high school in September and being “babies again” in the playground. As they approach adolescence and leave childhood they have coined the phases “tweenager” and “mid-kid” to describe their liminal phase and they’ve decided to reflect this through their artwork.
Being a curator was a big responsibility as the children had to consider many things about the artwork that had never crossed my mind. They were very keen to use an embroidered casket created by an 11-year-old called Hannah Smith in the 1640s. The team at the Whitworth were unsure about this initially, as the casket had been on exhibition a lot and were worried about light damage. The children, however, felt all their creativity from the project stemmed from the casket and it was important to their exhibition. As a result, the casket is on display, but with an umbrella on top of it to ensure the light doesn’t affect it.
The children told me the best bit of their exhibition was the modern-day response to the casket consisting of micro bits and flashing lights. In my opinion, however, the best bit of the exhibition was the self-portraits of the children that are blown up and printed on the glass wall of the gallery. This was a surprise to them and caused quite a stir as they all jumped about pointing themselves out to me. What was also interesting about the exhibition was the personal responses each of the children made to their chosen artwork through drawings.
I was told by the gallery staff that this is the first time at the Whitworth that artwork is displayed alongside drawn responses, rather than a piece of text, as they felt this better expressed how the 11-year olds felt. The gallery has also tailored the opening of the exhibition to the children by having a slushie machine instead of wine for the opening night.
To round off the interview I asked the children how much they enjoyed doing this project at the Whitworth and was pleased to hear it was “the best experience of primary school” for many of them. It was great to hear that Stanley Grove is encouraging 27 other primary schools to get involved with the We Are 11 project and make their own caskets, hoping for around 9000 in total to demonstrate their personal responses to being a young person in Manchester.
The exhibition opened on the 6th October and shall remain on display until 27th January 2019.