1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair, London, October 2019

The theme for the 1:54 FORUM accompanying the seventh London edition of the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair (Somerset House, 3-6 October 2019) was “Looking Back and Moving Forward” – titled to pay tribute to the life and legacy of the late Nigerian curator and arts scholar Olabisi (“Bisi”) Silva (1962-2019), founder of the Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA) Lagos.

Detail from “Victimized and Silent” (2019) by Nelsa (“Nelly”) Guambe (b. 1987, Chicuque, Mozambique). Collage on canvas, 1840 x 2750 mm. Nelly’s portraits often depict aspects of femininity and regularly challenge negative representations of the black female body within Western colonialist art history. Photo: Carol Dixon.

Many of the artists, historians and curators contributing to the discussion panels, practitioners’ talks and scholarly presentations over the course of the four-day programme reflected on issues that were central to Bisi’s own scholarship and activism, foregrounding the importance of archival research and archiving as a process within contemporary arts practice, innovative approaches to arts education (as exemplified via the celebrated “Àsìkò” Pan-African arts initiative) and the need to continually raise the profile of women artists from continental Africa and the global African diaspora within the art world.

Detail from the series “In the Midst of Chaos There is Also Opportunity” (2017) by South African artist Mary Sibande. The “Red Figure” at the centre of the installation is a representation of the artist’s alter ego, Sophie, who symbolises the healing power of a priestess who continues to offer protection against the negative forces of her nation’s troubled past during South Africa’s post-apartheid era.

Similarly to the 1:54 FORUM, the art fair’s exhibition spaces at Somerset House gave prominence to established women artists in its free-to-view galleries – including a stunning presentation of recent sculptural installations and photographic stills of performances created by Johannesburg-based contemporary artist Mary Sibande (b. 1982, Barberton, South Africa), titled “I Came Apart at the Seams” and shown throughout the Terrace Rooms near the main entrance.

Sculptural installation “A Reversed Retrogress” (2013), by South African artist Mary Sibande featured in the exhibition “I Came Apart at the Seams,” displayed at Somerset House, London. Materials: fibreglass, resin, fabric and steel. Photo: Carol Dixon.

The Lower Ground Floor galleries also displayed a series of thought-provoking, environment-themed photographs from Ethiopian contemporary artist Aida Muluneh’s recent project “Water Life” (2019). Commissioned by the charity WaterAid, and supported by the H&M Foundation, the exhibition comprised 12 photographic tableaux, set in the arid landscapes of north-east Ethiopia, staged to spotlight the harsh realities of water scarcity and its particular impacts on the lives of women throughout the African continent.

A photograph from the series “Water Life” (2019) by Ethiopian artist Aida Muluneh, displayed at Somerset House, London, 24 September – 20 October 2019.

The vibrant primary colours of the garments and face-paints used in the styling for these tableaux – further reinforced via the use of bright yellow on the gallery walls – contrasted markedly with the aridity of the featured physical landscapes.

Exhibition view of eight photographic images from the series “Water Life” (2019) by Ethiopian artist Aida Muluneh, displayed at Somerset House, London, 24 September – 20 October 2019.

The 2019 edition of the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair in London brought together 45 galleries representing more than 140 artists from Africa and the global African diaspora. This year’s commissioned Fountain Court installation was titled “Fortress” by Kiluanji Kia Henda (b. 1979, Luanda, Angola) and was part of his series of architectural structures – “A City Called Mirage” (2014-) – designed to provoke questions about the changing nature of life in cities.

“Fortress” by Angolan artist Kiluanji Kia Henda, displayed in the Fountain Court at Somerset House as the sculptural commission for the seventh edition of the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair in London. Photo: Carol Dixon.

In keeping with the tribute to Bisi Silva, there were a number of recently created artworks by artists from Nigeria and the Nigerian diaspora – including intricately woven, wall-mounted pieces by textile artist Nnenna Okore, displayed by the Frankfurt-based gallery SAKHILE&ME, through to new sculptures by Niyi Olagunju and Victor Ekpuk presented in TAFETA Gallery’s exhibition area.

“Woman in the Mirror” (2019) by Victor Ekpuk. Powder coated steel, 71 × 91 × 15 cm. Displayed by TAFETA Gallery at 1:54 in London, Somerset House. Photo: Carol Dixon.

Sculptures by Yinka Shonibare CBE (RA) also featured prominently in the section curated by James Cohan Gallery – specifically foregrounding a case of c.225 books covered in Shonibare’s signature Dutch wax printed cotton textiles and embossed with gold lettering taken from a section of his installation “The American Library Collection (Female Philanthropists)” (2019), as well as his classsically-themed, figural sculpture of a woman with a globe head, “Aphrodite Kallipygos” (2019) – which loosely translates as “Aphrodite of the beautiful buttocks.”

