Yale Center for British Art

Artists, curators and scholars came together last week to celebrate the works of renowned British filmmaker Steve McQueen.

McQueen became the first Black filmmaker to win the Academy Award for Best Picture for his 2014 work “12 Years a Slave,” based on the autobiography of Soloman Northup, a free Black man living in the northern United States, who was captured and sold into slavery. The two-day symposium, hosted by the Yale Center for British Art on Oct. 28 and 29, featured a number of McQueen’s students and colleagues. 

“The symposium generated rich discussions about McQueen’s versatility and success across media; the themes of memory, remembrance, and the burden of representation that appear as through-lines in much of his work; and his place within the context of his own generation of artists and filmmakers,” YCBA Research Director Jemma Field wrote to the News.

Head of Communications and Marketing for the Yale Center for British Art told the News the symposium was an opportunity to contextualize McQueen’s recent commercial success within his larger artistic oeuvre. 

Born in London to a Grenadian mother and a Trinidadian father, McQueen was educated in London and received a bachelors of fine arts from Goldsmiths, University of London. McQueen began his directing career in 1993, with his debut short film “Bear,” presented at the Royal College of Art in London, followed by several other short films released in that decade. 

Courtney J. Martin, a YCBA director, emphasized McQueen’s cultural importance in an email to the News.

“McQueen’s recent entry into international public acclaim needs to be conceptualized and contextualized within that earlier process,” Martin told the News. “Simultaneously, his most recent work on television — the BBC-commissioned five-film anthology series Small Axe (2020) and three-part documentary series Uprising (2021) both of which won multiple television BAFTAs — has elevated the medium in a manner that deserves serious critical attention.”

“McQueen has been a vital voice in contemporary art for more than three decades,” she continued

The event began with a roundtable discussion featuring participants who had studied and worked with McQueen over his career, including independent curator Karen Alexander, Lonti Ebers Chief Curator of Media and Performance with New York’s Museum of Modern Art Stuart Comer, Senior Adjunct Curator and Special Projects with the Dia Art Foundation Donna De Salvo, associate professor of Art History at Cornell Cheryl Finley and Director of LAXART, Los Angeles Hamza Walker.

In an attempt to bring together scholars with established curators and critics, Field worked alongside Alexander and Pooja Sen GRD ’23 “to review the submissions and select the papers to be presented…incorporating a breadth of perspectives and levels of professional experience into the conversation about McQueen.”

The event was accompanied by an exhibited photograph taken by McQueen in 2013, titled “Lynching Tree.” Attendees were invited to interact with the photograph in a reading and response room.

“This color photograph, mounted in a lightbox,” said Martin, “was taken on the outskirts of New Orleans in 2012, at one of the film locations for ‘12 Years a Slave.’” 

Recordings of the symposium will be available for viewing on the YCBA’s website

Dorothea Robertson covers art at Yale. A member of Yale College's Class of 2025, she will receive a B.A. in Religious Studies, focusing on religious art.