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”

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”

Afriques Capitales: Vers le Cap de Bonne-Espérance / Capital Africas: Towards the Cape of Good Hope

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Exhibition view of the metalwork installation “Forgotten’s Tears” (2013), by the Congolese sculptor Freddy Tsimba (b. Kinshasa, DRC, 1967). Photo: Carol Dixon

During mid-August 2017 I was very pleased to visit the Gare Saint Sauveur in Lille to view curator Simon Njami’s thought-provoking exhibition of photographs, paintings, films, sculptures and architectural installations by 30 contemporary visual artists from continental Africa and the African diasporas. This spectacular and wide-ranging group show – Afriques Capitales: Vers le Cap de Bonne-Espérance [Capital Africas: Towards the Cape of Good Hope] (Gare Saint Sauveur, Lille, France, 6th April – 3rd September, 2017) – was conceptualised and presented as the second chapter (or, ‘Episode Two’) of a curatorial project that began at the Grande Halle de la Villette in east Paris, and was later transposed and repurposed to fit this alternative setting of a disused freight goods railway terminal on the outskirts of Lille.

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The introductory information panel for the exhibition Afriques Capitales [Capital Africas], curated by Simon Njami, displayed at the entrance to Gare Saint Sauveur in Lille. Photo: Carol Dixon (August 2017)
At its heart, Afriques Capitales presented a series of inter-connected art-political, historical and geographical narratives about the push and pull of migration, the precariousness of trans-national journey-making, and people’s hopes, fears, aspirations and challenges as they strive to secure a better existence and improved life chances for themselves and their loved ones as a result of moving to different locations – and, potentially also, alternative environments assumed to provide increased safety, security, sanctuary and/or new opportunities.

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Detail from the architectural installation “I am Free” (2012), by Egyptian artist Moataz Nasr. Photo: Carol Dixon.

Since first becoming aware of Simon Njami’s writing and critical analysis of modern and contemporary African art, his editorship of the celebrated art magazine Revue Noire, and his extensive international curatorial practice over the past two decades, I have subsequently followed his progress with keen interest – making regular visits to different exhibition spaces and institutional settings to immerse myself in the stories and assemblages he and his contributing artists generate to provoke new discussions and dialogues about aspects of the universal human condition. All these observations and experiences are, of course, considered and refracted through the complex prism (or ‘optic‘) of colonialism, and its enduring legacies in the present day – reflected upon at the site of the individual (as regards my personal, affective/emotional responses to each artwork); at the level of the nation-state; as a trans-continental conversation between Europe as the site of display, and Africa (including its diasporas) as the creative locus and originating point of departure for these featured exhibits; and also in terms of global discourses about travelling and journey-making to the many elsewheres represented in the featured displays – both near and far; real and imagined.

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“I am Free” (2012), by Egyptian artist Moataz Nasr. Photo: Carol Dixon.

As soon as I walked through the entrance gates at Gare Saint Sauveur and saw the large-scale architectural structure of Egyptian artist Moataz Nasr’s  installation, “I am Free” (2012), I knew I was entering a creative space where the curator had encouraged all the participating visual artists to be bold and expressive on a monumental scale: in other words, giving all the artists and collectives complete licence to think creatively without limits and, in turn, exhort and inspire visiting audiences walking through the exhibition space to respond in kind. In consequence, I required no prompting to run to the top of the temporary staircase erected at both ends of the white-walled, Minaret-like construction to stand on its central platform with my arms outstretched, enacting the declarative statement “I’m Free!” In doing so,  I was also able to imagine that I had become one with the vast, black painted bird’s wings, beautifully and fluidly drawn at either side of the neon lighting, and taken flight into a different realm.

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Calao (2016), by the Malian textile sculptor Abdoulaye Konaté. The Calao represents a mythical and protective bird that, within the Bambara cultural and spiritual traditions of the past, is believed to carry dead souls to the afterlife. Photo: Carol Dixon.

Continue reading “Afriques Capitales: Vers le Cap de Bonne-Espérance / Capital Africas: Towards the Cape of Good Hope”

African Diaspora Arts and Scholar-Activism at the 6th Biennial Network Conference on Black Cultures and Identities in Europe (University of Tampere, Finland, July 2017)

On 6th July 2017 more than 200 delegates from 20 countries gathered in the city of Tampere, Finland, to participate in the 6th Biennial ‘Afroeuropeans’ Network Conference on Black Cultures and Identities in Europe – convened and hosted by the Academy of Finland Research Fellow Dr Anna Rastas (Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Tampere), working in partnership with a team of scholars, artists and administrators from Aalto University, Sibelius Academy, the University of Tampere and the University of Helsinki.

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Delegates at the 6th Afroeuropeans Network Conference, Linna Building, University of Tampere, Finland. 6 July 2017. Photo: Carol Dixon.

The  conference took place over three days, specifically scheduled to also coincide with Tampere’s hosting of the FEST AFRIKA 2017 cultural programme of live music, poetry and spoken word performances by solo musicians, dancers, bands, dub poets and other literary and performing arts practitioners from continental Africa and the African and Caribbean diasporas in Europe.

Keynote Address by Professor Paul Gilroy

The conference’s opening keynote address was given by the internationally renowned social scientist, literature scholar and cultural theorist Professor Paul Gilroy (American and English Literature, King’s College, University of London), who gave a wide-ranging presentation about race and racism, inequalities, border politics, the dynamics and impacts of securitisation, and associated activism to stem the problematic rise of ‘securitocracy’ throughout Europe – titled, On the necessity and the impossibility of being a black European [a 2017 re-mix] or the value of anti-racism in the ‘Alt-right’ era.

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Professor Paul Gilroy speaking at the 6th Afroeuropeans Network Conference, University of Tampere, Finland, 6 July 2017. Photo: Carol Dixon.

Through Paul Gilroy’s skillful articulation of what he termed “The Slave Historical Arc” – a tracing of key transitional events, change processes and resistance struggles from the era of transatlantic enslavement through to the contemporary racisms and exclusions imbricated within the political apparatus of our 21st century societies – he was able to explain the emergence of “the impossible condition of being” for black and brown people negotiating the complexities, paradoxes and precarious conditions of our compromised (non-)citizenship in Europe. Continue reading “African Diaspora Arts and Scholar-Activism at the 6th Biennial Network Conference on Black Cultures and Identities in Europe (University of Tampere, Finland, July 2017)”