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Nottingham Contemporary: ‘The Place Is Here’ exhibition review

A text by guest blogger Abondance Matanda.

Nottingham Contemporary’s recent exhibition The Place Is Here was meant to transport visitors back to Britain in the 1980s. For the most part it did, however the power of its hundred-strong army of artworks diminished the sense that three whole decades have passed since the radical Black Arts Movement of the 80s and 90s began. The curators Nick Aikens, Sam Thorne and Nicola Guy carved the show into quarters, which were each christened by a definitive artwork within the four galleries. Signs of Empire, We Will Be, The People’s Account and Convenience Not Love each spoke to myriad maladies that still run riot today, but I could not leave the space feeling overly desolate about the state and future of society. The Place Is Here is a statement and an affirmation and an answer to many enquiries as to where a generation of young black people did and do and should go, to mediate their identity and carve out a home inside a nation as hostile as Britain can be to us, and heal from all the different toils this takes.

Signs of Empire took its title from a 22-minute video work by Black Audio Film Collective, which faded in and out of old faces and italic words, whispering about loss and memory and illusion. Some imagery was soft and tinted by warm colours, but depicted the darkness and violence of how the British Empire was established, with many a severed limb and dead tiger lingering on screen. The languid, ghostly pace of the film had a deep sadness to it, like many of the other works in that gallery. Gavin Jantjes created a mock-pedagogical collage series called ‘A South African Colouring Book’, examining the identity of Cape Coloured or mixed-race people during apartheid, as well as how political policies legally and systematically defined and protected white people.

On the opposite wall though, in a curatorial representation of the wide-ranging conversations happening in the 80s, Eddie Chambers exposed the fragility of whiteness in four framed screen prints. Up close and in the midst of his Union Jack-patterned swastika symbols, you might not see how the ‘Destruction of the National Front’ is happening, but make a step back and the bigger picture is plain to see. The thing started as a whole, got torn from the top right corner and then some. By the end the whole ting is mash up. Even if someone tried glue them far-right ideologies back together, they couldn’t be as strong as they first was. John Agard’s poem Flag flutters to mind, for how similarly it mocks and undermines people’s nationalism. The Place Is Here lets you slip in and out of all that immersive madness, pree the parallels between then and now, and decide how to move forward.

At the same time, Veronica Ryan’s sculpture ‘Territorial’ questions if we even have that ability. In the centre of her bronze and plaster enigma, a vulnerable vase is either emerging from or being cushioned or possibly swallowed by a big land mass. It could be a stolen object representing black people who were taken from Africa, like those in Mowbray Odonkor’s ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ overseeing the site on one side of it. Or maybe it’s to do with femininity, because it looks like a pearl in an oyster, which can metaphorically be used to talk about female sexuality. ‘Lay Back, Keep Quiet and Think of What Made Britain so Great’ is the bright piece which looks pon Ryan’s work from the other side. It was made in 1986 too, but by an artist of this era whose name might ring more bells today. Apparently, Sonia Boyce referenced wallpaper designs by William Morris and subverted the Arts and Crafts movement he headed in the 19th century. Being ignorant of such art history though, when I saw Boyce’s pastel and watercolour flowers intertwining on the white gallery wall, I started singing these lyrics from Ms Dynamite’s tune Seed Will Grow: drowning in poverty and deceit, but black roses grow from concrete. The Black Arts Movement had an urgent mission and responsibility to respond to the very same things Dynamite was dealing with fifteen years ago, which still resonates today cah our future dat, we supposed to nurture dat, nah let nutten or nobody hurt dat.

Women’s roles and status within the black community and the art world is explored with more focus in the second gallery We Will Be. Sonia Boyce appears a couple times again, but Veronica Ryan withdrew from the art world and has become elusive, like bare black women who made striking art with and before her. Since our collective memory too often neglects their narratives, The Place Is Here urges us to resist that by remembering.
Nottingham Contemporary re-organised a Radical Black Art Working Convention in March, to revisit the original conversations from the one in 1984, where artists discussed the “form, function and future” of their work. This year, the London-based reading group Women Of Colour Index (WOCI) dissected the representation and visibility of black women in art and as artists, looking at Martina Attille’s film Dreaming Rivers. It is about an old Windrush-era woman called Miss T, who laments about how England is so cold and makes her so tired, like our mothers and grandmothers do.

Her mental breakdown becomes a dance in the moonlight coming through her lace curtains as she gropes for peace in the darkness. When she braids her hair and washes her feet in her sanctuary of a bedroom, decorated with images of Mother Mary and candles and family photographs, you almost wish her two daughters would offer a helping hand. However, self-care as a healing mechanism from being disconnected from your home and heritage is something they will have to discover on their ones. It feels like a good time to be a black woman in 2017, because so many cultural figures and artistic collectives are making it easier for us to exist in, but also bun down Babylon.

