Citizens of Memory
Curated by Aindrea Emelife
18 May - 24 July 2021
The Perimeter, London
Citizens of Memory seeks to better understand how looking back into the past informs how contemporary artists make their work. Focusing in particular on Black experience through painting, seven artists confront the complicated nature of memory and nostalgia, how they both frame experience and shape artistic practice. Nostalgia is multi-faceted and ever-changing: some aspects are reserved for the privileged, others are deeply personal puzzle pieces that forge who we are. We might yearn to look back to good times but, in their absence, we forge them for ourselves. This group of artists, whether employing visual languages of figuration or abstraction, all explore personal histories and investigate the human body and the forming of identity. The works themselves reckon with a history of art that has often misrepresented or excluded Black subjects and their experiences. With histories full of injustice, for many black people there is little romanticisation of the past and so these artists look back to paint for the future. Inspired, in part, by Claudia Rankine’s rousing book-length poem Citizen: An American Lyric, which is structured as a collection of lived experiences, this exhibition brings together the lives of seven artists, and how their relationships with history, belonging and remembering is exercised on canvas.
In new works on paper, British-Nigerian artist Tunji Adeniyi-Jones uses figuration as a means to explore West African history and its associated mythology through recurring motifs of religion, dance and artefact, notably the Egungun mask. While some cultural equivalents, such as Greek mythology and Western religious iconography have been written into our collective cultural lexicon in indelible ink, their compelling African counterparts seek visual representation. Adeniyi-Jones renders colourful and vibrant bodies that take inspiration from both his Yoruba heritage and his British upbringing, creating bold compositions that evoke the traditions and experiments of performance and dance. Dance is a unifying language of West Africa, and so Adeniyi-Jones explores the communicative possibilities of the body and dance to transcend cultural boundaries and also charge the bodies in his works with grit and vigour.
In the work of Zimbabwean artist Kudzanai-Violet Hwami, we explore collective histories and familial structures. Her 2019 work, With All My Friends, is a moving group portrait of the artist’s cousins before 1993, taken directly from a photograph with a scrapbook-like sensitivity and nostalgic emphasis. This work plays with different forms of relations, referencing analogue family photography, our attachment to moments in the past, and the overlapping of youthful narratives. Hwami’s courageous and tender oil painting reveals a deeply personal vision of Southern African life. The painting speaks to several recurring themes in her work, such as diasporic experience, celebrations, and the extraordinary moments of family life which have created a body of work in which the canvas becomes the place where the past is renegotiated.
British artist Rachel Jones' recent work draws attention to the Black interior through a focus on abstracted imagery of decorated teeth and mouths. The new works from lick your teeth, they so clutch (2021) are vivid clarion calls to self-empowerment, expressed across large areas of canvas in startling colour combinations, patterning and bold motif making. These are juicy, tactile, thrilling contemporary paintings that symbolise and make explicit an intimate, inner experience. Jones has said, 'my relationship to colour is shaped by my understanding that it can act as a form of communication of the autonomous, imaginary and multiplicitous construction of the Black Interior. I use it to seduce, assault and convey the inexplicable nature of my interiority as a black woman.’
The work of Walter Price addresses his experience as an African-American man growing up in Georgia, as well as his service in the US Navy, in which he spent four years aboard the USS Whidbey Island. The familiar, recurring motifs of palm trees and automobiles conjure up storybook memories and a very personal brand of symbolic nostalgia with luminous fields of colour. These tropes, often removed from their context, blur the lines between collective history and individual memory, the private and the public, as well as land somewhere between abstraction and figuration. Price reminds us of the ways in which our memories are shaped by our intimate relationship to objects. His reappearing symbols and motifs, set amidst urban landscapes and domestic interiors, explore the object-based nature of memory.
In a new six-panel painting commissioned by The Perimeter, British artist Olivia Sterling assesses what nostalgia really means – and how wistful tropes and imagery both forms identity and sugar-coats the past. Sterling’s nostalgia-filled pieces deconstruct complex issues of othering. She depicts quaint, unassuming and ordinary scenes to reflect on how we are confronted by racialised discourse in the most unlikely places of everyday life. The sweet violence of these canvases depicting jam, sugar, cakes and communal cooking speak to the ways in which silent brutalities shape different collective experiences, whether with friends, family, or in the context of British national identity.
In Maputo-born artist Cassi Namoda’s Feeding Woman with Red Chair (2020), the artist references a photograph of the wet nurse of Emperor Negus of Ethiopia, a figure whom we know very little of. She forms part of Namoda’s research into figures, which have been “lost” to the ether of medical research or colonialism. Sensing that she might have had a hard life, Namoda wanted to add beauty into her portrayal on canvas, focusing instead on the beauty of her positioning, for example. Referencing styles of classical portraiture and East African Tinga Tinga painting, Namoda draws on her mastery of bodies and her new fashioning of ‘African pointillism’ to imbue the canvas with an imposing enigma. She paints this lost figure back into history, and brings her memory into the contemporary. Ernesto finds potential on the other side (2021) is an ode to Black survival, and a continuation of Namoda’s exploration of post-colonial Mozambique, as the characters in both paintings become a symbol for searching and consider longing as a shared sentiment. These figures embody historical trauma and fears imbued with a spiritual dimension. In this way, colour is deeply important for the artist who has stressed that ‘violet… is the ancient royal color and therefore a symbol of the sovereignty of Christ’, while ‘Gold is symbolic of a brightness of day.’
In Sail me down deep river (2020) by the Nigerian-British artist Ndidi Emefiele, we encounter a female figure, alone on a boat, except for the presence of a tabby cat, a bird of paradise, and a translucent ghost-like character who guides the vessel on its journey across the solemn waters. In 2019, when Ndidi Emefiele’s sister passed away, she lost the desire to paint, taking about a year to recover and build up the courage to work again. It is perhaps not surprising that her works from this period are melancholic and nostalgic. The culmination of viewing these works is to be confronted by a profound meditation on death and loss. Additionally, Emefiele’s work interrogates themes of pilgrimage, migration and displacement, and how feelings of homecoming and belonging shape and continue to define Black experience today. Fablelike and universalised imagery of sand, sea and sky enigmatically mix with poignant and metaphorically significant soul-animals. Emefiele imbues mystery and storytelling as she grapples with the Black subject and how the historical genre of portraiture becomes political because the idea of the Black subject is still unresolved.
Aindrea Emelife is a 27-year-old art critic, independent curator, art historian and presenter from London. Starting at The Courtauld Institute of Art, where she completed a BA in History of Art, she has quickly gone on to become a ground-breaking new voice in an art world otherwise steeped in tradition. Aindrea has been published widely and internationally, including articles in The Guardian, Vanity Fair, The Telegraph, BBC, GQ, Frieze, The Independent, BBC and ArtNet. She is currently working on her first two books, A Little History of Protest Art (Tate, 2022) and How Art Can Change The World: A Manifesto (Frances Lincoln, 2022).