Thursday, 19 December 2013

Changing Perceptions

by Poppy Field I

Whilst recovering from minor surgery earlier this week I found my anaesthetic-clouded mind pondering over two unrelated yet inextricably entwined events… Two weeks ago, I handed in my final essay of the term before striding down The Strand to visit the National Portrait Gallery’s Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize

My essay was an analysis of post-colonial theory in relation to Sonia Boyce, a British born multi-media artist of Afro-Caribbean descent. I had spent innumerable hours totally immersed in the decades-long struggle for recognition experienced by Boyce and other members of the Caribbean Arts Movement and the Black British Arts Movement.

So, how was it that I had mutely accepted the presence of West African born Leonce Raphael Agbodjelou’s Untitled c-print photograph, from the Musclemen series, on display in the NPG? Who was he? How had Agbodjelou’s art found its way to London? What else was I missing?

In 2010, during a trip up the River Niger to Timbuktu, Mali, the Australian expatriate Jack Bell first encountered sub-Saharan African art through the photographs of Hamidou Maiga. 

Attracted to the dynamic explosion of urban development across West Africa, as reflected in the art of a younger generation, this region quickly became the young Gallery owner’s focus.  Bell’s next trip was to Porto-Novo, Benin, a former French colony. He was in search of the locally renowned Agbodjelou family - known to have been practicing studio photography for generations.

Just look at the plastic flowers and brightly coloured backdrop of locally-printed Dutch-imported textiles that create an uneasy, claustrophobically charged atmosphere around the tense physical strength radiating from the two bodybuilders.

Leonce Raphael Agbodjelou’s photographs are at once overtly contemporary yet steeped in cultural traditions. He reflects that the Republic of Benin has a “complicated past with slavery, colonialism, voodoo, and missionaries”, visually epitomized in the yellow and blue textiles. First popular in the 19th century, these fabrics were designed on the Indonesian batik, weaved in Manchester and printed in Holland before being transported to Africa. Does Agbodjelou intentionally highlight the Orient as a Western invention rather than an inert truth of nature?

For explicitly socially and politically charged photography one needs to look no further than Bell’s exhibition Filipe Branquinho: Showtime.

Using a diptych format for this series shot in his hometown Maputo, Mozambique, Branquinho pairs the dilapidated interiors of once successful colonial hotels with uninhibited portraits of local prostitutes. Rooms are available for rent. On the left hand side of the above image one can make out few remaining room keys hanging from hooks. Customers are received both day and night. On the right a woman is illuminated in an almost saintly manner.

In capturing these shots Branquinho was not exempt from the hourly rate, “Every customer has a fantasy and I, as a customer, paid for the rooms and the women to be there and my fantasy was to photograph them.”

Bell reflects that the show has “provoked some fiery responses”. Occasional hiccups do happen. Such as when Bell set about to exhibit sculptures by the Mozambique based artist Goncalo Mabunda. Made from a plethora of weapons recovered in 1992, such as AK-47s, rocket launchers and pistols, Bell received a call from customs questioning why 600kg of arms had arrived in the UK addressed to him.

Earlier this year Somerset House hosted 1:54, London's first Contemporary African Art Fair. Coinciding with the Frieze Art Fair, its Moroccan founder Touria El Glaoui believes that "given the right platform, there is no reason not to see the same rise in interest we have recently witnessed in the Asian art market."

And so, as my mother decided I’d had quite enough oxygen, thank you very much, I was left with one last thought.

How is it, that in the span of my little sister’s lifetime (please excuse her selfie) that the international art market has opened up so drastically? While sub-Saharan African artists are successfully taking up UK residencies and exhibiting here in London, three of my good friends are half way around the world in Mumbai sculpting figures for the Dandi March Memorial? Ironically, a memorial that commemorates the 240-mile march of 1930 led by Gandhi, from Sabarmati Ashram to Dandi, in protest against the British taxation on salt. 

I’d like to think that British sculptor Gavin Fulcher’s pride in creating a work that "signifies the eternal struggle of people against injustice" might one day be translated to the perception that all artwork is unique, rather than the production of our colonial past.  

Johanna Schwaiger is pictured here with her one of her two figures for the Dandi March Memorial at the IIT Centre, Mumbai.

Friday, 6 December 2013

Article about Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize

by Poppy Field I

The aspiring artists among us will certainly nod knowingly at the mention of the BP Portrait Award, an annual showcase open to young portrait painters worldwide. While we wait with baited breath to see whom amongst us will enter 2014’s competition a question springs to mind. What is the National Portrait Gallery up to in the meantime?

Why, it is the photographer’s equivalent! Until February 9th 2014 one can enter the realm of the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize and view firsthand Spencer Murphy’s winning image KATIE WALSH.

Murphy success is unprecedented: this is the sixth consecutive year his work has adorned the walls of the NPG. Commissioned for a poster campaign intended to promote Channel 4’s coverage of the Grand National, Murphy had approximately thirty minutes for this shot of Katie Walsh. Then about twenty-four hours of nail-biting anxiety as he waited for this image captured with a large-format film camera to develop.

For anyone slightly bemused at this image just remember. The Brits do like a good Horse race, not to mention the betting that goes along with it. The mud spattered across jockey Walsh’s face and silks is the result of racing in Kempton Park on a particularly wet and windy day. Also enduring extreme diets and sporting injuries Walsh is considered the leading female jockey. Last year she claimed the best Grand National finishing time for a woman. Ever. Murphy captures her strength of character in this almost intrusive image… but also something softer. Perhaps it is the way her hair threatens to fall loose, or the lift of an eyebrow that really forces milling tourists, married couples and arty students alike to stop. And just look. What was your reaction? Want to see more? Here’s his website.

This photograph, THE TWINS, by Dorothee Deiss came in at fourth place. Please forgive the equestrian commentator’s echo. Its time to take a closer look at the relationship between these Russian-born twins Esther and Ruth.

They appear here, aged seventy-five, in their bathrobes. Certainly not something they had expected when they met the pediatric endocrinologist Deiss at a bat mitzvah earlier this year. Deiss’ gift is clear: she has coaxed complete strangers from an elder generation to throw decorum out the window and reveal the tenderness and strength of their sisterhood.
The are other family portraits on display. This next one is by Giles Price:

Entitled KUMBH MELA PILGRIM – MAMTA DUBEY AND INFANT it was taken in a pop-up studio at the annual Kumbh Mela pilgrimage in India. What do you see? A humorous contrast between the mother’s traditional Indian dress and her child’s western all-in-one… or something more sinister? The combination of blue backdrop, prominent in Christian iconography, and Madonna and child-esqu arrangement jars with the sitter’s Hindu beliefs.

Finally, there is one last image that has played on my mind since visiting this exhibition. Anoush Abrar’s KOFI ANNAN:

Like the winning work this is a commissioned piece. With only a three-minute window to capture this Abrar gained third place. As the former Secretary-General of the United Nations the sitter, Kofi Annan, is high-flying to say the least. So scroll back up to the photograph again. What do you notice? Annan has his eyes closed.

Abrar has revealed that an initially reluctant Annan ‘didn’t want to do it’. But through this the photograph has an unparalleled intimacy. As the viewer we feel that we are intruding on a private moment of a man very much in the public eye. The simplicity of the black and white radiates integrity.

If you currently berating yourself at not having booked a trip to London for this exhibition, don’t fear. All is not lost. The National Portrait Gallery has this coming up next:

6 February - 1 June 2014, sponsored by HUGO BOSS, National Portrait Gallery

And after that its back to the BP Portrait Award!