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

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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

British Black Art in the 1980s: Visualising the Political Aesthetics of Sufferation, Resistance and Liberation

PRELUDE:

Reflections from Stuart Hall about the history and significance of the British ‘Black Art’ movement during the 1980s:

“This new ‘horizon’ produced a polemical and politicised art: a highly graphic, iconographic art of line and montage, cut-out and collage, image and slogan: the ‘message’ often appearing too pressing, too immediate, too literal, to brook formal delay and, instead, breaking into ‘writing.’ The black body – stretched, threatened, distorted, degraded, imprisoned, beaten and resisting – became an iconic recurring motif”

Stuart Hall (2006) “Black Diaspora Artists in Britain,’ History Workshop Journal (HWJ), Vol. 61(1), p. 17 (cited by Eddie Chambers in Roots and Culture, 2017, p. 201)

Introduction

I was very pleased to view the exhibition The Place is Here” (Nottingham Contemporary, 4 February – 30 April 2017) during its closing weeks, and spend time engaging with a diverse range of ‘politically aesthetic’ works by artists and collectives prominent in the British Black Art movement of the 1980s.

Curated by Nick Aikens and Sam Thorne, in collaboration with Nicola Guy and a number of consultant artists who were central to the period in focus, the exhibition provided a rare opportunity to see c. 100 artworks covering a range of genres, media and artistic practices by 30 of the most celebrated artists from the UK’s African, Caribbean and South Asian diaspora communities assembled together in one space.

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Poster advertising the Radical Black Art “Working Convention,” held at the Ukaidi Centre in Nottingham, 28 March 1984. Photo: Carol Dixon

Taking as its intellectual departure point the discussions held during the inaugural gathering of the First National Black Art Convention in Wolverhampton (1982), and a second “working convention” held in Nottingham in 1984, the curators and contributing artists presented an art-historical and art-political ‘montage’ of works that exemplified how contemporary visual artists, academics, arts activists, cultural commentators, and other critical thinkers were responding to questions about the role of “Black Art” – or the “Black Art Movement” (as it later came to be known) – in the late-20th century. In particular, this question was being posed as a way of catalysing and bringing to prominence a powerful, highly visible reaction to the many challenging social, political, economic and cultural issues facing ‘people of colour’ in Britain at that time.

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Archival documents and art-political posters displayed at Nottingham Contemporary to contextualize the artworks from the 1980s shown in the exhibition “The Place is Here.” Photo: Carol Dixon

What was immediately clear from the inclusion of a significant selection of archival materials, political posters, documentary films, campaign literature, and other publications representing the work of grassroots anti-racist and social justice organisations active during that decade, was that the British Black Art movement – like the individual artists themselves – did not ever function solely within the (physical or imagined) borders of the United Kingdom as a nation-state.  On the contrary, this movement was always conceived by participants active in these struggles as operating within a much broader, more porous, international and diasporic framework of global(ised) activisms, equalities agendas and human rights campaigns. The wider foci for demonstrating solidarity with other Black activists as part of a transnational struggle included: the Civil Rights movement, trades-union activism in the Caribbean region, the collective fight against apartheid in South Africa, the emergence of radical Black feminist/womanist movements worldwide, LGBTQ rights activism, and ongoing efforts to collectivize against and ‘dismantle’ the many remaining structures and systems of colonial oppression dating back to the period of Western European nations’ occidental expansionism and exploitation of the recently independent nations located throughout the Global South(s).

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My walk through the four large display galleries is recreated in this blog post (see below) in the form of a photographic tour, spotlighting a small selection of the contemporary artworks and document assemblages that I considered highly significant and central to the success of this exhibition.
Continue reading British Black Art in the 1980s: Visualising the Political Aesthetics of Sufferation, Resistance and Liberation

Reflections on a “Festival for the World” and Alpha Diagne’s “Blue House” at the Southbank in London

For the past four years the Southbank Centre in London has hosted an event called “Africa Utopia.” Typically, this diverse programme of talks, marketplace activities, displays, fashion shows and other artistic happenings takes place over the course of a weekend in early autumn and is marketed as one of the Southbank’s “Festivals for the World” series.