“Aphrodite Kallipygos” (2019) by Yinka Shonibare CBE (RA). Unique fibreglass sculpture, hand-painted with Dutch wax pattern, bespoke hand-coloured globe and steel baseplate. Dimensions: 138.4 x 51 x 38 cm. Photo: Carol Dixon.

Among my personal highlights were the selection of wall-mounted offrandes de couleurs (“offerings” made from delicate fragments of coloured fabric) by the internationally renowned textile artist Abdoulaye Konaté (b. 1953, Diré, Mali) – including his stunning composition in black and red, “Gouttes Rouges” (2019).

“Gouttes Rouges” (2019) by Malian artist Abdoulaye Konaté. Textiles, 350 x 216 cm, presented by Primo Marella Gallery (Milan) as part of the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair in London. Photo: Carol Dixon.

Group portraits by the Addis Ababa-based painter Tadesse Mesfin (b. 1953, Weldia, Ethiopia) also caught my eye and held my attention because of the artist’s subtle use of a muted colour palette to create beautifully rendered street scenes, as exemplified in the artworks “Pillars of Life: Gathering” (2019) and “Pillars of Life: Guleet II” (2019), photographed below.

Detail from the painting “Pillars of Life: Guleet II” (2019) by Ethiopian artist Tadesse Mesfin. Oil on canvas. Dimensions: 150 x 110 cm. Photo: Carol Dixon.

Among the many artists whose works were completely unfamiliar to me, but which left a very positive impression, were the Tunisian artist and scholar Sonia Kallel (b. 1973, Tunis), South African mixed-media artist Bev Butkow (b. 1967, Johannesburg) and Senegalese painter Ibrahima Dieye (b. 1988, Dakar).

“La Pièce” (2018) by Tunisian artist Sonia Kallel. Perforated paper, 900 x 113 cm. Displayed by AGorgi Gallery, Tunis, at the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair, London. Photo: Carol Dixon.

For example, Sonia Kallel’s large-scale – yet extremely delicate – perforated paper sculpture “La Pièce” (2018) was presented by AGorgi Gallery, Tunis, and reflected a fine art practice steeped in the arts and crafts heritage of the artist’s home nation. During recent discussions about her quasi-anthropological and trans-disciplinary approach to artistic research and creative production she remarked:

“Working digitally is not only an aesthetic need, it is a language of the present, it offers multiple and infinite possibilities … The question of cultural heritage is essential to me. We are experiencing the loss of knowledge, of historical places … much is disappearing and getting lost … Digital technology allows us to transcribe and transpose data, to develop, to dream … I am interested in the transition from know-how, such as the hand becomes the machine and what happens when I repeat the same gestures digitally.”

Sonia Kallel, interviewed by Aymen Gharbi (2017) for COLLUMINA
A series of mixed media collages by South African artist Bev Butkow, featuring woven dishcloths with beads on printed canvases. Approx dimensions, 50 x 50 cm (each). Photo: Carol Dixon.

Johannesburg-born artist Bev Butkow typically creates mixed media artworks from socially encoded materials, such as dishcloths. Her intricately woven, stitched and enmeshed sculptures and collages are designed to symbolise the artist’s reflections on the gendered labour of women and its invisibility within contemporary society. 1:54’s interpretation literature published about Bev Butkow’s oeuvre stated that she takes a “trans-disciplinary approach to painting, weaving, personal narrative, storytelling and feminist theoretical practices aimed at dissolving the traditional boundaries of genre and knowledge generation.”

Detail from the artwork “Not For Sale #1” (2019) by Ibrahima Dieye (b. 1988, Dakar, Senegal). Mixed media on canvas, 200 x 200 cm. Photo: Carol Dixon.

A selection of large-scale paintings and collages by Senegalese artist Ibrahima Dieye was presented by Galerie Cecile Fakhoury and reflected the artist’s interest in representing urban fables, mythical narratives and dramatic stories inspired by a multitude of cultures. The complex amalgamation of hybrid animal-human characters, recurring motifs and other mysterious symbolic figures was illustrative of Ibrahima’s uniquely “poetic, yet ironic gaze on contemporary society,” as shown (above) in the intriguing composition “Not for Sale #1” (2019).

“HT053” (2018) by Ghizlane Sahli (b. 1973, Meknes, Morocco). Silk, plastic bottles, wood and wire. Photo: Carol Dixon.

It was wonderful to view such a broad display of contemporary visual art by both established and emerging artists with links to continental Africa and its global diaspora(s). And, whilst I recognize that a day-ticket price of £25 puts this art fair out of reach for many communities and groups of art enthusiasts, I remain extremely grateful that a large-scale showcase such as 1:54 has now become an annual feature of Somerset House’s events calendar to coincide with Frieze London and other important art fairs in the capital’s cultural programme.

