This week I visited Worthing Museum & Art Gallery, to see Reclaiming Childhood. It’s a show of fantastic portraits by Claire Phillips, of children saved from the brutality of forced labour in India. With help from Bachpan Bachao Andolan (Save the Childhood Movement) Claire interviewed, sketched and photographed children rescued from factories, mines and domestic service, where they had suffered cruelty, violence and sexual abuse. It’s a disturbing subject, and commendable that an artist should dedicate a whole exhibition to it.
The paintings are superb: most are large scale; some are studies of sadness and suspicion; others reveal the joy and resilience of childhood. Claire is an extremely accomplished artist with the kind of painterly style I relish, and the highly-coloured figures of her subjects stand out powerfully against simple backgrounds. The portrait of Jubil, the brave BBA activist, is painted with a much greater variety of strokes and textures than the rest of the pieces, creating an animated image of a heroic figure.
This could have been a really stunning exhibition but it’s badly let it down by the gallery space (a dreary room that looks like it hasn’t had a refit for decades) and the horrid hanging system, with its metal bars at viewing level around the walls.
Two nasty display cases seem placed at random in the gallery: one contains a jumble of photos of Indian scenes that add nothing to the exhibition; and the other displays drawings done by some of the rescued children, and more of their work hangs from a tacky-looking mobile. These are wonderful and poignant images that deserve to be presented in a much better way.
The paintings are almost lost among the text-heavy labels all over the place; I found the soundtrack of Indian chatter and chanting an irritation; and the flickering screen of an ancient TV set showing slides of the artist’s photos was unwatchable.
Claire – your work is fab but Worthing Museum’s art space desperately needs an upgrade.
Claire Phillips: Reclaiming Childhood at Worthing Museum & Art Gallery continues until 24 January 2015.