Review of the 2018 edition of the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair in London

The sixth London edition of the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair took place at Somerset House, 4-7 October 2018. Curated by its founding director Touria El Glaoui the event featured 43 international galleries showcasing the work of 130 established and emerging contemporary artists from continental Africa and the global African diaspora.

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Exhibition view of sculptural works by Gonçalo Mabunda (b. 1975, Mozambique) and paintings by Ajarb Bernard Ategwa (b. 1988, Cameroon) displayed in Jack Bell Gallery’s presentation at the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair in London. Photo: Carol Dixon.

In keeping with previous editions at this venue a major new sculptural work was displayed in the courtyard to serve as a focal point for the fair. This year’s Fountain Court commission was given to the internationally renowned Sudanese modernist Ibrahim El-Salahi, who created three, large-scale versions of an oak sculpture titled “Meditation Tree” (2018). The majestic and beautifully sculpted wooden pieces were inspired by the artist’s memories of a particular type of Acacia tree, known as the Haraz, that is unique to Sudan and found along the banks of the River Nile.

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‘Meditation Tree’ (2018) by Ibrahim El-Salahi – one of three oak sculptures displayed in the fountain courtyard at Somerset House as part of the 1:54 London art commission, 4-7 October 2018. Photo: Carol Dixon.

Inside Somerset House one of the highlights of the expansive exposition was a series of sculptural installations, collages, tapestries, films and photographic works by South African artist Athi-Patra Ruga, titled “Of Gods, Rainbows and Omissions.”  Displayed in three rooms throughout the Terrace Gallery near the main entrance Ruga’s artworks were curated to illustrate and comment upon a range of social and political issues concerned with challenging injustices and inequalities through his use of highly ornate and colourful allegorical compositions visualising how people express diverse and complex identities.

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Detail from the series ‘Queens in Exile’ (2015-17), by Athi-Patra Ruga (b. 1984, South Africa), displayed in the exhibition ‘Of Gods, Rainbows and Omissions’ at Somerset House, London (4 October 2018 – 6 January 2019).

Self-defined as a queer Xhosa man Athi-Patra Ruga’s oeuvre serves as a powerful visual narrative documenting the lived experiences and corporealities of people whose opportunities to freely express their sense of self have been challenged and curtailed as a result of discrimination, acts of violence, social exclusion and other forms of oppression operating within local communities, nation states and wider global structures. A particular focus of Ruga’s presentation at Somerset House was to celebrate identities and bodies that have traditionally been constructed as ‘Other’/’non-human’ and positioned outside what is considered to be mainstream  – especially in relation to ethnicity, gender, nationality, sexuality and social class. Continue reading “Review of the 2018 edition of the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair in London”

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Sculptural Subjects: Figures and Encounters in Space

Throughout June, July and August I visited a number of exhibitions where sculptural representations of the human body dominated the presentations. Although each showcase was distinctive, the unifying aspect was the way the artists and/or the curators had installed the works to provoke powerful encounters between the sculptures and the moving bodies of the visitors interacting within the architectural settings of the galleries. Below is a review of a selection of the works, with additional details about the venues where they were most recently displayed.

Desrie Thomson-George’s ‘Jilo: The Survivor’ (2018) – Borough Road Gallery, London

Jilo: The Survivor was the title of a solo retrospective by the Guyanese-born British contemporary visual artist Desrie Thomson-George, displayed at London Southbank University’s Borough Road Gallery (July 2018). Several of the drawings and sculptures presented in this exhibition featured representations of the artist’s alter ego, Jilo. Collectively, these works conveyed aspects of the life struggles experienced by black women over many generations throughout the African diaspora(s) worldwide, particularly in relation to challenging racism, sexism, inequalities and injustices in order to achieve a liberated sense of self.