Untitled photograph from the series “Faith” (2015-2019) by Mozambiquan artist Mario Macilau (b. 1984, Maputo), displayed by Ed Cross Fine Art at the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair, London.

For further details about the artists, curators, galleries and other participants contributing to this edition of the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair, access to the virtual tour of Somerset House and archived information about past showcases, please visit the website http://1-54.com/.

“Golden Horde, 5” (2006) by Hew Locke (b. 1959, Edinburgh). Mixed media sculptural installation exploring the codes of colonial and post colonial power through the use of weaponry, costumes, gilt gold and silver chains and trophies. Photo: Carol Dixon.
Advertisements

Frank Bowling: The Possibilities of Paint are Never-Ending

How fitting that Tate Britain’s first solo retrospective about the 60-year career of Guyanese-British painter Frank Bowling, OBE, RA (b. Bartica, 1934) should be titled and themed around his own words:

“The possibilities of paint are never-ending”
– Frank Bowling, 2017

Detail from one of Frank Bowling’s map paintings from the late-1960s featured in Room 3 of the Tate Britain retrospective. Photo: Carol Dixon.

This long-awaited exhibition was presented over nine rooms at the Millbank site in London, 31 May – 26 August 2019, each section providing insights into the aesthetic qualities of his oeuvre and the range of techniques and influences informing in his creative practice spanning the decades since his graduation from the Royal College of Art, London, in the early 1960s.

Given the longevity, excellence and international renown associated with Bowling’s outstanding career, one might have expected this type of exhibition to have taken place long before now for an artist who migrated to the UK from Guyana (formerly “British Guiana”) 13 years prior to its independence and who has spent most of his life living and working in London where he resides to this day. Regrettably, however, those who have known about and followed his achievements for a long time recognise the impacts of both overt and covert forms of racism within the Western-dominated art world – that have, without doubt, hindered and deferred the rightful accolades he has (belatedly) received in the UK during the 21st century: becoming the first British artist of African descent to be elected a Royal Academician in 2005 (at 71 years), and later receiving an OBE in 2008.

“Ziff” (1974), by Frank Bowling. Acrylic on canvas. Photo: Carol Dixon.

Room 1 presented paintings from his early years in Guyana, which were heavily influenced by the socio-political issues of the late-1940s and 1950s – not only in relation to the islands and nations of the circum-Caribbean region, but also world-wide. For Bowling, his arrival in Britain in 1953 was followed by service in the Royal Air Force in the years prior to pursuing his artistic studies (1959-1962) alongside peers such as David Hockney and R. B. Kitaj. Several of the featured works illustrated his early interests in geometry, often juxtaposed with pictorial references to recurring themes such as the dying swan.

“Swan” (1964), by Frank Bowling. Oil on canvas. Photo: Carol Dixon.

The second room featured artworks from the early 1960s, that included paintings completed during his years studying at the Royal College of Art in London and throughout his time spent tutoring part-time at Camberwell School of Art prior to relocating to New York in 1966.

As a cultural geographer, I appreciated the strong emphasis on Frank Bowling’s numerous “Map Paintings,” displayed in Room 3, which signified a shift away from figurative representations of the human body and animals towards the use of stenciled images of the South American continent as well as the Guyanese coastline and other cartographic features throughout the Americas, thus exemplifying how identities – particularly the experiences of Caribbean diasporans around the world – are shaped by geo-politics, histories of migration, displacement and the legacies of imperialism.

“South America Squared” (1967), by Frank Bowling. Photo: Carol Dixon.

Bowling’s “Poured Paintings” were presented in Room 4, representing the period during the 1970s when the artist created a tilting platform in his New York and London studios to allow him to experiment with pouring paint onto canvases from a height of two metres. The curators characterised this time period and series of works as an expression of Bowling’s interest in “the tensions between a structured approach to painting and accidental developments.”

I couldn’t help comparing the dynamism and vibrancy of this work from the 1970s with Jackson Pollock’s celebrated portfolio of ‘drip paintings’ and earlier compositions made using poured acrylics during the 1940s, in addition to more recent pouring techniques used by British contemporary artist Damien Hirst to create some of his famous ‘spin-art paintings’ in the mid-1990s. However, it is notable that Bowling’s name seldom appears in listings of high-profile, internationally acclaimed artists known for their innovative use of these types of techniques.

The fifth of the themed galleries was titled “Cosmic Space” and included works such as “Moby Dick” (1981), shown below. Here, the interpretation literature mentioned Bowling’s increasing use of pearlessence and hand-painted splotches to create spectacular marbling effects that were likened to “atmospheric impressions of skies, visions of the cosmos, or alchemical transformations.”

