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/.

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

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

“Verses After Dusk.” A solo exhibition by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye (Serpentine Gallery, London)

It was worth braving the storm clouds a few days ago to visit the Serpentine Gallery in Kensington Gardens and view Verses After Dusk – a solo exhibition of recent works by the British figurative painter Lynette Yiadom-Boakye (b. 1977, London).

The Woman Watchful (2015), by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye
The Woman Watchful (2015), by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye

Although I have been aware of this artist since she was nominated for the Turner Prize in 2013, I had only previously seen a small number of individual paintings by her in group displays at Tate Britain (where her works ’10pm Saturday’ (2012) and The Generosity (2010) are part of the British Art Collection) and Leeds Art Gallery (where the beautiful seascape with two figures Condor and the Mole (2011) was shown in the Arts Council touring exhibition, One Day, Something Happens: Paintings of People, 6 March-24 May 2015) . For this reason it was fascinating to spend time delving deeper into her portfolio, appraising recently completed paintings, and learning more about Yiadom-Boakye’s artistic practice via this solo exhibition.

Curses (2011) by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye. This painting featured as the Serpentine’s promotional image for the Verses After Dusk exhibition.

Displayed on the ground floor in five inter-connected rooms, Verses After Dusk comprises c.25 contemporary oil paintings and  sketches of individuals, pairs and small groups depicted in a range of  quite ambiguous, quotidian settings – from dimly lit, under-defined interiors, to sparsely populated beach scenes and seascapes.

Interstellar (2012), by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye

The exhibition opens with a selection of individual portraits of young men and women – some facing out towards the viewer, but most painted at oblique angles with averted eyes looking away into the distance, or with their backs completely turned as if to avoid the onlooker’s gaze altogether.

An impressive oil on canvas titled ‘Interstellar’ (2012) is positioned on the wall immediately facing the entrance to the first room so that a tall, larger-than-life figure of an athletic and graceful dancer, with arms outstretched in a balletic relevé on demi-point provides the first glimpse of Yiadom-Boakye’s sublime work. From the outset, the scale, energy and refinement of this painting drew me in and provoked many questions – not only concerning the subject in the frame, but also musings about the artist herself.

Continue reading “Verses After Dusk.” A solo exhibition by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye (Serpentine Gallery, London)