Speech Acts: Reflection, Imagination, Repetition

May 25, 2018  -  April 22, 2019

Free Admission

What do public museums collect and why? Which works become highlights, and which lie forgotten in storage?


What stories emerge to frame the visitor’s encounters with the art that they see, and cloak the art that they don’t? How do these stories change over time?

Through the work of more than 40 artists, Speech Acts: Reflection-Imagination- Repetition considers how public museums reflect and shape our collective imagination, and examines how exhibitions can affect these shared narratives. This exhibition shows how artworks can nurture new stories if they are shown in ways beyond the limited frames of biography and identity.

Comprising more than 70 works and archival documents ranging from the 18th to the 21st century, Speech Acts is drawn primarily from four public collections: Cartwright Hall Art Gallery, Bradford, John Rylands Library (The University of Manchester), Manchester Art Gallery and the Whitworth. It has been developed as part of, and in conversation with Black Artists and Modernism: a three-year research project led by University of the Arts London in collaboration with Middlesex University and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

LYC Museum & Art Gallery

A central feature of the exhibition is the LYC Museum & Art Gallery (1972-83). In 1972 the artist Li Yuan-chia bought a dilapidated barn in Cumbria from the painter Winifred Nicholson and lovingly renovated it to function as a museum that was both a centre for the local creative community, and the site of an inclusive and wide-ranging ‘Cumbrian cosmopolitanism’. It exhibited more than 330 artists ranging from local practitioners to leading British and international artists.

Speech Acts considers the LYC Museum as Li’s artwork, and as an early model for the spirit with which public art galleries could be run. Using the three tinted panes of glass in David Nash’s original window for the museum as a visual metaphor, the exhibition sets up three stages of enquiry:

Reflection – performing the self How do artists situate themselves in relation to histories, expectations and those around them?
Imagination – the sum of all.1 How do sites, networks and affinities shape artistic practices?
Repetition – I contain multitudes.2 Does acknowledging the shared foundational role of repetition in diverse practices – from textile design to conceptual art – allow us to read them differently?

It began with the Institute

The cities of Bradford and Manchester share histories as boomtowns of the Industrial Revolution and world centres of textile manufacture. This industrial expansion required significant immigration of labour, and generated vast riches. All four of the principal institutions lending to Speech Acts have a shared heritage in philanthropy made possible by this industrial wealth. Indeed, one of the major bequests to Manchester Art Gallery was by the Bradford industrialist and collector, Charles Rutherston (1925). These institutions, and the collections they hold, are both an expression of civic pride and a vehicle for reflecting and establishing a shared set of identities for the communities they serve.

Speech Acts is an exhibition that contributes to the ongoing debates around the role of art collections and art institutions in public life. The origins of Manchester Art Gallery lie in the Institute movements of the Industrial Revolution, with a clear mission to provide creative education and discourse for all classes in the advancement of a healthy society. Through such work, the Gallery maintains the traditions of an active and progressive public forum, at the heart of the city – co-creating with their publics the story of their culture and assimilating new ideas to shape the future of civic life.

For the duration of Speech Acts, the Clore Art Studio – Manchester Art Gallery’s space for families to be creative together – will also form part of the exhibition. It will channel the spirit of the LYC Museum’s children art room with displays, activities and workshops that explore the role of play in art, and reflect Li’s commitment to physical interaction as integral to the making of meaning, in life as in art.

Also on display is a new film commission, Space & Freedom from artist film-maker Helen Petts. The work mixes archival film by Li with new footage of the LYC museum’s site and setting shot by Petts herself. The film also includes two previously unknown sound recordings of Li’s own voice, mixed with field recordings from the location and original music, improvised by Steve Beresford. It explores the rythym, textures and sound of the Cumbrian landscape that inspired Li. There’s more about the making of Space & Freedom in Ocula.

Whoever Heard of a Black Artist? Britain’s Hidden Art History

In this BBC Four programme, Brenda Emmanus follows Sonia Boyce as she leads a team preparing for Speech Acts.


Said Adrus | Getulio Alvani | Rasheed Araeen | Frank Auerbach | Francis Bacon I Sutapa Biswas | Barbara Brown | Edward Burne-Jones | Lubna Chowdhary | Conroy/Sanderson | William Crozier | Alan Davie | Delia Derbyshire | Yara El-Sherbini | Lucian Freud | Samuel Fyzee-Rahamin | Mauro Kunst | Gilbert & George | Mona Hatoum I Barbara Hepworth | Lubaina Himid | David Hockney | dom sylvester houedard | Shirazeh Houshiary | RB Kitaj | Andrzej Lachowicz | Wyndham Lewis | Li Yuan-chia | Kim Lim | Henry Moore | Pushpamala N. | Winifred Nicholson | James Northcote | Chris Ofili | Eduardo Paolozzi | Ahmed Parvez | Hetain Patel | Helen Petts | Keith Piper | Steven Pippin | Abigail Reynolds | Keith Richardson-Jones | Bridget Riley | William Rothenstein | Anwar Jalal Shemza | Yinka Shonibare | Stansfield/Hooykaas | Do Ho Suh| William Turnbull | Shelagh Wakely | Aubrey Williams | Bryan Wynter | Fahr El Nissa Zeid

Speech Acts is curated by Hammad Nasar with Kate Jesson

Speech Acts Exhibition Guide (PDF)


Li Yuan-chia Untitled, 1994
Unique hand-coloured print
Courtesy of the Li Yuan-chia Foundation Registered Charity no. 1098517
© Vipul Sangoi

Anwar Jalal Shemza Meeting, 1963

Yara El-Sherbini Skit, 2018
Photographic print
Image courtesy of the artist and La Caja Blanca gallery (Spain)
© Klein Imaging, Manchester

1 ‘Sum of all’ is a line taken from a poem written for Li Yuan-chia by the artist David Medalla and printed in the catalogue accompanying Li-Yuan-chia’s exhibition at the Lisson Gallery, 1967.
2 ‘I contain multitudes’ is a line taken from Walt Whitman’s poem ‘Song of Myself’ included in ‘Leaves of Grass’.

Supported by


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