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Contemporary visual artist Desrie Thomson-George photographed next to a sculpture displayed as part of her exhibition ‘Jilo: The Survivor,’ London Southbank University, Borough Road Gallery, 12 July 2018. Photo: Carol Dixon

Desrie’s figural sculptures are often created using Jesmonite embedded with recycled materials (such as metal, glass, latex and textiles). and many of them present the realisation and maturation of the liberated female self in a series of stages, so that the process of achieving a positive sense of identity and wholeness is visualised as a life-long journey. In her artist’s statement written to promote the exhibition, Desrie explains:

“My work is driven by political, social and cultural issues of being a Black woman living in the West… Through the creation of figurative sculptures and installations I tell the story of Jilo, a Black woman, her struggles and her journey. Her invisibility, while being visible, and the irony of this. I experiment with recycled metal, glass, paper and textiles… selected deliberately to symbolise different states of being. For example: metal for strength; latex – invisibility and vulnerability; glass – fragility; and paper – media or propaganda.”

Continue reading “Sculptural Subjects: Figures and Encounters in Space”

Afroeuropeans: Black In/Visibilities Contested – 7th Network Conference, Lisbon, Portugal, 4-6 July 2019

The 7th Biennial Network Conference “Afroeuropeans: Black In/Visibilities Contested” will be held in Portugal at the University Institute of Lisbon (ISCTE-IUL), 4-6 July 2019. The conference is an important platform for the production of knowledge in the pertinent field of transdisciplinary research on racism, black cultures and identities in Europe. It also offers the opportunity to strengthen and widen networks between scholars, activists and artists that question structural racism and are critically engaged with the production of postcolonial knowledge on European blackness and the African diaspora. This dialogue and networking is promoted through keynotes and panels, round-tables, individual speakers and artistic and cultural activities.

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Venue for the 7th Biennial Network Conference “Afroeuropeans: Black In/Visibilities Contested,” at the University Institute of Lisbon (ISCTE – IUL), Portugal, 4-6 July 2019.

The title of the conference incorporates the tensions, ambiguities and paradoxes of Blackness in Europe. At the same time as black histories, cultures and social conditions are made invisible in hegemonic accounts on Europe, there is a hypervisibility and presence of black stereotyping in European popular culture. Also, while the concept of race has largely disappeared from political, sociological and administrative discourses (in continental Europe), and while the disengagement with institutional and structural racism has been reframed in new capitalist post racial rhetorics, racial markers still have currency, and black bodies continue to be invoked as either tolerated guests at best, or threatening intruders at worst. The consequence is the practice of “embodying an identity that is declared impossible even though lived by millions”, namely as non-white Europeans, and specifically as Black Europeans. This identity has become even more conditioned by a new mainstreaming of right-wing discourses and the tightening immigrant and refugee policies that affect people of African descent. Continue reading “Afroeuropeans: Black In/Visibilities Contested – 7th Network Conference, Lisbon, Portugal, 4-6 July 2019”

5000 Miles and 70 Years: Vanley Burke’s Windrush-inspired installation at Midlands Arts Centre, Birmingham

A new site-specific installation ‘5000 Miles and 70 Years’ by the internationally renowned photographer Vanley Burke was launched at Midlands Arts Centre (MAC) in Birmingham on Friday 4 May 2018. The installation featured a collage of archival materials and photographs from the artist’s extensive portfolio of images relating to the lived experiences of African and Caribbean diaspora communities in Britain since the mid-20th century.

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Detail from the collage-based installation ‘5000 Miles and 70 Years’ by Vanley Burke – displayed in the Terrace Gallery at Midlands Arts Centre, Birmingham, UK. Photo: Carol Dixon.

Displayed across the length of the Terrace Gallery on the venue’s ground floor, and also as a full-colour frieze exhibited across several 1st floor window panes, the installation offered poignant insights into the lives of Vanley Burke’s family and friends, as well as wider African-Caribbean diaspora communities settled in the West Midlands and other regions of the UK over several decades.

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A section of the installation ‘5000 Miles and 70 Years’ by Vanley Burke, presented across the 1st floor window panes at Midlands Arts Centre. Photo: Carol Dixon.

