From the Contemporary Art in the Global (MSc School of Oriental and African Studies)
Artists: Derek Walcott, Mark Rothko, Frank Bowling, Atsuho Tanaka, Sammi Baloji
The project visits the theme of darkness as it is approached by the selected artists through painting, poetry, installation art and photography. Dark times have for centuries been associated with the Dark Ages, the victorian times, the plague, III Reich, and the Crusades. Is darkness created in the name of God to entice a journey in reflection?
Darkness in this exhibition will be visited through the artists’ own periods and reflections of darkness. Starting with the more recent Baloji’s photographs have a strong post-environmental sentiment, yet all artists reflect on humanity’s over-consuming framework of aimless societal misappropriations maintained by irrelevance.
The artworks date from post-war period, aligned with the more recent works of Baloji’s diptych, for the provision of a bridging point on perpetual concerns about the loss of communities, citizenship and human rights that have been exaggerated, yet feel less visual, for the absence of blood.
The art on show reflects as much today, as they did at the time of making, that we are entering an autumn of social conscience exasperated by the informality and misappropriation of technology coercing the psyches onto a temporal loss and inaction.
Yet there must be resistance. Art is also a mirror up to the society, ourselves, in hope each individual visiting this exhibition will reflect a little and make a small step of resistance that translates into a big change.
When we don’t speak, we maintain darkness. Northwest indigenous communities have talked of ‘silence’ as a skill. ‘Silence’ used in diplomacy can present a show of arrogance or absence as in demonstration against what I’d said. Against that theory, words presented hide the things that happen in silence, including their potential to tell a different story.
Bringing artworks made by Rothko, Bowling, Tanaka, Walcott, and Baloji together distinctively plays to the audience responses, being of equal therapeutic importance as they were to the artists at the time of making. The five artworks have incredible ‘enlightening’ power’, offering a quiet introspective space for soul searching.
We would like visitors to individual notice which one artwork they are drawn to on their individual experiential pattern route, free from want and free from fear.
- Rothko. M, ‘Orange and Yellow’, 1956:
Rothko “Silence is so accurate.”
Yellow and orange make green; green the colour signifying life, renewal, growth, fertility, harmony, nature, freshness, energy, and safety. Rothko never wanted association with any art movement however he was pigeonholed as an abstract expressionist. The simplicity of Orange and Yellow cannot go without noting the technical challenge of keeping the colours separate so they don’t produce green. Is the artist pointing out that we are in the process of exploring our spirituality, and have not reached a harmonious existence yet?
A quest for ascension, Orange and Yellow has a ritualistic quality to the universe framed within the shuttle golden Buddhist orange outline. His work has often been described for its meditative qualities whilst remaining large, and non representational.
Barney Newman, the man inspired title of Frank Bowling’s work in the exhibition, saw himself as a political artist who has also shown his work outside Rothko’s Chapel in Houston, Texas.
- Bowling. F, ‘Who’s afraid of Barney Newman’, 1968
The painting is another major African flag colour representation Bowling is known for. Bowling is of Guyanese descent, a descendant of a slave, still surrounded by racism and race assumptions with participation in the First World Festival of Negro Arts, whilst being the first black artist elected in the Royal Academy of Arts with the artist recently receiving an OBE, continuing the colonial mode of tradition. His work was also shown at Afro Modern exhibition at Tate Liverpool in 2010’s, for significance the port of Liverpool having hosted the largest number of slave trade shipments in England.
The question is does Bowling rebel or commercialise further the idea of Africa in a place of exoticism and colonial frames? ‘Who’s afraid of Barney Newman’ was made in 1968, placed two years after the Guyanese independence from the British. Was Bowling raising awareness at a time when slave trade destinations were gaining independence from colonial rule?
- Tanaka, A. ‘Electric dress’ 1956
Atsuko Tanaka had one said “I wanted to shatter stable beauty with my work,” highlighting how domestic objects are but beautiful and disruptive from the lack of presence, yet plethora of being.
Tanaka’s silence covered by the bulbs in the original artwork, from a position of an emerging arts movement, could have represented silence as an imposition for a projection of power. In international relations frameworks, silence is mostly imposed by psychological violence, affecting the corporal of the most vulnerable, women, people of colour and those not integrated in the functionality of post Colonialism, and neoliberalism in the global and constitute political discourses and practice. (Dingli, Bhambra and Shilliam, 2009)
- Walcott, D. ‘Love after Love’, 1948–1984
Undoubtedly there is a pause in Walcott’s ‘Love after Love’ poem. Who inspired the poet to write this? Is it advice, or as I have always read this, as a love poem to oneself?
Derek Walcott passed away two years ago and his sea breeze of poetry is a timeless reminder to leave the insecurities we all carry, behind, and just be.
The meditative quality in the thought of spending time with oneself is not unlike Rothko’s iconographical ‘Orange and Yellow’.
Does it really matter who’s heart is broken or who broke whose heart? If anything, the world would become a better place if each and everyone reflected on the poem a little every day. After all, through love there’s light and the light lost in things that don’t work, is light lost.
