“The embarrassment that my presence caused – to the point of making me, in their eyes, some sort of ‘Invisible Man’ or merely the consort of a European woman artist – was understandable, as before me, there had never been, to my knowledge, any black man taking part in the visual arts ‘avant-garde’ of the Western World.”
– Ernest Mancoba (1904-2002), reflecting on life in Denmark during the CoBrA years, c.1948-50 (Obrist, 2010: 380)
In a similar way to the voices of anti-racist novelists, playwrights, performance poets and musicians from South Africa – not least the singer-songwriter Miriam Makeba, the novelist Mongane Wally Seroteand the poet Keorapetse “Bra Willie” Kgositsile, etc. – a number of contemporary visual artists have been highly influential in using art as a platform for commenting on the changing socio-economic and political landscape of post-apartheid South Africa.
Several early modernists whose work openly challenged the apartheid regime included the abstractionist and sculptor Ernest Mancoba (1904-2002) – who was born in Johannesburg, but emigrated to study fine art in Paris, and later became one of the founder members of the influential CoBrA (Copenhagen, Brussels, Amsterdam) art movement; the abstract expressionist painter Gerard Sekoto (1913-1993) – who in 1940 became the first black South African to have a painting exhibited in the Johannesburg Art Gallery; and the mixed-media illustrator and graphic designer Zwelidumile Geelboi Mgxaji Mslaba (known internationally as Dumile Feni) (1942-1991), who was often referred to as the ‘Goya of the townships’ because of the poignant monochromatic ballpoint pen drawings he created to comment on urban poverty and the struggles against apartheid (Peffer, 2009: 44). In more recent decades a number of new artists have also emerged from the Johannesburg art scene – largely as a result of the city’s hosting of two successful biennials in 1995 and 1997 that put South Africa on the art world map.
We met at the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, where his installation piece African Icons (1987) was on display as part of a retrospective of works by UK contemporary artists – titled, As Exciting as We Can Make it:Ikon in the 1980s (2 July — 31 August 2014).
The focus of our conversation was an exploration and critical appraisal of the extent to which black British artists have experienced marginalisation and exclusion as regards their place within the nation’s contemporary visual arts canon, using Eddie Chambers’ own experiences of creating and exhibiting work since the early 1980s as a point of departure.
“It’s not only the beauty of the person, but the beauty of the soul and the culture.” – Jean Paul Gaultier
Recently I went to see the Jean Paul Gaultier exhibition at the Barbican Art Gallery, and was pleasantly surprised by all the dramatic tableaux created to showcase a diverse selection of his signature garments from catwalk collections over the decades dating back to the 1980s. As you might expect, outlandish corsets, sailor tops and Hollywood-inspired glamour gowns were all in evidence, and many of the thematically arranged galleries reflected aspects of the designer’s own quirky theatricality. Nevertheless, in amongst the more humorous and sexually provocative outfits were several outstanding art pieces – including an amazing fan-pleated chiffon wedding gown – titled ‘La Mariée’ – originally created for Gaultier’s 2005 ‘Tribute to Africa’ spring/summer haute couture collection, and some more unique and unusual corset-based garments made from unconventional materials such as strips of photographic negatives and fake crocodile skin…
A selection of costumes designed for stars like Madonna, Kylie and Grace Jones over the years were presented alongside film footage of the garments being worn in their performances, to give a better impression of how his work looked in motion…which also helped to give the (largely mannequin-based and photographic) displays more dynamism overall.
Gaultier’s numerous collaborations with world famous fashion photographers over the decades were presented in the form of framed photo stills from past magazine shoots – including a stunning larger-than-life-size photograph of Naomi Campbell (styled by Gaultier for Italian Vogue in 1988) showing her with a short-cropped hairstyle and jewellery arranged in homage to the Jazz-age dancer/chanteuse and international style icon Josephine Baker.