David Adjaye: Making Memory at the Design Museum, London

Ghanaian-British architect Sir David Adjaye OBE recently worked with curators at the Design Museum in Kensington, London, to present “David Adjaye: Making Memory” (2 February – 5 May 2019) – an exhibition examining seven projects from his oeuvre that foreground and materialise the important relationships between lived experience, history, memory and memorialisation.

Architectural model of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), designed by Sir David Adjaye OBE, on display at the Design Museum in London. Photo: Carol Dixon

Displayed in the lower-ground floor galleries – within a renovated building that originally housed the nation’s Commonwealth Institute, dating back to 1962 – each section of the exhibition included intricate, centrally placed architectural models of the structures and monuments in focus, accompanied by artworks, building materials, sketchbooks, photographic projections, film clips and other audio-visual presentations communicating the genesis of each design in words, pictures and object assemblages.

Entrance to the Design Museum in Kensington, London. Photo: Carol Dixon.

Importantly, the designs discussed in the first three sections of the exhibition were all set against a subdued black backdrop, with carefully placed spotlights to illuminate the content and encourage focussed contemplation. The atmosphere induced a sense of reverence, solemnity and a desire to show deep respect for the subject matter – especially as these projects addressed difficult, traumatic and tragic histories of enslavement, genocide and the violent suppression of human rights for communities from different time periods and contrasting regions of the world.

Architectural model and photographs of the Gwangju Pavilion, also known as “The Gwangju River Reading Room” (2014), located in South Korea. The building was designed by Sir David Adjaye OBE in collaboration with author Taiye Selasie. Photo: Carol Dixon

The opening room illustrated the development of the Gwangju Pavilion, also known as “The Gwangju River Reading Room” (2014) – a concrete and timber structure built on the banks of the Gwangju River in South Korea. The building was specifically constructed to commemorate the uprising and massacre of 18 May 1980, during which 200 young people were killed by armed forces trying to suppress a pro-democracy student demonstration. Sir David’s company, Adjaye Associates, collaborated with author Taiye Selasie to create a memorial reflective of traditional Korean building design, whilst also adding contemporary features to the “Reading Room” that allowed space for 200 books to be inserted into apertures within the walls and pillars in memory of the students’ lost lives.

Following the Gwangju Pavilion presentation the exhibition divided into two larger gallery spaces – featuring Adjaye Associates’ plans for the UK Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre in Westminster, London, and work completed in 2016 on the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), Washington D.C.

Plans for the UK Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre, Westminster, London. Photo: Carol Dixon

A significant feature of both displays was the inclusion of poetry and famous quotations, providing additional context to the models and narrative descriptions to help visitors reflect on the centuries of oppression, violence, discrimination and struggles to survive experienced by the racial minorities and religious communities remembered and memorialised through these architectural projects. Alongside the proposed designs for the Holocaust Memorial was a famous quote by the Romanian-born Jewish-American novelist, political activist and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Elie Wiesel (1928-2016), which stated:

“The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.
The opposite of beauty is not ugliness, it’s indifference.
The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference.
And the opposite of life is not death, but indifference between life and death.”

Elie Wiesel (1966)
Installation view of the plans for the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), Washington D.C, designed by Adjaye Associates. Photo: Carol Dixon

Similarly, the full-text of the famous Harlem Renaissance poem “I, Too” (1926) by Langston Hughes (1902-1967) was printed in bold white text against the black background and displayed next to the poignant film clips and design descriptions about Adjaye’s work on the NMAAHC:

“I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

Tomorrow,
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
Then.

Besides,
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed.”

Langston Hughes (1926)

The architecture of the Sclera Pavilion (2008), developed by Adjaye Associates in collaboration with London Design Festival and the American Hardwood Export Council (AHEC), was discussed in the fourth section of the display area, using blocks of American tulipwood suspended from the ceiling to replicate the effect of standing inside the original hardwood structure that was displayed near the capital’s Southbank Centre. Photographs of the pavilion also helped to recreate the impression of walking through the vented, circular framework that was themed around the physical characteristics of the eye and the camera lens.

