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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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