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Features / From Cullivoe to contemporary art curator

Helen Nisbet has carved out a career for herself in the art world in London. Photo: Shetland News/Neil Riddell.

IN THE second of our new series on Shetlanders living “abroad” and achieving good things, Louise Thomason speaks to Helen Nisbet, originally from Cullivoe and now a contemporary art curator in London.

“Coming from Shetland, from a background that wasn’t traditionally academic, or linked to the art world in any way, I often felt like an outsider, with no map or guidebook.”

Helen Nisbet is a contemporary art curator. From Cullivoe, Yell, she is currently based in London, where she is the founder of Shetland Night, hugely popular occasions celebrating all things Shetland through music, food, drams and people.

Helen’s upbringing in the isles was a world away from the contemporary art scene of the city. The daughter of a former teacher and oil terminal worker, she said she didn’t know what working in art meant until “quite a while after leaving university”.

At university Helen studied politics, English, and, thanks to Scotland’s three subject system, art history.

Helen said: “Studying art history was revelatory, and turned out to be life changing. But it wasn’t an easy transition from graduating to doing what I do now.”

Getting a job in the art world is notoriously tough, and especially so if you’re not well connected, Helen explained.

“I was trained in art history, and a very thin slice of art history at that, so getting into contemporary art took a lot of sussing things out. This is particularly complicated when you don’t have familial connections in the art world.

“So really, it took some years of figuring things out for myself. I still am. This can make things especially tough, but I actually wouldn’t have it any other way.”

However separate Shetland may feel to the art world, Helen says her upbringing played a big part in shaping her choices.

“I think it’s only in looking back that you realise how much people you meet along the way inspire what you do.

“My parents would not describe themselves as ‘arty’ but they have definitely given me traits that have influenced the way I live and think. 

“My mam’s side of the family are really silly and definitely inspired my enjoyment of the absurd from a very young age, through philosophical musings, story writing, nonsensical poems, songs and games (on reflection, often lubricated by booze). My dad is a meticulous doer and maker of things, he inspired me to work hard, consider other people and to have a full and foolproof understanding of the thing I’m working on.

Helen at the artist-owned Cubitt gallery in Islington, where she is currently curator.

“The most important thing was the confidence that came from learning: getting interested in politics, music, books, films, cultural theory, philosophy, history… that was the catalyst for everything that [has] happened since.”  

Helen got her first taste of what working in art might be like with environmental sculptor Andy Goldsworthy, as an assistant on a project to create a digital archive of his ephemeral work.

The project was led by Helen’s dissertation supervisor, Dr Tina Fiske, which helped her get a foot in the door of the contemporary art world.

Helen said: “Much of Andy’s work only exists for long enough to photograph it before a weather change takes it away. I was lucky enough to work as an assistant on that project, as well as sometimes helping [him] make new work (which once involved getting an electric shock and pretending I hadn’t to save face).”

Helen currently works as the curator at Cubitt, a small artist-led gallery which was set up 25 years ago by a group of artists.

She said: “[Cubitt] is still run by artists and has 31 studios and a very good education programme as well as the gallery space. Each 18 months they bring in a new curator to programme the space.

“It is a unique opportunity; allowing freedom and a place to conduct research and experimentation. People who have done the fellowship in the past have gone on to run galleries in London, New York and elsewhere in Europe.”

Her next exhibition will feature Helen’s cousin from Orkney next to internationally renowned artists. 

Contemporary art often has a bad reputation, seen as inaccessible, possibly, even pointless or lacking in skill. 

Helen says: “Figuring out what constitutes ‘contemporary art’ is something me and my sister-in-law Marie talk about a lot. The term ‘contemporary art’ arose in the 20th century to describe art that is made in and of the specific time it comes from. So it won’t necessarily look like something we’ve seen before.

“This might mean art that responds to or looks at the internet, or northern soul dancing, language, form or Brexit. Sometimes it can just be a means of figuring something out without necessarily using words. Artists ponder the same questions we all do – questions of science, community, mental health, social media, gender…

“Art for me isn’t necessarily something pretty to hang on the wall or a literal representation of the world we see; what’s difficult is helping give people the confidence to look at art without feeling they need to explain what they’re experiencing.”

For Helen, having a connection to real life – and a broad range of life experiences – is important in developing art.

Helen said: “I’ve been interested in politics for a long time. For me this is more closely aligned to everyday life and action, more than theory and academia.

“Because of this I have a specific interest in art that happens outside of traditional gallery spaces. This might be because I didn’t go to galleries when I was young, so I know how hard to penetrate they can feel, how few people really go to them.

“I care a lot about representation, which feels like both a social and political issue. The history of art I was taught was a very male, white and western art history, often about people who had been born into money and who had access to cultural life. I’m more interested in what happens when we support ‘other’ people to have a cultural life or to be artists themselves.

“That said, I don’t think art should have to be political, or useful. It’s just that those are the things I’m thinking about when I’m working with artists on projects.”

Sisters Bethany and Jenna Reid performing at one of the previous Shetland nights in London organised by Helen.

Prior to Cubitt, Helen has worked in public art commissioning and social practice, and recently spent time in Seyðisfjörður, Iceland, for a residency with Skaftfell Art Centre organised by Transfer North, a conglomerate of art organisations, curators and writers from ‘the north’.

The residency afforded her time to research her current job, and look at the parallels between Iceland and Shetland.

“I attended the local Þorrablót (pronounced Thorrablot) the Icelandic mid-winter festival. A group of locals (the group changes each year) put on a series of sketches pertinent to things that had happened locally that year, everyone sat at long tables, eating lamb’s testicles and fermented shark fin and danced afterwards. In many (but not all) ways it felt similar to Up Helly Aa.” She said.

Despite now living in London, home – and homesickness – clearly remains to have a big impact on Helen, and were the driving force behind her hugely popular Shetland Night events.

Helen said: “The Shetland Nights are one of my favourite things I’ve done! People who have attended include Shetlanders, Shetland fans and folk who would find it hard to place Shetland on a map (and those who wore tartan!).

“I think people are fascinated by the idea of an island in the middle of the North Sea and people hanker for something that feels like it comes from a community. The nights are inter-generational, people who attend meet and have dinner next to folk they’ve never met before. I’m sure the very good music and food don’t hurt either.”

As with many islanders, the pull of home is something she still feels. I asked her what else she misses about the isles.

“Number one is my family. I have family in Orkney and Shetland and I miss them both all the time. For me, family extends to the community and sense of belonging, which comes from being from a small place. After this, I miss mutton, music and a good, bowed over walk in the wind.”

Louise Thomason