Walthamstow, Women and William Morris: Claire Twomey’s “Living Installation” in East London

I was fortunate to visit the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow (east London) this weekend to view a beautiful art installation by British ceramicist Claire Twomey before this temporary exhibition closed to the general public on 18 September 2016.

Detail from the contemporary ceramic art installation "Claire Twomey: Time Present and Time Past" (2016), nspired by the work of William Morris. Photo: Carol Dixon
Detail from the contemporary ceramic art installation “Claire Twomey: Time Present and Time Past” (2016), inspired by the work of William Morris. Photo: Carol Dixon
Photographic portrait of the artist, graphic designer, philanthropist and social justice campaigner William Morris. The original was taken in the 19th century.
Photographic portrait of the artist, graphic designer, philanthropist and social justice campaigner William Morris –  taken in 1857

The one-room installation – Claire Twomey: Time Present and Time Past (William Morris Gallery, 18 June – 18 September 2016) – was initially inspired by William Morris’s working drawing Chrysanthemum (1877) and took the form of a series of 150 ceramic tiles, each measuring 30 x 30 cm, placed on a large table covering the entire ground floor temporary exhibition gallery next to the museum’s café/restaurant

The enlargement and transformation of Morris’s 19th century floral design into a vast 21st century ceramic installation by Claire Twomey was a visual reflection of a poignant statement about temporality and the importance of tangible, inter-generational acts of cultural remembrance that William Morris wrote more than 120 years ago:

Design for Chrysanthemum (1877) by William Morris. This unfinished design is on display in Gallery 2 at the WMG (Walthamstow) and inspired Claire Twomey's 2016 installation. Photo: Carol Dixon
Design for Chrysanthemum (1877) by William Morris. This unfinished design is on display in Gallery 2 at the William Morris Gallery (Walthamstow) and inspired Claire Twomey’s 2016 installation. Photo: Carol Dixon

“The past is not dead, but is living in us, and will be alive in the future which we are now helping to make.”
William Morris (1893) – quotation taken from the preface to “Medieval Love,” by Bartholomew Anglicus

Rather than painting all the individual tiles independently, the ingenuity of Claire Twomey’s artistic intervention was to make the new installation an entirely collaborative process – from the commissioning of digital technicians and expert tile makers from Stoke-on-Trent in the Potteries to assist with the initial digital transfer techniques onto blank white tiles, right through to extending an open invitation to local artists to volunteer as “apprentices” to help paint each individual tile periodically throughout the duration of the exhibition (over c.100 days) using a combination of regular enamel paints with muted colour tones of sage green, ochre, rusts and greys, and also over-layering thin coats of 22-carat gold enamel paint to create a subtly intricate floral mosaic with a spectacular, shimmering surface lustre. Continue reading Walthamstow, Women and William Morris: Claire Twomey’s “Living Installation” in East London

ECAS: 7th European Conference on African Studies (Basel, 29 June-1 July 2017)

The 7th European Conference on African Studies (ECAS) will be taking place at the University of Basel (Switzerland) from 29th June to 1 July 2017. The theme for this year is “Urban Africa – Urban Africans: New encounters of the rural and the urban,” and I am aware from the preliminary call for panels that there is considerable interest in discussing and addressing issues about how current urbanization trends are impacting societies and individuals in terms of artistic, aesthetic and cultural responses, just as much as the more widely discussed dynamics and precarities of socio-economic, political and environmental change.

sapeurs-congo-brazzaville
Two sartorially elegant men from Congo Brazzaville involved in the lifestyle and performance of “La Sape” / “Sapeur aestheitcs.” Image source: c/o The Telegraph.

This conference is a gift for contemporary cultural geographers from continental Africa and the global African diasporas who wish to actively challenge and push back against the highly contentious and problematic pedagogies associated with so-called “African Studies” within the European academy. Indeed, the conference conveners at the University of Basel (CASB)  have stated the following in their recently issued call for papers, presentations and other contributions:

“The key issue… is how urbanization processes in Africa transform conventional objects of African Studies and how [you/me/we] gear up to face such changes … While the urban will be prominent, the proposed conference theme will also look into the entanglements of the rural with the urban, especially with a view to addressing an implicit assumption underlying the study of Africa and which concerns the supposed rural ‘nature’ of the continent as well as the constitutive nature of the tension between tradition and modernity.”

CASB conference conveners, University of Basel (Switzerland)

Continue reading ECAS: 7th European Conference on African Studies (Basel, 29 June-1 July 2017)

Navigating the Dreams of an Icon: The Cy Grant Archives at the LMA – a new heritage initiative for 2016/17

The Cy Grant Trust – working in partnership with the education charity Windrush Foundation  and London Metropolitan Archives (LMA) – recently received a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) to catalogue the archives of the writer, actor, musician, barrister and equalities campaigner, Cy Grant (1919-2010).

A photograph of RAF Flight Lieutenant Cy Grant.
A photograph of RAF Flight Lieutenant Cy Grant.