“Moby Dick” (1981) by Frank Bowling. Acrylic paint on canvas. Photo: Carol Dixon.

By Room 6 – titled, “More Land Than Landscape,” in reference to a description of Bowling’s work by the painter Dennis de Caires in the mid-1980s – attention turned to the artist’s use of acrylic gel to create impasto works that extended out from his canvases like three-dimensional sculptures more-so than two-dimensional paintings, thus blurring the boundaries between the respective artistic traditions. At this time, Frank Bowling also began to incorporate metallic pigments, fluorescent chalk, glitter and small found objects into his compositions to give the pieces greater complexity.

“Wintergreens” (1986) by Frank Bowling. Acrylic paint, acrylic gel, acrylic foam and other materials on canvas. Photo: Carol Dixon.

The exhibition concluded with a selection of Frank Bowling’s most recent artworks – presented in galleries titled “Water and Light”, “Layering and Stitching” and “Explosive Experimentation.” Each of these sections represented the artist’s desire to keep innovating – whether this was achieved through his ongoing ambition to capture the natural light he had often seen along the Guyanese coast-scapes during his youth and reflect this through his painting, or by continually experimenting with stitching, stapling and glueing techniques to join together several canvases at a time and create increasingly undefinable, genre-breaking works.

“Wafting” (2018), by Frank Bowling. Acrylic, paint and fabric on canvas. Photo: Carol Dixon.

Additionally, the incorporation of this multiplicity of different techniques within his most recent compositions – ranging from poured and blotch-based painting styles through to his varied use of stenciled applications, acrylic gels, textiles and other materials – added completely new dimensions to previously established practices, thus presenting fresh perspectives on fluidity and flow within each individual artwork.

Detail from the portrait “Artist Frank Bowling,” by Tedi Lena. This artwork was displayed at the National Portrait Gallery, London, as part of the 2019 BP Portrait Awards. Photo: Carol Dixon.

I was delighted to have seen this exhibition during the final two weeks of its run, as the galleries at Tate Britain were not too crowded and this provided opportunities to contemplate each of the artworks and the thematic assemblages within the nine rooms at an unhurried pace.

A view inside the themed galleries showcasing Frank Bowling’s paintings at Tate Britain, August 2019. Photo: Carol Dixon.

Although this major solo retrospective was presented somewhat late in the day for an artist who has always deserved far more (and much earlier) attention and accolades from the most important art institutions within the nation he has made his home, I was nevertheless very pleased to see Frank Bowling’s portfolio given this scale of exposition, which was certainly warranted for an artistic career comprising seven decades of consistently stellar achievements.

Carol Ann Dixon at the entrance to Tate Britain’s Frank Bowling solo retrospective, August 2019. Photo: Donalea Scott.

A full-colour catalogue of the exhibition, edited by Elena Crippa (Curator of Modern and Contemporary British Art at Tate), is available from Tate Britain.

Further details about the artist and his oeuvre can also be viewed online at the following links:

Get Up, Stand Up Now: Generations of Black Creative Pioneers

Zak Ové’s curation of the group exhibition Get Up, Stand Up Now (Somerset House, London, 12 June – 15 September 2019) foregrounds and celebrates the work of more than 100 artists from Africa, the Caribbean region, the African Diaspora in Britain and throughout the wider world who have made significant contributions to the UK’s cultural landscape in the decades since the Second World War.

Entrance to the exhibition Get Up, Stand Up Now, displayed in the West Wing of Somerset House, London (12 June-15 Sept. 2019). Photo: Carol Dixon.

As the exhibition’s sub-title suggests, its showcase pays tribute to generations of black creative pioneers whose artworks have served to voice, visualise and reflect the complexities, political dynamics, pleasures and challenges of black lived experiences in Britain throughout the modern and contemporary eras of the 20th and 21st centuries, as expressed through painting, sculpture, photography, film, music, literature, architecture, artefact assemblages, fashion and design.

“Veni, Vidi, Vici” (2004) by Hew Locke, displayed at the entrance to the exhibition Get Up, Stand Up Now. Materials: Textiles, plastic and artificial hair stapled on plywood. 214 x 244 cm. Photo: Carol Dixon.

