John Woodworth via Getty Images
Look around Oxford University’s corridors and dining halls at the magnificent portraits that hang there, and something may strike you: almost everyone seems to look the same.
That’s because portraiture has tended to celebrate through traditional means (think gilt frames and heavy oils in sombre colours) a narrow range of achievement by a narrow range of individuals – scholars, clerics, philanthropists and leaders. And in an 800-year-old institution like Oxford, those recognised individuals have historically – save for the former women’s colleges – been white men, honoured over the centuries for their contributions and legacies.
But, truth be told, Oxford has always been a diverse place – it’s just that the traditional, oil-on-canvas way of recognising achievement did not allow individuals’ multiple and complex identities to be recognised. Their histories and narratives were hidden, along with their complex identities and the invisible aspects of their difference. We make assumptions about those traditional old white men, but many wrestled with, for instance, mental ill health or aspects of their sexuality in an era of conformity.
That’s why we have, for the past year, been bringing to light Oxford’s ‘hidden histories’ by cataloguing and displaying over 250 diverse historical portraits from around the collegiate university. Many of those individuals – women and men – challenged the stereotypes and exclusions of their time. And we are now building on their legacy by announcing a new initiative, called Diversifying Portraiture, that celebrates the achievements of more than 20 living Oxonians.
Sitters range from the film director Ken Loach and BBC journalist Reeta Chakrabarti to the eminent astrophysicist Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell and Winter Olympian Henry Odili Nwume. There’s Hilary Lister, the first disabled woman to sail solo around Britain, and Oxford academic Diarmaid MacCulloch, Professor of the History of the Church. They represent a broad spectrum of the people who have studied and worked at Oxford – men and women of achievement who demonstrate that, contrary to perceptions, disability, ethnicity, gender, sexuality and socio-economic background are no barrier to accessing, excelling at, and contributing to the continued prosperity of one of the world’s leading universities.
We are doing this because, however much we try to bring out the diverse narratives of the past – we recruited our first foreign student, Emo of Friesland, in 1190 – the faces on the walls do not reflect the reality of today’s staff and students. More than one in four of our current students, including those from overseas, are students of colour. Our staff come from over 150 countries. But when they have their first lecture or dine in their college hall for the first time, they see images that do not speak to and reflect their own reality. That affects their sense of belonging here, their ambitions, and their academic achievements. Many speak of ‘impostor syndrome’ – the feeling of not having the right to be here because they do not see others like them.
This initiative reflects and celebrates the university’s increasing diversity and inclusivity with two dozen new portraits – mostly paintings and photographs – that will hang in the University’s public spaces, building on the efforts of many colleges to diversify their private spaces. These portraits encompass a range of artists, artistic expression, styles and media to represent the multiple identities of our current staff and students.
And the project, too, has challenged the traditional way of commissioning portraits. Previously, those in authority – mainly men – selected sitters based a narrow range of conventions and achievements, such as being the master of an Oxford college. We wanted to turn this on its head by opening up the scheme to all our staff and students, and inviting them to have their say on who they wanted to see hanging on the walls. It is their university, and it is they – and future generations – who will be inspired by the diverse achievements of the diverse people they see painted, drawn and photographed on their university’s walls.
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