- Baloji, S. ‘Kumbuka’, 2003
Stylistically ethnographical, the photographer has removed the orientalism and exoticism of indigenous communities, removed the smiles and colours and yellow grey toned the landscape, to represent Congolese as the Congolese see themselves. In this diptych he has interestingly kept women seperate to men. He plays with the Primitivist Theory of the artist as an ethnographer, whilst placing it in a contemporary context.
Image from eu.art.com
Rothko’s goal was “the elimination of all obstacles between the painter and the idea, and between the idea and the observer.” Rothko was known to suffer depression, reflected by the frame as a limit to happiness. Rothko was Latvian and Russian who went to primary and high school in Portland, Oregon – the ‘weird’ US city because of its rebel inquisitive population. His work invites the viewer to explore ‘metaphysical realities of their own consciousness’. The red a reflection emotional forces fighting nature a sea of blood at sunset, framed in limitation, stopping time, a photograph. The mesmerising quality of this work, is attracting attention even for non believers. The quality of light and Rothko’s interest in creating light reflects his religious iconographic approach to his frames.
Image from https://www.wikiart.org/en/frank-bowling/who-s-afraid-of-barney-newman-1968
Bowling has expressed his frustration in an interview with Laura Barnett for the Guardian: “It seemed that everyone was expecting me to paint some kind of protest art out of postcolonial discussion. For a while I fell for it.”
The Rastafarian flag of green yellow and orange, signifying the displaced africans living in exile as a result of the slave trade. Unlike Rothko’s clearly defined frames, Bowling’s use of colours is blending into one, another around the edges and without affecting or altering the core of the three colours. Could the merging of colours also point to different ethnicities merging into one in the Caribbean and South America, as a result of colonial rule. Think of the children of Chinese, Indian, Syrian and Spanish immigrants on post-colonial lands, the ‘dougla’, the ‘koolie’, the ‘red skin spanish’.
Or did he attempt to define frayed around the edges, maybe from wear and tear?
The impact of slavery remains as unaddressed as it was in 1968 as it is today. Microaggressions are all apparent. The artist, a slave descendant, opposed the idea of representing Caribbean art.
Image from youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wUV-v3xI7Lw
Atsuho Tanaka’s electric dress, still lighting gallery spaces and discussions across the world, even after the artist’s death, in a timeless manner, originally the bulbs laid to cover her body, now exhibited without it.
In the West, a Christmas tree is something beautiful, pretty and a tacky representation of a happy time.
Tanaka was one of the more influential Gutai art movement artists, believed by many to deserve the leadership position within the rebellious post-war Japanese artist group, a but hindered from it due to her being a woman.
Tanaka’s work is symbolic to false light, untruth, prettiness by misrepresentation, a wonderful objectification of many beliefs changing and evolving in the years the work was created.
When the artist wore the artwork, around 200 light bulbs flickered every two and half minutes, like a pulsating body, inviting the viewer to view it a ‘living’ being without consideration of the being inside. Gutai translates as ‘concreteness’ born from a society that advocated for the loss of individualism.
Image from https://www.christystich.com/blog/2016/2/4/my-most-treasured-poem
Derek Walcott passed away less than two years ago, a Caribbean child of a slave, lived most of his life in Trinidad and St Lucia, and was awarded with the Nobel Prize in 1990’s.
Walcott’s poem is a reminder of being one with ourselves, salvaging ourselves with acts of faith ‘Give wine. Give Bread’ playacting Jesus proclamation of memory in the act of sharing love towards a progression towards oneself to a place where our reflection in the mirror doesn’t feel ugly or drained anymore, but celebratory.
Walcott’s exploration of European and African cultural adaptations within the Caribbean, and the multiculturality of the West Indies is reflected throughout his work. Walcott’s poem has a nostalgia about the mistake of trying to fit in other people’s shoes, and when ‘The time will come’ as in the time we will be ready or will be forced upon us to reflect in being at peace with oneself reminding us it is entirely achievable as ‘Sit. Feast on your life.’ is one of the few things in life left we have entire freedom to do on our own.
Images from #sammybaloji instagram page
Sammy Baloji is a Democratic Republic of Congo born photographer working internationally, with photographs represented in a wide range high profile african art fairs and collective exhibitions.
Born in a country known for the inherent political fragility, threat to human life, animal habitat and near extinction of species. His work is very much representing a colour code for how DRC is seen abroad and how it feels to Congolese people from within the country.
Baloji having participated in Venice Bienalle in an exhibition on Belgium’s colonial rule, he notes sharing and learning about a specific time period “To talk about our reality, and also to dream.”
- Mark Rothko, (b. 1903, Daugavpils, Latvia), Orange and Yellow, 1956, 231.1 x 180.3 cm, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY, US
- Frank Bowling, (b. 1934 , Bartica, Guyana), Who’s Afraid of Barney Newman, 1968, acrylic paint on canvas, 236.4 x 129.5 cm, Tate
- Atsuho Tanaka, (b. 1932, Osaka, Osaka Prefecture, Japan), Electric Dress, 1956, 165 X 80 X 80 cm, courtesy of Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo
- Derek Walcott (b. 1930, Castries, Saint Lucia), Love After Love, Collected Poems, 1948–1984
- Sammy Baloji (b.1978, Lumumbashi, Democratic Republic of Congo), Kumbuka!, 2006, Photo collage, various venues)
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