As I stood in front of Jelena Bulajic’s large-scale portrait of Alise Lange (2013) mesmerised by the network of fine wrinkles covering her face, my momentary thoughts merged with memories of another contemporary artwork that came back to mind in sharp focus – the image of Lubaina Himid’s topological art map, Thin Black Line(s) (2011).
In Bulajic’s work, her mixed-media artistic cartography of facial lines signified one elderly woman’s life history over several decades, and also served to illustrate the wider curatorial context to the London-based international group show of works by 14 women artists within which it was being shown – Champagne Life (Saatchi Gallery, London, 13 January – 9 March 2016). Although very different in its composition, Lubaina Himid’s artwork also mapped out women’s lives. However, rather than creating a close-up image of one woman to symbolise the complexities of our universal human condition, she chose instead to map diverse cultural and socio-political connections between several black British female artists from the UK’s African and Asian diasporas as a network diagram similar in appearance to Harry Beck’s topological map of the London Underground.
Lubaina Himid’s artwork was created specifically for the BP British Art In-Focus single-room display she curated at Tate Britain that shared the name Thin Black Line(s) (2011-12). This showcase of works by seven women (namely, Sutapa Biswas, Sonia Boyce, Lubaina Himid, Claudette Johnson, Ingrid Pollard, Veronica Ryan and Maud Sulter) was a re-working of an earlier selection by these (plus four other) artists shown at the ICA in the 1980s as The Thin Black Line (Institute for Contemporary Art, London, 1985). Some of the notable pieces in this small but highly significant showcase included: the Kali-inspired painting Housewives with Steak Knives (1985) by Sutapa Biswas; the heart-rending charcoal drawing “Mr close-friend-of-the-family pays a visit whilst everyone else is out“ (1985) by Sonia Boyce; the triptych Trilogy: Woman in Blue; Woman in Black; Woman in Red (1982-86) by Claudette Johnson; the life-sized, satirical painted wood cut-outs in The Carrot Piece (1985) by Lubaina Himid, and the photographic series Pastoral Interlude (1988) by Ingrid Pollard.
It is notable that the Saatchi Gallery’s promotion and presentation of Champagne Life has sparked a wide-ranging public conversation about inclusive vs. exclusive exhibiting practices, and ‘spatial equality’ vs. ‘sites of marginalisation’ that only ever tends to filter out from the art press and into mainstream news as a controversial story whenever major galleries choose to programme an all-women art event – as was the case in Paris when the ground-breaking Pompidou exhibition Elles@centrepompidou (2009) displayed c. 200 artworks by female modernists from the MNAM (Musée national d’art moderne) permanent collection. However, as many high-profile contemporary fine art museums in the West still regularly devote less than 15% of their exhibition floorspace to works by women artists over the course of a typical year/2-year programming cycle – irrespective of whether they are state funded or privately owned institutions – such systemic gender disparities necessitate the continued curation and wide-scale marketing of ‘corrective’ shows like Champagne Life, if only to address the stark imbalances that have become normalised throughout the art world. Related to this, an audit of 134 London-based commercial galleries that was undertaken in 2013 by the East London Fawcett (ELF) group found that less than 1/3rd (31%) of the represented artists were women, prompting the following comment by the ELF’s arts director:
“The ELF art audit results provide statistical evidence that gender inequality still persists in London’s art world.”
Gemma Rolls-Bentley (Arts Director, East London Fawcett)
My particular highlights from the Saatchi Gallery’s all-women showcase were the vivid, electric-blue paintings and collages by Mequitta Ahuja – an American artist with African and South Asian ancestry, whose works regularly feature Hindu symbolism and mythical images interwoven with more autobiographical references to her unbounded identity constructions as a woman of diverse heritage. I was also impressed by the scale, symbolism and poignancy of a huge wall installation (440 x 100 cm) made from 478 burnt cooking pots – appropriately titled, Food for Thought “Almullaqat 4” (2016), by the Saudi Arabian artist Maha Malluh.
On a smaller scale, the juxtaposition of Canadian artist Mia Feuer’s realistic papier-mâché sculpture Jerusalem Donkey (2015) positioned alongside the taxidermied installation piece Moje Sabz (2011) by the Iranian-British artist Sohelia Sokhanvari was an assemblage that caused me to pause and reflect at length on the powerful ways art can be used to document the dangers of past political, religious and environmental conflicts, whilst simultaneously inspiring new forms of arts activism to help prevent the recurrence of local, national and international tensions and hostilities in the future.
Even if the primary selection criterion for an exhibition of this type is to address (and re-balance) historical gender inequalities, as opposed to curators applying “best fit” subjectivities to align works to a particular concept-based, thematic narrative, I have absolutely no doubt that all-women group exhibitions help to shine an important (and still much needed) centralising spotlight on emerging artists who would otherwise be problematically marginalised (or excluded altogether) by institutional, commercial and media-related conventions that privilege white male artists.
On the down side, I did come away questioning why the American pop artist Julia Wachel’s screen prints were given such prominence among the opening works in Gallery 1 (with one of them also contributing the title for the entire showcase, “Champagne Life“) when a much bolder, more aesthetically and politically unifying installation for this exhibition by the aforementioned artist Maha Malluh could easily have been placed in this room – or, alternatively, the giant-sized wood and copper-thread piece Bound (2011) by Alice Anderson (which, regrettably, was closed to the public on the day of my visit). This would certainly have helped to create a more visually stimulating and impactful spectacle within the initial reception spaces branching off from the main entrance.
Despite these (relatively minor) arrangement issues, I was still very pleased to have taken time out to see Champagne Life during its final weeks in London, and look forward to future exhibitions at the Saatchi Gallery (as well as at other major art spaces) that support the profile-raising of emerging women artists from around the world.
Perhaps the Saatchi Gallery should follow the lead of artist-curator and academic Lubaina Himid by maintaining close contact with all 14 artists in this showcase as they go forward to pursue new projects and exhibit in different spaces, so that a group retrospective (or, better still, an assemblage of new pieces) can be staged in London some time in the near future. Clearly, some form of artistic representation of their future networking in a decade or two from now should also be mapped – as illustrated by Lubaina Himid’s powerful 2011 schematic of the Thin Black Line(s) connecting emerging diasporan artists of the 1980s – to show the geographical mobility and rhizomatic cultural impacts of these 14 women artists world-wide. If so, perhaps “Third Space Lifelines” (in reference to the work of Homi K Bhabha, Gayatri Spivak, and other ‘Third Space’ postcolonial cultural theorists) might be an appropriate title?
FURTHER INFORMATION AND LINKS:
The banner image at the top of this blog post is a photograph of Julia Dault’s installation piece on display at the Saatchi Gallery – “Untitled 19, 10:27 AM–1:13 PM, January 5, and 5:08–6:48 PM, January 6, 2016, installed by Simon Bird.” Photo: Carol Dixon (March 2016).
Champagne Life (13 January – 9 March 2016) – an exhibition overview and listing of artists’ portfolios on the Saatchi Gallery website.
Himid, Lubaina (2011) Thin Black Line(s), Tate Britain 2011/2012. Preston: Making Histories Visible Project, Centre for Contemporary Art, UCLAN – [full-text PDF online]
Sedghi, Ami (2013) “The London art audit: how well are female artists represented?” The Guardian, 24 May 2013 [online article]