Arranged into thematic sections, the artworks and archival exhibits were presented in 15 rooms and corridor display areas along the full length of Somerset House’s ground floor West Wing, with different colour-coded interpretation panels and 1970s-style decorative wall and floor designs signifying the transitions between each of the following five “chapters”:
* (1) Motherland – a selection of works about anti-racist resistance and resilience: from the modernist wooden sculpture “Male Standing Figure, The Priest” (1939) by Ronald Moody and the portrait of “Loretta” (2006) by Franklyn Rodgers, through to Richard Mark Rawlins’ digital photo of a clenched fist in a tea cup, “Empowerment” (2018) from his series I AM SUGAR, illustrating a quote from the essay “Old and New Identities, Old and New Ethnicities” (1991) by Jamaican-British cultural studies scholar Stuart Hall (1932-2014).

Installation view of the “Motherland” chapter within the exhibition Get Up, Stand Up Now. The central image is a photographic portrait of the artist’s mother Loretta (2006) by Franklyn Rodgers (b. 1963, London, UK). Photo: Carol Dixon.

* (2) Dream to Change the World – two large galleries filled with politically aesthetic sculptural installations, artefacts, publications and archival materials providing commentaries on anti-racist campaign activities and struggles for civil and human rights spanning many decades. The poem “Ark” by Jay Bernard (a former writer-in-residence at the George Padmore Institute, London) was prominently displayed at the entrance to this section to testify to the material fragility of archives, as well as the challenges of memorialising difficult and traumatic histories (https://jaybernard.co.uk/).

Installation view of Revolutionary Kid (Calf, 2012) by Yinka Shonibare CBE, with the mixed-media artwork “Woke” (2016) by Sanford Biggers in the rear ground, on display as part of the exhibition Get Up, Stand Up Now, Somerset House, London. Photo: Carol Dixon.

* (3) Masquerade – four rooms addressing the historical origins, symbolism and legacies of carnival in the Caribbean and also in the UK. Ishmahil Blagrove Jr’s installation Carnival Trolley commemorating the founding of London’s Notting Hill Carnival was a focal exhibit within this section.

Ishmahil Blagrove Jr’s installation “Carnival Trolley,” displayed in the Masquerade chapter of the exhibition Get Up, Stand Up Now. Photo: Carol Dixon.
  • (4) Imaginary Landscapes – featuring works by Lubaina Himid, Cosmo Whyte, Carrie Mae Weems and Che Lovelace that each addressed issues of migration and the many geographical, cultural and psycho-social borders and barriers that have to be negotiated during this process of transition.
“The Enigma of Arrival in 4 Sections. Section 1: Guess Who is Coming to Dinner” (2017) by Jamaican artist Cosmo Whyte. Mussel shells and life vests on a shipping pallet, 168 x 91 x 30.5 cm. Photo: Carol Dixon.

* (5) Mothership – the concluding section of the exhibition examining the influence of Afrofuturism within the work of artists such as GAIKA, Rashid Johnson and fashion designer Mowalola.

Photograph of the Trinidadian-British photographer and filmmaker Horace Ové (b. 1939, Port of Spain, Trinidad), taken in the 1970s and displayed in the exhibition Get Up, Stand Up Now.

An overarching theme within the curatorial narrative was a personal and artistic tribute to Zak Ové’s father – internationally renowned photographer and filmmaker Horace Ové (b. 1939, Port-of-Spain, Trinidad) – whose works were included alongside contributions from the oeuvres of his artistic predecessors, peers and successors. What united all the featured artists was their inputs within an ever-expanding corpus of outstanding and trailblazing creative practices that have influenced – and continue to positively impact – British cultural life, whilst also producing ripple effects that have helped to transform and diversify the international art canon.

“Afro Lunar Lovers” (2003) by Chris Ofili. Giclée print with embossing and hand-applied gold leaf. 49 x 32 cm. Photo: Carol Dixon.

Although my primary catalyst for seeing this exhibition was to review Zak Ové’s selection of paintings, sculptures and photographic works by established and emerging visual artists from Africa, the Caribbean and the global African diaspora, I was equally inspired by the inclusion of literary texts, archival documents, films, video installations and musical soundscapes within each chapter that complemented and contextualised the more traditional fine art pieces.

A still taken from the film-based artwork “Neneh Cherry, Kong” (2018 by Jenn Nkiru.
Photo: Carol Dixon.

A particular strength of Get Up, Stand Up Now was the volume and quality of documentary photographs and film excerpts chronicling black British life throughout the post-war period – with street-based images and group portraits by Armet Francis, Dr Vanley Burke, Charlie Phillips, Neil Kenlock and Horace Ové from the 1960s and 1970s displayed alongside more recent, 21st century photographic and video-based works created in the 2000s and 2010s by (amongst others) Ajamu, Jenn Nkiru, Cooly G and Phoebe Boswell.

Still from the three-channel video, “I Need to Believe the World is Still Beautiful” (2018) by Phoebe Boswell. This work is concerned with the agency of the female nude and the de-centering of the dominant white, male gaze within the visual arts.

