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London, UK 14.01.2012Features

John O'MKabe: Now That's What I Call Really Pretty Scary

Voodoo in Victoria

Somewhere between Victoria Miro and the Victoria & Albert, a pop-up contemporary art space incorporating the Edel Assanti Project Space, Jack Bell Gallery, an artist’s residency gallery and an artist’s studio currently occupied by Gordon Cheung, is the new cultural epicentre of SW1.

Text: Jeremy Hunt | Images: Various

THE FAÇADE HAS an optimistic Festival of Britain quality, and the 3,500-sq.ft space, stacked vertically over six narrow floors, organises events collaboratively, conjuring up the nostalgic ethos of a 1960’s Arts Lab or NY Village scene with visitors morphing informally between happenings. The fresh white gallery interiors enthusiastically incorporate the pre-loved, tomato-red reception desk and the wholesale office-carpet aesthetic, and play their part in attracting the groovy art-public to a trendy destination in London’s South-West End.

The gestation of the gallery at 276 Vauxhall Bridge Road emerged from earlier pop-up spaces by the Edel Assanti directors’ collaboration with Westminster City Council and the landowners, Grosvenor Securities. The gallery might be on the art world periphery but the ambition for the space is to produce a multi-purpose identity and a creative community that is charged and collaborative. 

Edel Assanti’s programme of group shows and solo exhibitions engage in an unusual and laudable conversation by curating emerging contemporary art focused on a knowledge and understanding of art history before the 20th century, as well as knowing exhibitions such as The Marquise went out at Five O’clock, a reference to the Situationist International. 
The eponymous Jack Bell Gallery shows work from sub-Saharan Africa –Mali, Benin, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Ghana, and from Soweto, Haiti and Papua New Guinea in Southern Asia. Jack isn’t an armchair dealer. Born in Sydney and in his mid-20’s, he is a risk-taking explorer/art dealer with something of the 1930’s looks and dash of the adventure novelist Peter Fleming. His is an inquisitive contemporary art journey, researching on the ground, making friends and knocking on doors to discover the artists he shows. After graduating from The Courtauld Institute of Art, he worked his apprenticeship at the Timothy Taylor Gallery for three years. But his enthusiasm for World Art was inspired by the influential exhibition and catalogue Les Magiciens de la Terre (Magicians of the Earth) at the Centre Pompidou, Paris, in 1989; the French curator and dealer in contemporary African art, André  Magnin; and The Contemporary African Art Collection (CAAC) – assembled by Italian businessman, Jean Pigozzi.

While the roots of photography in Africa developed through a European ethnographic interest – and subsequent missionary photography that presented images of Christianised Africans to help fund evangelist activity – a genuine popular photography emerged from local cultures generating their own specific vision and character.Photography has a long history in Africa. Once Daguerre had invented a technique for creating images in 1839, the vanguard of early photography in non-European cultures and colonies pursued a scientific and anthropological interest, which saw photography as a way of documenting and studying the human race in the service of Natural History. 

In 1845, the French photographer E. Thiésson made the first known photographic image of an African subject. The photograph, taken in Sofala, Mozambique, is of a woman with naked torso draped in a decorative cloth skirt, sitting in a chair in half profile and described as Native of Sofala, thirty years of age; although still young, this woman has hair that is almost entirely white. This predates the first known image of Abraham Lincoln made in 1846. David Livingstone’s exploration of the Zambesi, from 1858 to 1863, employed his brother Charles as an official photographer. Livingstone’s instructions were representative of the age in their scientific and sociological interest: ‘You will endeavour to secure characteristic specimens of the different tribes residing in, or visiting Tete, for the purpose of Ethnology. Do not choose the ugliest but, (as among ourselves) the better class of natives who are believed to be characteristic of the race and if possible get men, women and children grouped together.’In the 20th century, Irving Penn’s images of Dahomey and Leni Riefenstahl’s of the Nuba tribes offer an objectified Western perspective, which defines the image through sculptural form and shape. Jack Bell’s recent exhibitions include From Dahomey to Benin, which featured Benin-based photographer, Leonce Raphael Agbodjéou, presenting studio portraits of the people of Porto-Novo. The images capture the confident energy of urban Africa, featuring family, friends and studio clients dressed in contemporary highly patterned and coloured textiles, almost camouflaged against an equally dazzling background. The fashions and fabrics are imported from Holland but made to local designs, echoing the paisley patterns introduced through colonial trade but maintaining the dynamic spirit of African design.

The discovery of Hamidou Maiga’s archive of negatives has allowed the gallery to create editions of signed photographs, with the V&A Museum among the first to add his work to their collection. Maiga opened his studio in 1958 and his elegant and formal black and white studio portraits of dignitaries, artists, musicians and villagers in their best finery initially appear traditional and anthropological but the introduction of stylised props and backgrounds and the combination of African and European fashions embraces a particularly African social identity. They represent a time capsule that will surely disappear as digital imaging makes the sourcing of materials and processing of black and white photography impractical.The gallery also represents the Ghanaian artist Paa Joe, whose decorative wooden carved and painted coffins are in museum collections worldwide. They are made specifically to represent the activity or character of the person in their lifetime and manifest themselves as an eagle, lion, a football boot, a Mercedes Benz car, bus and plane. The form of work is on one level comic fantasy sculpture, but their function embodies both contemporary materialistic post-colonial Africa and ritual and tradition. The gallery has also shown paintings by Emerging Art from Kinshasa and Vodou I Magic I Juju –Contemporary Art from West Africa, which included commercial shop signs purchased directly from the community witch-doctor, graphically advertising cures for venereal diseases. The rediscovery of Modern African Art is timely and evident with the planning of a Pan-African Roaming Biennial; the survey exhibition Figures & Fictions: Contemporary South African Photography at the V&A; and the 2011 edition of Paris Photo will spotlight African photography from Bamako to Cape Town. Jack Bell and Edel Assanti act both as contemporary curators and commercial galleries, blurring the centre-periphery boundaries of high art and popular art that in the 1950’s was the preserve of the Institute of Contemporary Arts in its provocative intellectual phase. Their exhibitions present the idea of the transition between concepts of primitivism and sophistication, recognising a creative friction or continuum between commercial art and fine art, and ethnic kitsch and the Western avant-garde. More importantly they are also exploring and acknowledging the 80% of global art activity that the contemporary art world ignores. As art economies and modes of exhibition change, they are intelligently and humorously playing with the idea and function of the gallery space –and proposing an affordable aesthetic for a new generation of collectors.

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