Russell Tovey WePresent’s 2023 Guest Curator states his mission

Cover Image - Russell Tovey
Cover: Photo by Elliot James Kennedy
WordsRussell Tovey

We are thrilled to announce that the 2023 WePresent Guest Curator is the inimitable actor, producer, podcaster and curator, Russell Tovey. Russell has been blessed with the gift of enthusiasm: his passion for the arts, in particular the work created by British queer artists creating work before and during the AIDS crisis. We have teamed up with Russell to work with him on a number of projects that hold particular significance for him, which he elaborates on in his editor’s letter below.

Select Audio Mode and let Russell Tovey read this letter to you.

To look at stuff, and put some stuff next to other stuff, and then frame that stuff, or put the stuff on plinths, or film it, or write or talk about this stuff with such a passion that other people want to know more about the stuff you talk about, you have to fundamentally care about stuff.

I really care about stuff. To others, this stuff may just be stuff, but to me this stuff is everything. For me, this is art. Be it filmed, photographed, molded or hand-built, drawn or painted, recorded or reappropriated, art in all of its forms and guises, is my world. Perhaps that is why I’ve been asked by WePresent to come aboard as an actual curator of this stuff. For the past year we have been working beautifully together on two almost fully formed projects and now we will continue the adventure to make even more beautiful stories about all this stuff that makes my heart sing. 

This stuff has power. But it’s easy to be wary of something if you never see it, if you’re not exposed to it. If stories aren’t told, lives aren't seen, lived experiences pushed so far into the margins of society they literally become dust, the magic stuff appears.

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“As a 40-year-old queer man I feel the responsibility to make sure that this stuff that matters to me and my kind, actually matters to everyone.”

I am queer, I have always been queer. I’ve had internal struggles, external battles, existential crises and pause for thought, but through it all, I’ve latched onto the realities of my existence, by knowing, with the most beautiful reassurance, that there is stuff out there to tell me, show me, teach me that I am loved and I matter. This stuff has come from people like me and from all walks of life for thousands of years. Historical documents of existence, undeniable by simply being made, recordings of lives. As a 40-year-old queer man I feel the responsibility to make sure that this stuff that matters to me and my kind, actually matters to everyone.

I have queer heroes and many of these heroes have died. Queer ancestors and guides, that have left shimmering talismans to hold close at times of struggle. “If you wait long enough, the world moves in circles,” said the late filmmaker, artist, writer and activist Derek Jarman. He wrote this in the 1980s and just look at where we are now. In this curatorship, I'm going to show you my heroes.

The first project that I have collaborated on with WePresent is a feature documentary exploring the life and work of one of my greatest art heroes, the poet and artist David Robilliard. David moved from Guernsey in the Channel Islands to London in the late 1970’s to find himself and his tribe. Quickly taken under the wing of East End art legends Gilbert and George, David thrived and created a body of work consisting of his own unique poetry and musings and a sizable body of paintings and drawings, each containing his very own unique take on the world. Tragically he was of the unlucky generation and died of AIDS in 1988, aged just 36.

I discovered his work at around the same age as when David died, scaring me and propelling me deeper into his story in equal measure. This documentary, “Life is Excellent,” has been one of my greatest joys, learning more and getting under the skin of a man who has taught me so much about myself, without ever knowing who I am. Isn’t that what great art is? It’s a talisman, a guide, a hand that reaches out and takes yours from the past and into the future. 

Our next artist, a constant for myself and for so many, is the aforementioned late, great film director, writer, artist and activist Derek Jarman. Derek’s legacy is felt even more so today than ever, his legacy and work astonishingly important and he is a man whom I feel so privileged to even utter my name alongside, let alone tackle one of his greatest masterpieces. With WePresent and an incredible cast and production team we are mounting a live performance of “Blue”, the last film Derek ever made, titled “BLUE NOW.”

As Jarman was propelled into the depths of AIDS in the early 1990’s he began to lose his eyesight, brought on by the disease and extreme medication, resulting in an Yves Klein blue veil over his vision. “Blue” consists of a static blue screen overlaid with a voiceover recounting his final moments in hospital and with his friends in both London and Dungeness in Kent, where he lived with his partner. It is an incredibly moving, transformative experience to be sat in a dark room, with a hushed crowd in front of his all-consuming “Blue” and feel his words wash over you, taking you to an almost meditative state. Derek’s final gift to us from beyond. A creative vibration, authentic and steeped in love and one that we present to you today.

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“I am drawn to artists who show a resilience and a stoic reluctance to stand still, bursting with energy and creativity right up until the end.”

There seems to be a theme here you might have noticed: British queer artists, who died of AIDs, and who were creating artwork at around the same time that I was still running around in my plimsolls. As a queer man,I feel a responsibility to recognise where I have come from. I feel emboldened to show respect and amplify those who have paved a path for me and for so many others to lead honest, beautiful and creative lives, out and proud.

It’s simply a matter of timing. If I’d been born a mere decade earlier, who’s to say that my life wouldn’t have turned out very differently? That matters to me. My timing is now, and right now I want to do all I can to learn my history and show others who we are and why we matter.

I was born in Essex, and much like David Robilliard, I love my home county but I needed to move to the capital to truly discover who I was, what my creativity could do, and to be with those who understood me the most. I had to find my tribe. I am drawn to artists who show a resilience and a stoic reluctance to stand still, bursting with energy and creativity right up until the end. They inspire me deeply. I want to burn as bright as they did and I try to channel this energy into everyday life as much as I can. I cannot wait to share this energy with you.

Photo Liam Daniel courtesy & © Basilisk Communications