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”

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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”

Exhibition Review – ‘Kehinde Wiley: In Search of the Miraculous’

‘In Search of the Miraculous’ is the second exhibition by Kehinde Wiley to be shown at Stephen Friedman Gallery in London (24 November 2017 – 27 January 2018).

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Detail from ‘Ships on a Stormy Sea (Jean Julio Placide)’ (2017), by Kehinde Wiley. Oil on canvas. 175.5x 241.5 cm. Photo: Carol Dixon.

Displayed in three rooms, this series of  nine new paintings and a three-channel artist’s film illustrate moments in the lives of young Haitian fishermen presented against a backdrop of tropical coastal settings and tempestuous seascapes.

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Detail from ‘The Fog Warning (Jasmine Gracout)’ (2017), by Kehinde Wiley. Oil on canvas. 272.3 x 394 cm. Photo: Carol Dixon.

The press release for the exhibition states that Wiley’s motivation for creating these works was to address a number of themes relating to “migration, madness and isolation in contemporary America.” However, although these foci were symbolically evident throughout the exhibition, the overarching significations foregrounded by Wiley in this body of work were more broadly related to black masculinities, issues of ontology and sense of self for men throughout the African diaspora  – not a project centred solely on symbolising the impacts of populist politics for African-Americans in the USA today.

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Exhibition view of four paintings from ‘In Search of the Miraculous’ by Kehinde Wiley. Stephen Friedman Gallery, London, 29/11/2017. Photo: Carol Dixon.

Continue reading “Exhibition Review – ‘Kehinde Wiley: In Search of the Miraculous’”

Picturing Diversity – The Power of Portraiture

I am seldom more satisfied with a gallery visit than on the occasions when you walk into an exhibition space intending to view one thing, and then stumble on something quite unexpected that turns out to be far more interesting than the artwork or display you originally planned to see. The 3rd August 2017 turned out to be one of those days, when my attention and intentions were solely focused on a long-awaited and much-anticipated trip to the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square to see the stunning tapestry-based artwork “The Caged Bird’s Song” (2017).

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Tapestry-based artwork “The Caged Bird’s Song” (2014-2017) by Chris Ofili CBE, hand-woven to the artist’s specifications by textile artists from Dovecot Tapestry Studio. The three-panelled artwork was on display at the National Gallery, London, as part of the exhibition “Chris Ofili: Weaving Magic” curated by Minna Moore Ede (displayed until 28/08/2017). Photo: Carol Dixon.

The tapestry was based on an original watercolour painted by Chris Ofili CBE, and hand-woven in partnership with a team of textile artists from Dovecot Studios. The resulting panels were then displayed as part of the celebrated exhibition, “Chris Ofili: Weaving Magic” (Sunley Room, National Gallery, London, 26 April – 28 August 2017).

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Three-panelled watercolour “The Caged Bird’s Song” (2014) by Turner Prize-winning British artist Chris Ofili CBE. Photo: Carol Dixon.

The three-panelled tapestry was, of course, as awe-inspiring as the attached pictures suggest. However, the large number of visitors milling in and out of the Sunley Room precluded any opportunity to spend a long period of time quietly contemplating the  scale, splendour and intricacy of this vibrantly colourful piece at my own leisure.

 

Consequently, I changed tack and headed away to make an impromptu visit to the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) to spend time browsing new works in the contemporary galleries and the exhibition for the 2017 BP Portrait Award.

2017 BP Portrait Award Exhibition at the NPG, London

Among the many beautifully rendered portraits featured in this year’s selection of 53 entries displayed to represent the best of the c. 2,580 entries submitted by artists from 87 countries, the five works that (for different reasons) captured and held my attention were (in no particular order): (1) Corinne, by Anastasia Pollard; (2) Society, by Khushna Sulaman-Butt; (3) Portrait of the artist Jerome Witkin, by David Stanger; (4) Lemn Sissay, by Fiona Graham-Mackay; and (5) Another Fine Day on Elysian Fields Avenue, NOLA, by Eva Csanyi-Hurskin.

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“Corinne”, by Anastasia Pollard. Oil on Board. 255 x 205mm. This painting was displayed at the National Portrait Gallery, London, as part of the 2017 BP Portrait Award. Photo: Carol Dixon.

The striking portrait of “Corinne” by Anastasia Pollard is actually quite tiny, measuring just 255 x 205mm. However, the captivating beauty of the sitter and the overall balance of the composition made it one of the most arresting images in the entire exhibition. It was also not surprising that “Corinne” was chosen by the NPG as one of the featured images used for a substantial element of the marketing and publicity for this year’s award – featuring on the cover of the catalogue, as well as on one of five large-scale promotional posters for the exhibition. Continue reading “Picturing Diversity – The Power of Portraiture”

BLACK ART MATTERS: Reflecting on the life, works and art-political legacy of Donald Rodney, 1961-1998

BBC Radio 4’s ‘Black Art Matters’ (first broadcast on 29 June 2017) is available to listen to online via the BBC website http://www.bbc.co.uk. This 30-minute programme features Professor Sonia Boyce MBE (RA) in conversation with family members and friends of the British contemporary visual artist Donald Rodney (1961-1998) – one of the most central and important founding figures involved in the Midlands-based ‘Blk Art Group’ during the 1980s, who sadly passed away two decades ago (due to the illness Sickle Cell).

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Contemporary British artist, and Royal Academician, Professor Sonia Boyce MBE narrates the BBC Radio 4 programme ‘Black Art Matters’ about the life and works of Donald Rodney. (URL: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08vzrth).

Boyce begins her reflective voice-over with a review of Donald Rodney’s visceral and racially charged installation piece The House that Jack Built” (1987). Her perceptive commentary is layered and interspersed with other art-historical observations taken from interviews with several contributing artists and guests who attended the exhibition launch reception for “The Place is Here” (Nottingham Contemporary, 4 February – 30 April 2017).

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Exhibition view of “The House that Jack Built” (1987), by Donald Rodney, displayed as part of the contemporary art exhibition The Place is Here (Nottingham Contemporary, UK, 2017) about the British Black Art movement in the 1980s. Photo: Carol Dixon.

Rodney’s complex, hard-hitting and unsettling mixed-media installation features a set of x-rays of the artist’s body arranged against the gallery wall to form the silhouetted structure of a house, overlaid with white-painted text and pictorial imagery commenting on the traumas and enduring legacies of enslavement, racial segregation, the brutalities of apartheid and other forms of racialized, anti-black violence throughout world history. Prominently positioned on a chair in front of the “house” is a seated figure, with a large tree-like structure sprouting from the neck of a paint-splattered striped shirt to create the slumped frame of a man’s body.
Continue reading “BLACK ART MATTERS: Reflecting on the life, works and art-political legacy of Donald Rodney, 1961-1998”