The largest section of the exhibition showcased a large rectangular model of Adjaye’s plans for the National Cathedral of Ghana, currently in development in Accra. Inspired by a variety of traditional sculptures, stone carvings, textiles, craft objects and ceremonial symbols reflecting Ghanaian cultural heritage the planned 5,000-seat auditorium at the centre of the structure is surrounded by a series of outer buildings that will ultimately house a music school, art gallery and Bible museum.

Installation view of the cultural artefacts and architectural models influencing the development of Ghana’s National Cathedral project in Accra, created by Adjaye Associates. Photo: Carol Dixon

Projects six and seven were presented in a brightly-lit, yellow gallery space and discussed two important commemorative projects designed in collaboration with environmental campaigners and rights activists working to bring about positive global changes from cultural, political and ethical standpoints inspired by the past – namely, the Mass Extinction Memorial Observatory (MEMO) in Dorset, designed in association with the Eden Project; and the Coretta Scott King and Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Project for Boston Common, USA, developed in partnership with Future/Pace and African-American conceptual artist and activist Adam Pendleton.

Installation view of the display about the Mass Extinction Memorial Observatory (MEMO) Project, Portland, UK, designed by Adjaye Associates in partnership with the Eden Project and local authorities in Dorset. Photo: Carol Dixon

Plans, sketches and models for the MEMO Memorial Project were first developed by Adjaye Associates in the early 2010s and featured a spiral-shaped stone structure commemorating the nation’s lost and threatened species of flora and fauna. Following several revisions to transform the project into one more closely themed around supporting biodiversity, the re-designed MEMO is currently under construction in Portland along England’s World Heritage Jurassic Coast and will open to the public in 2020.

Sir David Adjaye and Adam Pendleton’s designs for the King Memorial in Boston were inspired by the couple’s civil rights activism and framed around quotations from famous speeches presented in the 1960s – most notably the poignant text of MLK’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, which was delivered at the Bishop Charles Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee, on 3 April 1968 – one day before he was assassinated.

Text from Martin Luther King Jr’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech (3 April 1968), displayed at the Design Museum to illustrate the typography featured in the King Memorial Project for Boston Common. Photo: Carol Dixon

In addition to the incorporation of typography from the original speech featured as digital and carved text on the wall displays, the exhibition also included an audio recording of the sermon and accompanying archival photographs of the Civil Rights Movement in the USA. For both Adjaye and Pendleton it was very important that this contemporary memorial referenced the current and ongoing struggles of the Black Lives Matter campaign just as much as it commemorated the brave and stalwart actions of the past.

Photograph of protesters from the Civil Rights March on Washington for Justice and Freedom (1963). The typography of the placards in these images inspired the text-based designs incorporated into the Boston Memorial Project.

Further information about the exhibition, “David Adjaye: Making Memory,” is available on the Design Museum’s website and extracts from Sir David Adjaye’s interview with museum director Deyan Sudjic can be viewed online via Vimeo.

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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”

Eugene Palmer: New Paintings

It was a pleasure to visit the James Hockey and Foyer Galleries at the University for the Creative Arts, Farnham, to view a solo exhibition of new paintings by the Jamaican-British contemporary figurative artist Eugene Palmer.

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Entrance to the exhibition “Didn’t it Rain,” displayed at the James Hockey and Foyer Galleries, UCA, Farnham (27 January – 24 March 2018).

Curated by Richard Hylton, the exhibition “Eugene Palmer: Didn’t it Rain: New Paintings” (27 January – 24 March 2018) was divided into the following three series, and also featured a short documentary film showing the artist at work in his studio discussing the development of his portfolio:

(1) “In Between Black and White” was displayed at the main entrance to the gallery and comprised ten close-up portraits of a young black woman. Each one showed different variations in skin tone, either painted in shades of grey, or in full colour. This process of producing nearly identical, repeated portraits, displayed as multiples, is one of the artist’s signature techniques. Collectively, the images encouraged viewers to contemplate issues of race, constructions of identity, the politics of beauty considered in relation to ethnicity and skin tone, and importantly also the complexities of ‘colourism’ – particularly as regards the problematic history of European artists creating stereotyped representations of black women within Western portraiture over many centuries.