The artwork ‘5000 Miles and 70 Years’ was specifically commissioned to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the arrival of the Empire Windrush passenger ship at Tilbury Docks in Essex on 22nd June 1948 carrying on board c.500 migrants from islands and nations in the Caribbean region – many of whom were former servicemen and women who had served in the British armed forces and auxiliary services throughout the Second World War. The arrival of the Windrush has subsequently become a symbolic event in the social, economic and cultural history of Britain and the Commonwealth and, as such, the arrival date signifies the beginning of what is now referred to as the era of the ‘Windrush Generation.’ However, as Vanley’s installation illustrates, the imagery and documentation featured in the collage communicates a longer-standing, further-reaching and more complex history of Britain’s relationship with the Caribbean region and its people that encompasses the era of transatlantic enslavement, centuries of colonial exploitation, global trade links and the legacies of British imperialism in the West Indies. Interspersed with the family photographs, street scenes, images of domestic interiors and documentation about working class life from the past seven decades are also extracts from political posters, anti-racism campaign leaflets, news cuttings and photographs of protest marches and demonstrations that articulate the ongoing struggles of diasporans from the Caribbean to achieve their rights, equalities and freedoms as British citizens – not only for themselves, but also for subsequent generations of descendants born in the UK.

Photographer Vanley Burke was born in Jamaica in 1951 and migrated to Britain as a teenager in 1965. Since that time he has become one of the most important documentarians of black British history – using his skills as a photographer, as well as his passion for archiving, to produce and preserve a powerful, emotionally charged and thought-provoking visual narrative about the post-war lived experiences of black Britons. It is for these reasons that many art historians, sociologists and cultural studies scholars rightfully refer to Vanley Burke as “the foremost chronicler of Birmingham’s black history” and  “custodian of the history and the cultural memory of Black Birmingham” (see, for example, the book ‘Black Artists in British Art: A History Since the 1950s’ by Eddie Chambers (IB Tauris, 2014)).

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Photograph of Vanley Burke, pictured in front of his installation artwork ‘5000 Miles and 70 Years’ at Midlands Arts Centre, Birmingham (4 May 2018). Photo: Carol Dixon.

It was an honour and a privilege for me to meet Vanley Burke at the launch event for his new site-specific installation, and I even managed to get a picture of him standing in front of his thought-provoking new artwork (shown above). Continue reading “5000 Miles and 70 Years: Vanley Burke’s Windrush-inspired installation at Midlands Arts Centre, Birmingham”

‘History Wipes’ – Adel Abidin’s solo retrospective at the Ateneum, Helsinki

‘History Wipes’ was the title of the first solo retrospective by contemporary visual artist Adel Abidin (b. 1973, Baghdad, Iraq), displayed at the Ateneum Art Museum, Helsinki, during March and April 2018.

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Ateneum Art Museum, Kaivokatu 2, Helsinki. Photo: Carol Dixon.

The exhibition featured a series of video installations, multi-media artworks and sculptural pieces presented in five galleries on the 2nd and 3rd floors, as well as two text-based light installations displayed above the museum’s main staircase and its covered courtyard. Collectively, the works communicated a very powerful sequence of messages and provocations concerning the fragility of human existence – with a particular focus on how individuals and communities memorialize difficult and traumatic life experiences.

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White neon light installation ‘We Came to Kill Your Father’ (2018) by Adel Abidin, displayed above the main staircase at the Ateneum Art Museum, Helsinki. Photo: Carol Dixon

A recurring theme throughout the exhibition was Abidin’s questioning of the veracity of archival documentation – not only in terms of what was recorded and by whom, but also the extent to which archives often represented a deliberate erasure, manipulation and omission of certain histories that some would prefer to be suppressed, hushed up and wiped from the collective memory of a nation.

Writing about the unreliability of historical records – specifically with regard to the fragility and malleable nature of one’s own memories, and also the imperfections and subjectivities of institutional archives – Abidin remarked:

Our memories are malleable and reset stronger, more vividly and less accurately each time we revisit them. This process is known as reconsolidation, and it explains why our memories can change slightly over time. Therefore, it seems we must rely on written history.

However, a corollary that necessarily follows from this observation is to question how confident anyone can feel about receiving an accurate account of past events. For Abidin, he chose to pose the following questions, the strengths of which became increasingly more intensely felt as one progressed through the exhibition:

How can we be sure we know the whole story about past events? How can a writer, an artist or any type of researcher rely on historical data?… What if we wiped out certain parts of history because they made people feel uncomfortable? What if we wiped out history simply to have a fresh start? What if we forgot all the wars we caused, all the people we’ve killed? What if we forgot our beliefs?

Continue reading “‘History Wipes’ – Adel Abidin’s solo retrospective at the Ateneum, Helsinki”