Additional photographic installations and video art by influential African American contemporary conceptual artists such as Carrie Mae Weems and Hank Willis Thomas added further poignancy to the assemblages and helped to show the historical, socio-political and aesthetic connections and resonances within and between the portfolios of artists of African descent who identify as part of a wider, Black Atlantic diaspora.

Models Dennis Okwera and Wilson Oryema dressed in items from the fashion collection “Malik” by the British designer Grace Wales Bonner. The photograph was taken for the inaugural issue of Luncheon Magazine, 2016. Image credit: Lord Snowden.

Given that artworks by women artists of any ethnic background rarely cover more than 10% of the floor and wall space within mainstream European art institutions, it was encouraging to observe that women of colour represented almost a third of the individual contributors and collectives shown in this group exhibition. A balance of 50:50 would have been the ideal ratio, but c.30% representation by women artists was still far better than the disproportions that have persisted as a problematic norm.

Detail from a portrait of the artist Lynette Yiadom-Boakye (2017) by Hassan Hajjaj, which is part of his “My Rockstars” series. Moroccan-born artist Hajjaj was first introduced to photography by Horace Ové in the 1980s. His portraits regularly feature sitters who have been transformed through the use of intricately layered fashion accessories and bright textiles, created in tribute to the past masters of studio photography from the African continent.

Important works by LGBTQI+ artists and arts activists of colour also featured prominently in the selection – with Campbell Addy’s “Engender” (2019) and Ajamu’s “Body Builder in Bra” (1993) standing out as notable highlights.

Photographic art by Ajamu, co-founder of the Black LGBTQ Archive, rukus! (est. 2000).

Archival documentation loaned by heritage organisations such as Autograph (at Rivington Place), Black Cultural Archives, George Padmore Institute and Friends of the Huntley Archives at the London Metropolitan Archives (FHALMA) helped to align the exhibition’s artistic, literary and audio-visual content to important, pioneering, art-political campaigns, exhibitions and interventions by national and regional activist groups – from the Caribbean Artists’ Movement (CAM) of the 1960s and early ’70s, the BLK Art Group (Pan-Afrikan Connection) founded in Wolverhampton in the 1980s and the Black Audio Film Collective (1982-1998) based in Portsmouth and later east London, through to the more recent research network Thick/er Black Lines established in the capital in 2017.

Archival documents, magazines and photographs displayed in a vitrine as part of the exhibition Get Up, Stand Up Now. Photo: Carol Dixon.

An alcove at the end of the West Wing was transformed into a stunning, site-specific installation by Nigerian artist Victor Ekpuk – titled as a“Temple of Learning”/”Shrine to Wisdom” (2019). Within this space, the artist painted an intricate matrix of white, glyph-based symbols inspired by Nsibidi writing systems from south-east Nigeria onto blue and red surfaces to create an immersive, contemplative reading space for visitors.

Carol Ann Dixon seated in the exhibition’s “Temple of Learning“/“Shrine to Wisdom” (2019)
– a site-specific, immersive installation created by Nigerian artist Victor Ekpuk.

Get Up, Stand Up Now is, by far, the most thought-provoking and awe-inspiring exhibition I have seen this year, largely because of the sheer volume and depth of archival research integrated into the object assemblages, interpretation literature and audio-visual narratives.

Installation view showing the painting “Carib Ritual IV” (1973) by Aubrey Williams on the left and a “Soundsuit” sculpture by Nick Cave on the right. Photo: Carol Dixon.

I commend Zak Ové and his network of contributors for working in partnership with Somerset House to display this diverse body of work in a mainstream, central London arts venue – as black British, African and Caribbean diaspora art histories have all too often tended to be marginalised and displaced to the peripheries of social and cultural life in the UK instead of being rightfully centralised and acknowledged as core to the nation’s sense of collective, multicultural identity.

Installation view of the exhibition’s Mothership-themed room, showing the mixed-media sculptural installation “Umbilical Progenitor” (2018) by Zak Ové in the foreground and “Falling Man” (2017) by Rashid Johnson on the right. Photo: Carol Dixon.

Get Up, Stand Up Now continues at Somerset House through to 15 September 2019. A 160-page, full-colour catalogue (ISBN: 978 1-9996154-4-4) has also been published to accompany the exhibition, with introductory texts by Zak Ové, Jonathan Reekie and Ceri Hand, as well as essays and other contributions by David A Bailey MBE, Margaret Busby, June Givanni, Vivien Goldman, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Errol Lloyd, Sharmaine Lovegrove and Caryl Phillips.

“Crimson and Black” (2019) by LR Vandy. Fibre glass, wood and plastic. Dimensions: 90 x 35 x 20 cm. Photo: Carol Dixon.

