Salisbury Cathedral’s Contemporary Art Exhibition Explores Human Rights and Freedoms

24th May 2023

Salisbury Cathedral’s 2023 Art Exhibition ‘To Be Free’ showcases leading contemporary artists and explores what freedom is, what it means to be free and the plight of those who are not free.

Exploring Human Rights and Freedoms – New art exhibition at  Salisbury Cathedral

It features work by leading contemporary artists like Ai Weiwei, Yinka Shonibare, Mona Hatoum and Cornelia Parker.

A centrepiece of the exhibition is Cornelia Parker’s Magna Carta (An Embroidery), a 13-metre-long embroidery installation depicting the Magna Carta Wikipedia pages.

Summer in our cathedrals: Salisbury Cathedral’s contemporary art exhibition explores human rights and freedoms.

This huge piece works in tandem with Salisbury Cathedral’s rare 1215 Magna Carta, which is on display in a newly updated exhibition in the Chapter House.

Speaking about the exhibition Beth Hughes, Salisbury Cathedral’s Visual Art Curator said:

“Salisbury Cathedral in 2023 is exactly the right time and place to be thinking about what liberty means in contemporary Britain. 

“As the home of a Magna Carta and a Cathedral that moved to gain its own freedom, the fight for justice is built into the foundations of the building and as world events of the last few years have seen our freedoms curbed, exposing societal differences, we want to continue this story, conveying hope for the future.

“I am thrilled we have been able to bring the work of such a stellar group of artists to Salisbury. Each artwork brings a fresh perspective of what freedom means to us.

Cornelia Parker’s Magna Carta (An Embroidery) was an act of democracy in its making, with over two hundred hand-stitch portions sewn by civil rights campaigners, MPs, lawyers, barons, artists, and prison inmates. Thirty-six prisoners from thirteen different prisons in England contributed to the piece under the supervision of the social enterprise Fine Cell Work. Still images from the pages were sewn by members of the Embroiderers Guild, Royal School of Needlework and Hand and Lock. The youngest contributors came from La Retraite Roman Catholic Girls School in London.

Yinka Shonibare’s Justice For All was exhibited for the first time in the UK during the summer of 2020 in response to the killing of George Floyd.

This towering figure is a reimagining of F.W. Pomeroy’s Lady Justice, a statue which stands above the dome of The Old Bailey. Shonibare has replaced Lady Justice’s head with that of a globe, to ask us to consider justice for citizens across the world.

Yinka Shonibare’s Justice For All, Salisbiry Cathedral

Standing at the West End to greet visitors as they arrive, Shonibare’s Justice for All faces Gabriel Loire’s famous Prisoners of Conscience window at East end of the Cathedral, which is dedicated to those who suffer or have been imprisoned because of their personal, religious or political beliefs.

A smaller but equally compelling work is Ai Weiwei’s porcelain Free Speech Puzzle 2015. The interlocking ceramic pieces, laid out to resemble a map of China, are each decorated with two hand-painted Chinese characters which translate to ‘free speech’. Each piece represents a distinct geographic and ethnic region of China, and the artist is asserting that everyone, wherever they are, has the right to free speech.

In the South transept, Mona Hatoum’s Map (mobile) 2019, challenges ideas of ownership and freedom. This huge glass mobile of the world changes with the air flow in the Cathedral. Countreis that were once far away from one another are now next to each other, a reflection on how close we may be culturally to other countries despite being geographically distant.

Other artists featured in the exhibition are Lucy Jones, who explores the challenges of gender, age and disability and Jeffrey Gibson, whose textile work They Want to be Free 2021 reflects his Choctaw-Cherokee heritage.

Whilst not wanting to be defined as a disabled artist, Lucy Jones’ cerebral palsy does inform her style. She often works on the floor, her physicality influencing how she makes her marks on the canvas. Gibson, on the other hand, incorporates his questions into his piece.  Phrases like ‘they want to be free’, and ‘if I ruled the world’ are colourfully stitched into his quilt, a natural part of its colourful geometric patterning, repurposing an everyday object to make a political statement.

Canon Kenneth Padley, the Cathedral’s Canon Treasurer and Chair of its Arts Advisory Panel said:

“The theme of freedom runs through the Christian tradition, both theologically in terms of salvation and also practically in the rights and social justice for which Christians campaign. 

“There are constant reminders in this Cathedral, in our liturgy and in our archives of the dangers of unchecked power and the value of liberty – and this exhibition curated by Beth serves to underscore those beliefs and values.”

To Be Free opened last week and runs until September alongside the newly refurbished Magna Carta exhibition in the Chapter House.

There are also events and activities linked to the exhibition over the coming months including drop-in Art Tours given by specially trained Cathedral guides, a talk by Baroness Shami Chakrabarti entitled To Be Free: Art and Liberty and a limited series of curator-led tours will also be available during the exhibition.

Find out more here.