Cyril Ewart Lionel Grant (known as ‘Cy’) was born in Guyana in 1919 and served as a Flight Lieutenant and navigator in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War before settling in the UK to train and qualify as a barrister. As a result of the extreme racism encountered in post-war Britain, Cy was unable to pursue his chosen career in the legal sector, so instead sought work in the entertainment industry using his talents as a singer/songwriter, actor and musician – quickly rising to national prominence in the 1950s and 1960s as one of the few people of Caribbean descent to regularly appear on British television at that time. Over several decades Cy Grant made a substantial contribution to the arts and to broadcasting in Britain, always actively supporting fellow diasporan arts practitioners from Africa and the Caribbean to help them secure professional positions and contracts within British theatre, the UK film and music industries, and the wider literary and performing arts arenas. Continue reading Navigating the Dreams of an Icon: The Cy Grant Archives at the LMA – a new heritage initiative for 2016/17

Memory and Museums at “AfroEuropeans V” (University of Münster, Germany)

Earlier in September I was pleased to present a conference paper at AfroEuropeans V: Black Cultures and Identities in Europe (University of Münster, 16-19 September 2015) – the fifth biennial network event exploring socio-political issues and spatialities relating to histories of migration, diaspora formation, economic interdependencies and cultural links between Africa and Europe.

My contribution formed part of a diverse programme of speeches, panel presentations, structured debates and artistic performances that enabled participants to engage in wide-ranging, interdisciplinary dialogues about past and present-day life experiences of Africans and Diasporans in Europe, with a particular focus on the role of activism within academia.

Jamie Schearer (founding member of the European Network for People of African Descent) giving the opening keynote address at the AfroEuropeans V conference. 17 September 2015.
Jamie Schearer (founding member of the European Network for People of African Descent) giving the opening keynote address at the AfroEuropeans V conference. 17 September 2015.

The opening keynote address by political scientist Jamie Schearer (a founding member of the European Network for People of African Descent (ENPAD)) set an optimistic tone for the conference by outlining the many positive and tangible ways ENPAD was initiating effective advocacy and awareness-raising campaigns, publishing educational resources and providing safe spaces for discussing the many complex and challenging issues of race and racism(s) faced by Africans in Europe. Some of the most successful projects recently undertaken in Amsterdam, London, Warsaw and Berlin were foregrounded – including the Black Heritage Amsterdam Tours, the “# Ferguson is Everywhere” campaign, and wider political lobbying related to issues of police violence, racial profiling, and inequalities within systems of justice. Fittingly, we were reminded of key figures in German history and political activism who have made significant contributions to discourses on challenging  racism, xenophobia, stereotyping, anti-blackness, sexism and homophobia – not least the Afro-German poet and educationalist May Ayim (1960-1996), and the African-American writer and rights activist Audre Lorde (1934-1992). Continue reading Memory and Museums at “AfroEuropeans V” (University of Münster, Germany)

El Hadji Sy’s ‘alchemy of assemblages’ at the Weltkulturen Museum in Frankfurt

Bal des nations (2010), by El Hadji Sy. Acrylic and tar on butcher's paper, 130 x 90 cm.
Bal des nations (2010), by El Hadji Sy. Acrylic and tar on butcher’s paper, 130 x 90 cm.

Earlier this month I went to Germany to undertake gallery-based research at the Weltkulturen Museum (Museum of World Cultures) in Frankfurt and spent time reviewing the temporary exhibition, El Hadji Sy: Painting, Performance, Politics (5 March-10 October, 2015).

This detailed retrospective about the life and work of internationally renowned Senegalese artist-curator and activist El Hadji Sy (b. 1954, Dakar) features a series of thematic assemblages comprising carefully selected historical objects from the Weltkulturen Museum’s extensive ethnographic collections juxtaposed with a range of contemporary paintings and installations created by El Hadji Sy and a number of fellow Senegalese artists dating from the early 1970s through to the present day.

Wall painting: Portrait du President (2012), acrylic and tar on butcher's paper, 190 x 200 cm. Floor painting: Le Puits (2014), acrylic and tar on jute sacking, 245 x 280 cm. El Hadji Sy's artworks are displayed with four stools from Papua New Guinea that are part of the Weltkulturen Museum collection.
Wall painting: Portrait du President (2012), acrylic and tar on butcher’s paper, 190 x 200 cm. Floor painting: Le Puits (2014), acrylic and tar on jute sacking, 245 x 280 cm. El Hadji Sy’s artworks are displayed with four stools from Papua New Guinea that are part of the Weltkulturen Museum collection.

El Hadji Sy’s association with the Weltkulturen Museum can be traced back to 1985 when he was first commissioned by the then director of the Museum für Völkerkunde (Museum of Ethnology), Franz Josef Thiel, to curate a collection of contemporary paintings by Senegalese scholars affiliated to fine arts schools such as the École de Dakar, as well as works by self-taught artists. This curatorial activity was later accompanied by a published anthology of contemporary arts practice in Senegal co-edited with German education scholar and art patron Friedrich Axt (Axt and Sy 1989). Their professional partnership, which began when both lived in Dakar, led to a long friendship, transnational correspondences over many decades and numerous collaborations on international arts initiatives that lasted until Axt’s death in 2010.

Presented in 13 rooms over two floors of display space the exhibition is illustrative of  the way El Hadji Sy’s curatorial “alchemy of assemblages” communicate on several discursive levels: as a series of spatial and temporal conversations between the artist and staff at the Weltkulturen Museum; between objects and texts from the past and the present positioned in museum space; between Senegal and Germany at the level of transnational arts policy and exhibiting practices; and between Africa and Europe with regard to globalised, cross-cultural and geopolitical discourses. Continue reading El Hadji Sy’s ‘alchemy of assemblages’ at the Weltkulturen Museum in Frankfurt