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“In Between Black and White” (2018) by Eugene Palmer. Photo: Carol Dixon

(2) “Baby Shower,” shown in the foyer area of the University’s library, comprised 12 sketches painted in oil on paper, each representing attendees at a real-life gathering of family and friends to celebrate the forthcoming arrival of a new baby girl.

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Sketches from the series “Baby Shower” (2017/18) by Eugene Palmer, displayed in the library at the University for the Creative Arts, Farnham. Photo: Carol Dixon

(3) “Didn’t it Rain” was displayed in the main gallery and showcased ten, larger than life-sized portraits of black women dressed in smart, monochrome skirt suits with matching hats. These works  were arranged in pairs, with each figure painted against a neutral background of either light blue, green, yellow, pink, grey or white.

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Black II (yellow), Black III (pink) and Black IV (blue) from the series “Didn’t it Rain” by Eugene Palmer. Photo: Carol Dixon.

Continue reading “Eugene Palmer: New Paintings”

Review of the 2017 edition of the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair in London

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A sculptural installation and photographic print from the series “The Purple Shall Govern” (2013) and the more recent performance installation “Wielding the Collision of Past, Present and Future” (2017), by South African artist Mary Sibande. Photo: Carol Dixon.

The 2017 edition of the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair took place at Somerset House in London, between Thursday 5th and Sunday 8th October. Now in its fifth year, the event featured contributions by more than 130 artists from continental Africa and the global African diasporas, presented alongside a programme of stimulating talks and panel discussions led by arts scholars, curators, gallerists and cultural commentators drawn from around the world.

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“Wielding the Collision of Past, Present and Future” (2017) – detail from a digital print illustrating a performance installation by South African conceptual artist Mary Sibande (b. 1982, Barberton, SA). Photo: Carol Dixon.

Building on the successes of previous editions of 1:54, shown in London, New York and Morocco since 2013, this edition provided access to a broad range of new works by established artists and emerging new talent from 17 nations – including notable contributions from the celebrated painter and collagist Godfried Donkor from Ghana; textile artist and mixed media installationist Safaa Erruas from Morocco; metalwork sculptor and anti-war activist Gonçalo Mabunda from Mozambique; and the internationally renowned textile sculptor Abdoulaye Konaté from Mali, most well-known for creating breath-taking, large-scale ‘offrandes’ out of delicate fragments of fabric stitched together to create multicoloured fine art tapestries.

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Summer Surprise (2017) by Pascale Marthine Tayou, displayed in the Edmond J. Safra Fountain Court at Somerset House as a commissioned installation for the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair in London. Photo: Carol Dixon.

In a similar way to the impression Zak Ove’s commissioned installation piece “Black and Blue: The Invisible Man and the Masque of Blackness” (2016) created a visually arresting centre-piece for the courtyard at Somerset House last year, the major architectural installation shown in the Fountain Court was “Summer Surprise” (2017) by Pascale Marthine Tayou from Cameroon. This vast, wooden-framed structure is described by the artist as referencing and symbolising the function of a”Toguna” – a traditional public building native to Mali, built for the purpose of discussing community and constitutional issues, and usually located at the heart of village life to enable it to serve as a key meeting point for debate and intellectual exchange.

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Portrait of London grime artist and MC, Olushola Ajose (aka Afrikan Boy) , by Hassan Hajjaj, presented as part of the three-room installation “La Caravane” (2017) at Somerset House. Photo: Carol Dixon.

An important feature of this year’s fair was the interactive installation created by Morocco-born, UK-based artist Hassan Hajjaj, displayed in three rooms adjacent to the terrace on the ground floor at Somerset House. Titled “La Caravane” (2017), this work featured a series of large, full-colour photographic portraits and also a sequence of videos presented as interactive portraits along the length of the central gallery, showing musicians, dancers, singers and poets dressed in colourful outfits and performing extracts of their work in studio settings framed by customised textiles and soft furnishings. This central gallery was also designed as an auditorium, where visitors could sit and listen to the performances as though they were sitting in a Moroccan tea room being entertained by live artists. Continue reading “Review of the 2017 edition of the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair in London”