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Carol Dixon with musician, writer and graphic designer Natalie Cooper at Africa Utopia 2016

The artistic and strategic collaborations that produce this extensive cultural programme involve a number of key players – most importantly, the event’s co-founders: the Senegalese singer and human rights advocate Baaba Maal; and the Southbank Centre’s artistic director Jude Kelly CBE  – as well as a host of commercial sponsors, media partners and arts organisations contributing to the talks, performances and market place activities.

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Carol Dixon with globally renowned Senegalese singer and human rights advocate Baaba Maal at Africa Utopia 2016

Central to the success of Africa Utopia is its ability to remain topical, informed and up-to-date about artistic and aesthetic innovations emerging from all regions of the continent, as well as from the communities of African diasporans settled all over the world. This is one of the reasons why hosting the event in the heart of an urban metropolis like London is always such an interesting mix of cultural and political fusion, shown through a variety of arts and crafts created by established and emerging designers, photographers, textile artists, creators of African inspired couture and contemporary art installationists.

For me, the highlight of Africa Utopia 2016 was the range of talks and debates – not only in relation to literary, visual and performing arts, but also in terms of how such cultural discourses intersect with the political, economic, environmental and technological concerns affecting people’s daily lives. This year’s panel sessions were programmed by Hannah Pool and curated with a focus on themes such as arts activism, social justice and inclusive practices within the cultural  and creative industries – especially in relation to TV, cinema and online broadcasting platforms.

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Audience members  listening to the debate about activism and social change at Africa Utopia 2016

Continue reading Reflections on a “Festival for the World” and Alpha Diagne’s “Blue House” at the Southbank in London

Zak Ové’s Triumph at the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair in London (2016)

The 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair presented its fourth consecutive edition at Somerset House in London (6-9 October 2016) – organised by the Fair’s founding director, Moroccan-born entrepreneur and art enthusiast Touria El Glaoui.

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“Blood Type” by Lizette Chirimme (from South Africa), displayed as part of Nando’s Art Collection at the 1:54 Art Fair in London. Photo: Carol Dixon
Coffee being served to visitors viewing Cameroonian artist Barthélémy Toguo's Bandjoun Station display at the 1:54 Art Fair. Photo: Carol Dixon
Coffee being served to visitors viewing Cameroonian artist Barthélémy Toguo’s Bandjoun Station display at the 1:54 Art Fair. Photo: Carol Dixon

Expanding in size and scale by an increase of 40% since its inaugural edition in 2013, this year’s 1:54 showcased works by more than 130 artists from continental Africa and the global African diasporas, represented by 40 of the most important gallerists, curators, agents and exhibitors promoting African-inspired artwork around the world.

My main motivation for visiting 1:54 was (primarily) to view the new art installation by British conceptual artist Zak Ové (b. 1966, London) – an innovative sculptor, photographer and installationist of Trinidadian descent, whose artworks I have admired for many years since he first came to mainstream prominence in the UK following a series of high-profile commissions via the British Museum more than a decade ago.

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Zak Ove’s installation of 40 graphite sculptural figures in the courtyard at Somerset House in London, displayed as part of the 1:54 Art Fair 2016. Photo: Carol Dixon

Walking from the Strand through the archway of Somerset House on the Saturday morning of my visit filled me with sheer delight, because his vast assemblage of 40 larger-than-life-sized graphite figural sculptures – titled, “Black and Blue: The Invisible Man and the Masque of Blackness” (2016) – was instantly visible from the main road, positioned in a military-style formation like a modern-day version of the ancient Terracotta Warriors of Xian in China. The hybrid nature of the installation was the deliberate referencing of ancient and modern cultural, political and corporeal themes encompassing the vast historical and geographical scope of the African diasporas dispersed over several continents – from the fashioning of facial features reminiscent of West African (specifically Congolese) figural sculptures, through to each (male) statue positioned with raised hands in a supplicatory, non-threatening pose as if to adopt the stance of the 21st century #Black Lives Matter and #Ferguson is Everywhere anti-racism, equality and social justice movements in the USA and world-wide, articulating the plea “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot!”

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Facial details of one sculpture from Zak Ove’s installation of 40 graphite figures, displayed at Somerset House in London for the 1:54 Art Fair 2016. Photo: Carol Dixon

Continue reading Zak Ové’s Triumph at the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair in London (2016)