Web links and further information:

Zak Ove’s biography and listing of key art works on the Vigo Gallery website – http://www.vigogallery.com/

Exhibition information for Get Up, Stand Up Now on the Somerset House website – https://www.somersethouse.org.uk/whats-on/get-up-stand-up-now

Black In/visibilities Contested – Conference Review, Lisbon, July 2019

“Black In/visibilities Contested” was the title of the 7th Biennial Afroeuropeans Network Conference, held at the ISCTE-IUL (Instituto Universitário de Lisboa), University of Lisbon, Portugal, 4-6th July 2019.

In keeping with previous gatherings, this transdisciplinary event provided a forum for knowledge exchange and critical dialogues pertaining to the histories, lived experiences, cultural geographies, political activism and diasporic identities of African-descended people in Europe.

Over the course of three days the schedule featured two keynote presentations, 32 panel sessions, six poster presentations, a cultural programme of film screenings and artistic performances, and a concluding round-table discussion through which delegates were able to engage with the conference’s six sub-themes:

  • Black Europe and its Intersections
  • Afroeuropeans in the Arts and the Mediasphere
  • Activisms, Resistances and Public Policy in Late Capitalist Europe
  • Black Cities: Public Space, Racism, Urban Cultures and Segregation
  • Decolonising Knowledge on Black Europe, African Diaspora and Africa
  • Theorizing Blackness and Racial Europe.

Conference Keynotes

The opening keynote – “Hidden in Plain Sight: Institutional Racism, Cultural Resistance and Knowledge Production in Black Europe” – was presented by sociologist Stephen Small (Professor of African American Studies, University of California, Berkeley). His wide-ranging survey of the history of racism and anti-racism throughout the continent spanning several centuries commenced with information about the legacies of Portugal’s imperialist past, which continues to be celebrated via valorisations of Vasco da Gama and other key figures in the nation’s maritime history, the promotion of architectural structures such as the Padrão dos Descobrimentos [Monument to the Discoveries] on Lisbon’s tourist trail, and the enduring myth of “Luso-tropicalism” in relation to Portuguese enslavement histories and colonialism.

A central focus of the keynote was to foreground the many and various acts of individual and collective resistance that have always characterised African-descended people’s diverse responses to the strident imperialism of European nations – citing examples, from the successful anti-slavery rebellions of the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804), through to the anti-colonial struggles for independence in the 20th century led by figures such as Amilcar Cabral (1924-1973) of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde.

Stephen Small’s analysis was summarised according to the following four “striking similarities” he had observed and examined when undertaking research for his monograph, 20 Questions and Answers on Black Europe (Amrit Publishers, The Hague, Netherlands, 2018): (1) The ambiguous “hyper (in)visibility” of blackness – from acute tokenism in the upper echelons of the legal, political and financial sectors, through to a proliferation of stereotyped representations via the visual arts, news media and sport; (2) “Entrenched vulnerability” – as recently exemplified via the Windrush scandal in the UK; (3) “Institutional racism” – experienced in every sphere, from the political manipulations of the state, through to quotidian acts of micro-aggressive discrimination encountered in employment, housing, health and social services; (4) “Irrepressible resistance and resilience” – seen through the social mobilisation and community activism of grassroots anti-racist organisations, as well as via the creative and expressive arenas of the visual, literary and performing arts, and the mediascape.

Conference delegates participating in Q&A discussions at the University of Lisbon, 4 July 2019. Photo: Carol Dixon.

In conclusion, the speaker focused on the importance of artists, scholars, educators, activists and campaigners establishing anti-racist alliances with African-descended communities in all nations (far beyond the “usual suspects” of the UK, France and Germany), and especially in less diverse, non-urban areas of Europe, as well as establishing intersectional solidarity with religious, migrant, Roma/Traveller, LGBTQ+ and other minoritized communities to fight discrimination, inequalities and social exclusion in all their manifestations.

Quotations from philosophers, political campaigners and social reformers were referenced – from the writings of Africa-American abolitionist Frederick Douglass and Martiniquan intellectual Aimé Césaire, through to the publications and scholar-activism of Audre Lorde, bell hooks and Kwame Nimako – to enable members of the audience to follow-up on his poignant and important closing commentary about the necessity of positive self-definition (e.g. rejecting the term “non-white”), “talking back,” and “self-care”.

The second keynote – “Beyond the Black Paradigm? Afro-diasporic Strategies in the Age of Neo-Nationalism” – was presented by Fatima El-Tayeb (Professor of Literature and Ethnic Studies, University of California, San Diego). Through her nuanced deconstruction of selected European nations’ structurally racist “colour-blind” approaches to addressing issues of diversity, inclusion and community cohesion over several decades, Fatima El-Tayeb also discussed a range of strategies that had been used to counter the neo-nationalism that has falsely constructed Europeans of colour as “eternal migrants” and also fuelled an upsurge in anti-Black racism.

