Zoe Diao

Curatorial Fellow,
Whitechapel Gallery

During my residency as Asymmetry Curatorial Fellow at Whitechapel Gallery, I’ve been developing a research project on storytelling and personal artist histories in post-war London. Exploring different autobiographical memories, I’m interested in tracing how storytelling and narration are modified, alternated, and omitted in artist histories, both internationally and locally. I’m particularly intrigued by the elasticity of narratives and how they are communicated to different listeners through the retelling of oral histories. For my project, I will look at how artists have adapted to different spatial and temporal contexts, examining distinct forms of storytelling through a variety of archival materials, from interviews, writing, and correspondence, to artists' exhibition materials.


Here is the Whitechapel Gallery Archive Foyle Reading Room, a quiet space where I spend most of my time researching and sifting through different historical and archival documentation for my project.

Whitechapel Gallery Archive Foyle Reading Room. Courtesy of Zoe Diao.


When looking through the archival materials for the 1950 exhibition Painters’ Progress: Lives and Work of Some Living British Painters at Whitechapel Gallery, each of the participating artists submitted an autobiographical text to explain their background and practice. Besides basic information such as year of birth, education, and previous occupation, almost all the artists listed their father’s profession on their submission documents, including artist Duncan Grant (pictured below). Similarly, when Henry Moore was interviewed by the Yorkshire Post in 1949 for an exhibition, the headline read “Miner’s Son Who Became World-Famous Sculptor”. Why was such information essential? Was it a sign of the patriarchal values of the time or simply a required way of introducing someone? Is someone’s family, class background or professional status still an important deciding factor in today’s exhibition process? Details like these are what I seek to explore and dissect further in my research. 

Biography of Duncan Grant, ca. 1950. Courtesy of Whitechapel Gallery Archive.


So far, the stories I’ve examined in my research have presented many different insights into artistic identity and for me, it is interesting to see how some artists have distilled their life experience into significant moments; for example, their first encounter with art, their decision to become an artist, their first success in the art world, and for the international artists, the reason of their relocation. While these moments are not necessarily indexical to the life of an artist, they can be retold in a multitude of different combinations and meanings within each storytelling situation. It is perhaps the beauty of archival material that such historical patterns begin to reveal themselves the more you investigate a particular story or moment. 

Since working in the archives, I have encountered some unexpected but delightful findings. For example, in the Whitechapel Gallery Archive, I came across several correspondences between the former Whitechapel Director Hugh Scrutton (1917-91) and the Chinese painter and writer, Su Hua Ling Chen (凌叔华, 1900-90). Ling lent two paintings from her collection to the 1952 exhibition The Arts of India and China, including one anonymous Song Dynasty painting and a Qing Dynasty scroll by Hongren (弘仁). Unearthing this surprising correspondence between two very different individuals has allowed me to see the multidimensional nature of working with archival materials, especially when tracing how autobiographical narratives change and mutate over time.

Su Hua Ling Chen, letter to Hugh Scrutton, dated February 26, 1952. Courtesy of Whitechapel Gallery Archive.


I’ve been busy reading some interesting texts that focus on the origins and anthropology behind storytelling, as well as listening to some fascinating sound recordings from the British Library. Here are a few I’m currently enjoying:

1. Boyd, Brian. 2010. On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

2. British Library National Life Stories: Artists’ Lives, Online Resources,

3. Friedenthal, Richard ed.1963. Letters of Great Artists, London: Thames and Hudson.

4. Maggio, Rodolfo. (Winter 2014). "The Anthropology of Storytelling and the Storytelling of Anthropology." Journal of Comparative Research in Anthropology and Sociology 5, no. 2: 89–106.

5. McLean, Stuart. 2009. "Stories and Cosmogonies: Imagining Creativity beyond 'Nature' and 'Culture.'" in Cultural Anthropology 24, no. 2: 213–45.

6. Senehi, Jessica. 2020. "Transcultural Storytelling" in Storytelling, Self, Society 16, no. 1: 3–32.

Brian Boyd, On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction. 2010. Courtesy of Zoe Diao.

'Galleries in the Groove: Three Visionary Dealers, 1960s–80s' is on show at Whitechapel Gallery, London from 21 December 2021 to 21 August 2022. The exhibition is curated and organised by Head of Curatorial Studies and Archives, Dr. Nayia Yiakoumaki, Assistant Curator Ines Costa and Asymmetry Curatorial Fellow Zoe Diao. For more information on the show, click here.