History shouldn’t be repeating itself if it’s gonna hurt so many people, which is why there is a new research-led initiative called Thick/er Black Lines, designed “to rewrite histories and to negotiate a way forward” by some British women called Rianna Jade Parker, Aurella Yussuf, Hudda Khaireh and Kariima Ali. Their new artwork ‘We Apologise For The Delay To Your Journey’ is visibly inspired by a map Lubaina Himid devised back in the day. It was displayed in The Place Is Here amongst other items from her Making Histories Visible archive. This current Turner Prize contender really was the star of that whole exhibition. Its title even comes from a poem she scrawled on the skirt of a wooden woman who stands firm, arms crossed in the We Will Be gallery, which was specifically dedicated to “asserting the presence of bodies, identities and desires”.

Works like ‘I Came to Dance’ by Claudette Johnson and ‘Art History’ by Marlene Smith make sure we are seen with the sweetness and softness people pretend isn’t inherent in the women who’ve harvested strange fruits and sugar canes since day. Same way, we’ve got Maud Sulter and Ingrid Pollard’s careful meditations on the darker, sour burdens we hold on our heads and hips and too often forget to put down, so we can rest. Mona Hatoum and Zarina Bhimji remind us about mothering and nurturing ourselves and each other, with voices in a video and spices on the floor, cooking up a wholesome, sensory experience of being politically black in Britain in the 1980s.

That term is now obsolete, but I can appreciate why people from Asia and Africa and the Caribbean all came together under the umbrella of blackness, to shelter themselves from the racism that was pelted at them through glass ceilings. Our diasporic experiences seem more nuanced now, but The Place Is Here celebrated the commonalities between our communities. It let the artists speak for themselves, which more specifically occurred in The People’s Account. That third gallery had bare TVs and big screens replaying documentaries and animations and footage from an era which was littered with insurrections across the country.

We saw people die and dance and march and I cried and shuddered at the sight of these things that I’m so grateful I do not have to bear real-time witness to. This does not mean that Perpetual Community Trauma is not ingrained in a lot of urban experiences now though, as explained by an activist called Temi Mwale at a discussion on youth violence earlier this year. Even though intergenerational conversations are essential, we can trust that there are new artists, writers and thinkers ready to lessen the burden for the next batch of yutedem.

We have just lost Darcus Howe, a broadcaster and campaigner amongst many other things, whose voice I first heard defending himself on BBC News during England’s 2011 riots, which provided my personal political awakening. ‘The People’s Account’ by Ceddo Film and Video Workshop, filmed during and after the Broadwater Farm Riots in 1985, was commissioned by Channel 4 who never broadcasted it because they ‘objected to its accusations of police racism’. The People’s Account as a room represented black artists taking ownership of media production and distribution within their communities, for example through an Anti Racist Film Programme. This was radical in a political climate that wanted to silence and misrepresent black people.

Someone once told me that love is tenderness in private and justice in public. That rang through my head as I entered the final exhibition space featuring a trio of works.Convenience Not Love is named after a two-panel print by Chila Kumari Burman. It’s making a mockery of Margaret Thatcher’s idea of strong and stable leadership, and Britain’s amnesia regarding the reasons why people migrated here from the very countries it chose to gwan and colonise. Then Keith Piper dreamed up ‘The Black Assassin Saints’: a writer, painter, actor and musician who come armed with culture to gun down themlots who oppress uslots all over the world.
Lubaina Himid ‘took aim and threw’ her last piece in the show at the whole of art history and politricks, which hoped to have worn her down and run her out by then. But nah, her larger than life multimedia tableaux maintained the satirical tone that journalists branded as cultural terrorism at the time. ‘A Fashionable Marriage’ was a 1980s version of William Hogarth’s ‘Marriage A La Mode’, featuring Thatcher and Reagan ‘to highlight the evils and misdeeds’ of society, the same way artists today use May and Trump, but more importantly in the same way Hogarth used black people in that series of six paintings from 1743-1745.

Toussaint L’Ouverture was born in 1743, you know. I know that because Lubaina Himid inscribed it on her collage on wood which opens the whole show, coming like some tombstone or something for that famous leader of the Haitian Revolution. My first reaction to it was ‘rah’. I felt confronted by this tall black guy towering over me, but when I read the exhibition text beside it, I said ‘rah’ again cah it affirmed that Toussaint ‘greets’ visitors. He was stood up tall like the military commander he was, but because of colonial legacies I immediately reacted to the body of a black man somewhat negatively.

It’s gonna take longer for us to dismantle all these signs of empire that insidiously surround us; to unlearn the internalised behaviours that harm our bredrins, than it did for Lubaina Himid to push all them pins into the shoulder of Toussaint L’Ouverture’s military uniform, and the bodice of the wooden woman’s big dress, but it’s not even a thing. We will be alright. Yes we lickle, but we tallawah even if Inglan is a bitch, word to Linton Kwesi Johnson. If there ever was a place to heal, assemble, fight for love and justice and tenderness and repeat, it was always here, through art, in the spaces we call home, where we mould our hearts and minds.

Abondance Matanda is an arts and culture writer and poet. She is based in London, which largely informs her subject matters and subversive, colloquial voice. Language, girlhood, class and blackness are themes she tends to notice and dissect, as well as other ideas pertaining to identity. Her influences range from Ms Dynamite to Toni Cade Bambara to Congolese music videos from the 90s.