Conference delegates participating in the Q&A after Professor Fatima El-Tayeb’s keynote presentation, University of Lisbon, 5 July 2019. Photo: Carol Dixon.

Central to this presentation was a call for more intersectional analysis of black diasporic populations in Europe to better understand how racialized religious allegiances, class and LGBTQ+ rights activism intersect with ethnicity. She also advocated the importance of building coalitions through the use of “storytelling narratives” that show the connectedness of different forms of oppression, as well as the need to focus on “trans-local” agendas that circumvent national borders. The achievements of collectives such as “Strange Fruit” in the Netherlands (c. 1989- 2002) and “Indigènes de la République” in France (est. 2005) were cited as examples of coalition-building activist organisations that had successfully employed these strategies.

Image and Racism: Breaking Canon

My research paper – “The Transformative Impact of Activist Artists in European Museums” – was presented within the panel session on “Image and Racism: Breaking Canon.”

Through my critique of selected, site-specific and ‘politically aesthetic’ installations created by the British-Nigerian contemporary visual artist Yinka Shonibare CBE, I discussed several contrasting approaches to anti-racist and decolonial intervention within cultural institutions in France, the Netherlands and the UK.

Planets in My Head – Literature (2010) by Yinka Shonibare CBE. This site-specific installation is on permanent display at the Tropenmuseum, Amsterdam, Netherlands.

The case studies in focus were: (1) Jardin d’amour [Garden of Love] (2007) at the Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac, Paris (2) Planets in My Head (2010) at the Tropenmuseum, Amsterdam; (3) The William Morris Family Album (2015) – an archive-themed photographic installation at the William Morris Gallery, London.

The three other papers in this session were:

  • “Contemporary In/Visibilities and Pseudo/Visibilities: the black woman’s portrait in the Bemposta chapel in Lisbon” by Giuseppina Raggi (CES – Universidade de Coimbra) – which discussed the socio-cultural and art historical significance of an 18th century religious portrait of an un-named black woman (c. 1791) by the Italian artist Giuseppe Trono (1739-1810).
  • “Breaking Canons in Art History and Beyond: Intersectional Feminism and Anti-Racism in the Visual Production of Black Women Artists” by Ana Balona de Oliveira (IHA-FCSH-NOVA) – which appraised and critiqued the contemporary image-making and interdisciplinary artistic practice of Portuguese installationist and scholar-activist Grada Kilomba (b. 1968)
  • “Corpo, Ancestralidade e Êxtase: fluxos imagéticos afro-europeus do corpo negro gay e modos de usar” by Jânderson Albino Coswosk (Instituto Federal do Espírito Santo – Ifes) – which examined “black queer aesthetics” in the self-portraiture and LGBTQ+ activism of Nigerian-British photographic artist Rotimi Fani-Kayode (1955-1989).

Bairro de Arte Pública

The final event in the conference’s cultural programme was a tour of the Bairro de Arte Pública led by representatives of the residents’ organisation Kallema in the Quinta do Mocho district of Lisbon – home to the biggest outdoor public art gallery in Europe.

Public art by the Spanish painter Alan Myers, displayed as part of the Bairro de Arte Pública, Quinta do Mocho, Lisbon, Portugal. Photo: Carol Dixon.

Among more than 100 murals painted on the facades of residential buildings, created by established and emerging street artists from (primarily) Portugal, Spain, Angola, Brazil, Cuba and France, were a Frantz Fanon-inspired figurative work titled “Take your mask off!” (2016) by the celebrated Portuguese graffiti artist Nomen, and a group portrait “Loures Arte Pública” (2016) by the Uruguayan artists’ collective, Colectivo Licuado celebrating diverse, gender-fluid identities.

“Take your mask off!” (2016) by the Portuguese graffiti artist Nomen, painted on a residential building in the Quinta do Mocho district of Lisbon as part of the Bairro de Arte Pública. Photo: Carol Dixon.
Group photograph of conference delegates on a tour of the Bairro de Arte Pública, Quinta do Mocho, Portugal, 7 July 2019. Photo: Ema (Kallema, Guias do Mocho).

I am grateful to the Sociological Review Foundation for providing an ECR Conference Support Award to attend Afroeuropeans 2019, which enabled me to participate in important discussions pertaining to anti-racism in the arts, Pan-Africanism and the African Diaspora in Europe, and decolonising the mediascape.

The 8th Biennial Afroeuropeans Network Conference will take place in Belgium during 2021.

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.