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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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.
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The Life and Artworks of Wifredo Lam – a Cuban ‘Passeur’ in Paris

lam-photograph-of-the-artistMy proposal to present a research paper about the life and work of Cuban surrealist artist Wifredo Lam (1902-1982) at the forthcoming 2nd CARISCC Postgraduate Conference on Caribbean In/securities and Creativity (University of Leeds, UK, 8th March 2017) has been accepted. The presentation – titled, “Reading Issues of In/Security and Creativity through the Life and Artworks of Wifredo Lam: a Cuban ‘Passeur’ in Paris” – will form part of a broad conference programme themed around  ‘Reading’ Caribbean In/securities for Creativity. Through this theme my fellow conference contributors and I will seek to examine the links between precariousness and creativity within the context of Caribbean cultural, area and diaspora studies.

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Exhibition view of a sculpture and painting (titled “Umbral” (1950)) by Wifredo Lam, featured in a room devoted to the artist’s works from the Pompidou’s permanent collection. This assemblage was showcased as part of the display “Multiple Modernities, 1905-1970” (2013-2015). Photo: Carol Dixon.

ABSTRACT:

When art scholar Catherine Grenier recently curated the exhibition “Multiple Modernities, 1905-1970”* for the Pompidou in Paris, she made reference to the French term “passeur” [“go-between”] to describe the activities of selected pioneering and influential modernists whose travels and artistic practices throughout the 20th century supported global artistic syncretism and dynamic cultural exchanges across a range of art forms, movements, genres and media. For Grenier, the role of the passeur was an important aspect of ‘thirding’ the Pompidou’s gallery spaces so as to displace and replace false Enlightenment era polarities of Self/Other binarism in favour of more fluid and pluralist ‘both/and also’ exhibiting practices – as advocated by cultural theorists such as Homi K. Bhabha, Gayatri Spivak and Ed Soja.

Photograph of the Cuban artist Wifredo Lam
Photograph of the Cuban artist Wifredo Lam, taken in the early 1950s

One person celebrated and valorised in this thematic display as an influential passeur of Caribbean heritage – who (in Grenier’s words) “propagated the modern spirit throughout the world” – was the Cuban surrealist artist Wifredo Lam (1902-1982).

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Artists Pablo Picasso and Wifredo Lam, photographed together in 1954.

In this conference presentation, archival documents and past exhibitions detailing the artist’s portfolio of works and his biography will be showcased as the prelude to addressing underlying questions about the extent of Wifredo Lam’s ‘borderless fluidity’ and ‘hybrid identity’ as a passeur ‘of colour’ – negotiating complex spaces and structures normalised as white within avant-garde Europe during the inter-war period. This spatio-temporal survey and mapping of his lived experiences – as an artist deeply influenced by his African, Asian and European ancestry, just as much as his connections to fellow artists in the Surrealist Movement of ‘Jazz Age’ Paris (most notably, Pablo Picasso) – will also serve as the prelude to deeper, critical reflections on the politics of in/security within the observed aesthetic characteristics and narrative interpretations of Lam’s visual poetics by contemporary art critics, scholars and wider publics.

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The Wedding (1947) by Wifredo Lam. Oil paint on canvas, dimensions 216 x 200. The original artwork is part of the collection of the Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museum, Berlin.

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Black Portraiture[s] III: Reinventions – Jo’burg Conference, 17-19 November 2016

“BLACK PORTRAITURE[S] III: Reinventions: Strains of Histories and Cultures” is the seventh conference in a series of transnational and diasporic conversations about imaging the black body. It offers a forum that gives artists, activists, educators and scholars from around the world an opportunity to share ideas, from historical topics to current research on the 40th anniversary of Soweto. Presenters will engage a range of topics such as Biennales, the Africa Perspective in the Armory Show, the global art market, politics, tourism, sites of memory, Afrofuturism, fashion, dance, music, film, art, and photography.

image: Kudzanai Chiurai, Genesis XI, 2016
image: Kudzanai Chiurai, Genesis XI, 2016

The conference takes place November 17-19, 2016 at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) in Johannesburg, South Africa, and was planned in collaboration with the U. S. Department of State, U.S. Ambassador to South Africa, Patrick H. Gaspard, Goodman Gallery, Hutchins Center for African & African American Research/Harvard University, New York University’s La Pietra Dialogues, Tisch School of the Arts and the Institute for African American Affairs.

When the conference was first announced, the Dean of Tisch School of the Arts, Allyson Green,  said:

“The world will be greater because of the conversations and explorations that will be held when more than 140 papers and performances are presented on topics such as the global art market, activism, politics, tourism, sexuality, sites of memory, Afrofuturism, fashion, dance, music, film, and photography.”

Allyson Green, Dean – Tisch School of the Arts,
New York University

To view the full conference schedule and see a list of participating speakers, please visit the website http://www.blackportraitures.info/schedule/.

Film footage of keynote presentations from previous conferences in this series can also be viewed online at http://www.blackportraitures.info/live-stream/.

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Installation Art by Otobong Nkanga (on display in Oxford, UK, until November 2016)

otobongnkanga-installation-at-portikusThe angular and multi-layered, architectural installation “Tsumeb Fragments” (2015) by Nigerian contemporary artist Otobong Nkanga is on display at Modern Art Oxford as part of the exhibition “KALEIDOSCOPE: It’s Me to the World” (20 August – 17 November 2016).

Like many works from Nkanga’s portfolio, Tsumeb Fragments addresses the themes of landscape, memory and the legacies of colonialism throughout continental Africa, utilising a diverse array of mixed-media and materials: from metal frames, paper and natural minerals, through to photographic stills and film footage.

THE HISTORICAL AND GEOGRAPHICAL CONTEXT TO “TSUMEB FRAGMENTS”

Detail from Tsumeb Fragments (2015) by Otobong Nkanga
Detail from “Tsumeb Fragments” (2015) by Otobong Nkanga featuring photographic images of Tsumeb, Namibia.

In spring 2015, Otobong Nkanga travelled to Tsumeb in Namibia to an area called The Green Hill – a site known for its precious minerals, natural crystals and copper reserves. However, throughout the late-19th and 20th centuries, when Namibia was colonised by the Germans, the entire area was exploited for these natural resources and over-mined until the landscape was almost totally depleted, left in ruins and transformed into an open-pit. At the time when Nkanga took images of Tsumeb in 2015 the site was no longer a green hill. However, some slight traces of green remained in the tiny, scattered fragments of malachite and azurite minerals – the only remains of the past to  evidence the area’s former environmental beauty and wealth. The artist’s inkjet-printed images on Galala limestone in this multi-level installation, therefore, symbolise an act of remembrance, and also a ‘re-imag(in)ing’ of times and places in the past – the palimpsest of memory.

Reflecting on her travels in Namibia, and her artistic process during the design and assemblage of Tsumeb Fragments, Nkanga said:
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