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How MIMA's New Exhibition is a Real Celebration of the River Tees and the People Who Live and Work Near it

2 people looking at art All images: People Powered: Stories from the River Tees at MIMA. Photography credit: Gilmar Ribeiro
What's on
September 2023
Reading time 3 Minutes

MIMA's brand new exhibition has the local community at its heart

Shaping the landscapes and industries of the towns it passes through, the iconic River Tees plays an important role in Teesside's story. We learn more about People Powered: Stories from the River Tees.

People Powered: Stories from the River Tees is a partnership between MIMA (Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art) which is part of  Teesside University, and the National Portrait Gallery and features collections of art from both organisations, as well as new commissions which have been created within the local community. ‘Importantly for this exhibition, we looked at the people who live and work by, and enjoy the river,’ says Claire Pounder, Learning Curator at MIMA.

The River Tees rises on the eastern slope of Cross Fell in the North Pennines and flows eastward to reach the North Sea between Hartlepool and Redcar. For years it’s provided the means for the import and export of goods to and from our region. In fact, it’s been transporting industrial goods since the Industrial Revolution (including coal from the Durham Coalfield and for the steel industry that surrounds the town). This new exhibition features many of the stories of those who have depended, and still depend, on the river. 

The exhibition’s newly created content includes work by young people, schools and many others who are influenced by the river. ‘Storytelling is at the heart of the exhibition, and it’s made with contributions from our local community,’ Claire says. ‘Art on show includes work by school children from St Mary’s Catholic Primary School in Grangetown. They worked with an artist called Diane Watson on a piece based around Elisabeth Frink’s Herring Gull (1974). The art the children produced was transferred onto a large scale, vinyl wallpaper which is now on one of the gallery walls, and looks amazing!

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‘We also have work by The Club: our self-named group of elders who come to MIMA every week. They worked on a project focusing on their thoughts and feelings about the River Tees and produced a range of beautiful posters and textiles. A chair has been decorated with some of those textile designs as part of the display.’ 

Local photographer Gilmar Riberio has captured portraits of people who work, rest and play on and around the river, and young people from MIMA’s Saturday Club (part of the National Saturday Club initiative) displays work drawing on the river’s myths and legends. These combine with a contemporary soundscape of stories and folklore with the help of electronic music group A Man Called Adam. ‘It’s a really joyful, colourful show filled with wonderful artwork,’ Claire says. ‘Visitors will get a wonderful flavour of the area and the impact of the river on the landscape and the environment, as well as the influence of the Tees across the whole region.’

‘Visitors will get a wonderful flavour of the area and the impact of the river on the landscape and the environment, as well as the influence of the Tees across the whole region’

These new creations complement MIMA’s existing Middlesbrough Collection (more than 2,350 works of art and craft made by British and international artists from the mid-1800s to today). This collection plays a role in many of MIMA’s events and exhibitions and a changing selection of its works is on permanent display. ‘At MIMA, we have a space called the Open Access Collection Store and in this space we house the entire collection of ceramics and jewellery held within the Middlesbrough Collection,’ says Claire. ‘That’s available for everyone to take a look at – that could be visitors, researchers or school groups and on 19th September, we’re opening up a new display of the Middlesbrough Collection called Soft Structures.’ This exhibition will display artworks that haven’t been on public display before, and will look at structures and support in society.

Artworks from the Middlesbrough Collection currently on display as part of People Powered include work by Ian MacDonald, William Tillyer, Patricia Faulkner, Vivan Sundaram, Elisabeth Frink and Ken Couzens. Photographic work by Jo Coates and Ian Macdonald reflects on the working communities that depend on the river as a source of labour and industry, and Vivan Sundaram’s art explores its changing geography. 

MIMA’s windows also display work by Verity Adriana, Senior Lecturer in Photography in the School of Arts and Creative Industries at Teesside University – a short photo essay inspired by AV Dawson Limited’s site at the Port of Middlesbrough.

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These are shown alongside photographic portraits from the National Portrait Gallery including Teesside-born author Adele Parks MBE, Middlesbrough-born comedian Bob Mortimer, social documentary photographer Tish Murtha, Billingham’s Paul Smith from Maximo Park, and film director Ridley Scott who grew up and went to school in Teesside. ‘People Powered is in partnership with the National Portrait Gallery and we are one of their few nationwide partners,’ explains Claire. ‘It’s a fantastic collaboration. We enjoy working with partners (whether national or international) but it’s really special for us to be working with the National Portrait Gallery.’

‘We’ve had fantastic feedback from visitors of all ages, both from the area and outside the region’

A varied programme of activities and events will take place alongside this exhibition and MIMA have introduced a new Sunday music programme with A Man Called Adam, a Tees Women Poets Residency, MIMA’s community journal MIMAZINA and a creative series of ‘Art + Social’ events. They also welcome artists and creatives in residence on the Family Art Trolley – where families are invited to gather every Saturday to make their own masterpiece using a range of materials and techniques. 

‘We’ve had fantastic feedback from visitors of all ages, both from the area and outside the region,’ says Claire. ‘It’s just so great that MIMA as a gallery serves as a public hub to the community. Importantly, MIMA is free to visit. The gallery is for everybody and that really shows in the school holidays when we have the Family Art Trolley. We have hundreds of families who make the most of that. Any child who goes to the Art Trolley can also pick up a picnic from our café for £1. If you can’t make the Art Trolley over the holidays remember you can visit every Saturday 11am–3pm for making adventures with family and friends.’

It’s hoped that People Powered will offer visitors the opportunity to reflect on local lives and experiences, and create new memories and records around the river. 

People Powered: Stories from the River Tees is on display at MIMA until 7th January 2024.

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