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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!”
I was fortunate to visit the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow (east London) this weekend to view a beautiful art installation by British ceramicist Claire Twomey before this temporary exhibition closed to the general public on 18 September 2016.
The one-room installation –“Claire Twomey: Time Present and Time Past“ (William Morris Gallery, 18 June – 18 September 2016) – was initially inspired by William Morris’s working drawing Chrysanthemum (1877) and took the form of a series of 150 ceramic tiles, each measuring 30 x 30 cm, placed on a large table covering the entire ground floor temporary exhibition gallery next to the museum’s café/restaurant
The enlargement and transformation of Morris’s 19th century floral design into a vast 21st century ceramic installation by Claire Twomey was a visual reflection of a poignant statement about temporality and the importance of tangible, inter-generational acts of cultural remembrance that William Morris wrote more than 120 years ago:
“The past is not dead, but is living in us, and will be alive in the future which we are now helping to make.” William Morris (1893) – quotation taken from the preface to “Medieval Love,” by Bartholomew Anglicus
Rather than painting all the individual tiles independently, the ingenuity of Claire Twomey’s artistic intervention was to make the new installation an entirely collaborative process – from the commissioning of digital technicians and expert tile makers from Stoke-on-Trent in the Potteries to assist with the initial digital transfer techniques onto blank white tiles, right through to extending an open invitation to local artists to volunteer as “apprentices” to help paint each individual tile periodically throughout the duration of the exhibition (over c.100 days) using a combination of regular enamel paints with muted colour tones of sage green, ochre, rusts and greys, and also over-layering thin coats of 22-carat gold enamel paint to create a subtly intricate floral mosaic with a spectacular, shimmering surface lustre. Continue reading Walthamstow, Women and William Morris: Claire Twomey’s “Living Installation” in East London
It was worth braving the crowds to view the new Switch House extension at Tate Modern on Bankside during its launch week (14-19 June 2016) and explore several new floors of contemporary art from Tate’s permanent collection, as well as selected pieces on temporary display in the featured Artists’ Rooms and themed galleries.
For this inaugural summer season the Switch House displays presented on Levels 2 to 4 of the new 10-storey twisted pyramid-shaped building were designed to tell the story of “how art became active from the 1960s” through to the present day.
The light, spacious and angular galleries featured a combination of assemblages devoted to the work of individual artists – such as Louise Bourgeois, displayed in the east wing of Level 4 – as well as thematic, narrative-led presentations documenting how contemporary artists have represented their perspectives on modern life through different genres and forms of visual art: from contemporary paintings and sculptures, through to more experimental audio-visual presentations, mixed-media installations and performance works.
The Cy Grant Trust – working in partnership with the education charity Windrush Foundation and London Metropolitan Archives (LMA) – recently received a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) to catalogue the archives of the writer, actor, musician, barrister and equalities campaigner, Cy Grant (1919-2010).
Cyril Ewart Lionel Grant (known as ‘Cy’) was born in Guyana in 1919 and served as a Flight Lieutenant and navigator in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War before settling in the UK to train and qualify as a barrister. As a result of the extreme racism encountered in post-war Britain, Cy was unable to pursue his chosen career in the legal sector, so instead sought work in the entertainment industry using his talents as a singer/songwriter, actor and musician – quickly rising to national prominence in the 1950s and 1960s as one of the few people of Caribbean descent to regularly appear on British television at that time. Over several decades Cy Grant made a substantial contribution to the arts and to broadcasting in Britain, always actively supporting fellow diasporan arts practitioners from Africa and the Caribbean to help them secure professional positions and contracts within British theatre, the UK film and music industries, and the wider literary and performing arts arenas. Continue reading Navigating the Dreams of an Icon: The Cy Grant Archives at the LMA – a new heritage initiative for 2016/17