New Art Exchange, Nottingham
Seven artists with links to Africa explore the interweaving of history and geography – while another seven tackle Black British masculinities
Last modified on Mon 1 Nov 2021 15.59 GMT
In the corner of New Art Exchange in Nottingham, I pop on a cassette tape and listen to multidisciplinary artist Simnikiwe Buhlungu. She tells me her feet are wet and that she’s lost and about self-determination. But it is her proclamation about togetherness that catches my attention: “self can be a community,” she explains. In a world where the individual is prized, hitching the concept of identity to external forces seems radical and risky. But this is exactly what Laced – a group exhibition of seven female artists with links to Africa and its diasporas – asks us to attempt.
On a basic level, we are all aware of the ways in which others have shaped us – the way we intonate like our parents or vote like our friends. Laced dials it up a few notches, uncovering links to history and geography, spreading connections out across the gallery like the delicately threaded textile the exhibition is named after. My green jumper starts to disappear into the green walls, which blends into Zohra Opoku’s photograph of lush foliage. Beneath the branches is an obscured female figure – I catch a glimpse of her eye, she stares back at me – and her immersion in the landscape questions my own relationship with the natural world.
The seven artists’ work responds to a poetic text formulated by curator Loren Hansi Gordon to weave together a broad selection of ideas. Laced is about race (“how we wear our hair”), Nottingham (“history of this place”), liberty (“the art of being free”), heart (“love is as love does”) and fundamentally how we are able “to find ourselves in the other”. This plethora of concepts is articulated through thick swirls of paint, colloquial dialogue, bold photography, delicate needlework and hypnotising animation by artists with links across the globe.
Rather than creating incoherence, the array of topics throws out endless points of connection. It is the personal in the works that reels us in. Buhlungu’s recordings of walks include profound ponderings, observations about location, burps and songs to generate a meandering monologue that reflects the spontaneous way in which all minds travel. Wura-Natasha Ogunji’s exquisite stitched human figures depict emotions that words can’t reach, while Michaela Yearwood-Dan’s cacophony of dense acrylic flicks, scrapes and dabs with hidden phrases like “when will I finally figure out what it is to be free?” is joyous and volatile like the contradiction of being alive.
Connection also means taking responsibility. Tabita Rezaire’s panoramic video explores how the internet continues to perpetuate oppressive hierarchies. From the physical infrastructure – the routes of which mimic those of the slave traders – to the way in which Google’s algorithm’s suggestions include “why is Africa poor” and “why Africans don’t wear deodorant”, Rezaire condenses history to illustrate how interconnectivity can be abusive and how our past shapes our present. “West needs new spaces to conquer” stretches out across the screen, challenging us to acknowledge the ills of previous generations and how our quest to defend “power at all costs” is far from over.
A quirk of Covid rescheduling means that upstairs another seven artists tackle the topic of Black British masculinities in Cut & Mix. Dialogues naturally open up between the two exhibitions, and the similarities between Amartey Golding’s flower-obscured Black men and Opoku’s fauna-hidden women narrate how excessively restrictive gender identities have negative implications on both sides of the coin. The need for women to appear a certain way boxes men into a corner too.
For Black men, this corner is smaller than ever – as many of the works in Cut & Mix reveal. Heavyweight Champ by Antonio Roberts features recoded video games with Black characters from fighting games. Balrog from Street Fighter II races across a Mario game, while Adam Hunter from Streets of Rage pops up i Donkey Kong. Later, Beverley Bennett places the words of female musicians in the mouths of male gospel singers, Marlene Smith wears the clothes of her late father and Michael Forbes juxtaposes multicoloured wigs and diamante-adorned hats with stern facial expressions. Reframing not only exposes the narrow and restrictive path Black men are often required to walk, it also offers an alternative where vulnerability, sensitivity and flamboyancy have a place.
At the back of the gallery is a dimly lit orange room. Bennett’s gospel singers and the aroma from a scented diffuser fill the air as I look at a photographic portrait by Rotimi Fani-Kayode. Two Black men stand close, facing the camera – the first, draped in a red robe, looks heavenward – while the second nuzzles into his shoulder. The certainty and stillness of the first man allays the concerns of the second, offering him a place of refuge and rest. Senses alight in the warm, closed space, it is as though I have stumbled upon a chapel at the end of a long journey. With a head full of ideas, I too wish to rest upon this man’s shoulder. Connection is not easy, but it is all we have.
Laced: In Search of What Connects Us and Cut And Mix are at New Art Exchange, Nottingham until 8 January 2022