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'"Like the dead-seeming, cold rocks": A Reverie' by Matthew Holman


Rachel Jones, 'Lick your teeth, they so clutch', 2021. Oil pastel, oil stick on canvas, 87 x 216 cm // 23.5 x 133 cm (detail). Photograph by Andy Stagg.

'When you are alone and too tired even to turn on any of your devices, you let yourself linger in a past stacked among your pillows. Usually you are nestled under blankets and the house is empty. Sometimes the moon is missing and beyond the windows the low, gray ceiling seems approachable. Its dark light dims in degrees depending on the density of clouds and you fall back into that which gets reconstructed as metaphor.'[1]


In the opening of her prose-poem Citizen, Claudia Rankine evokes the disquieting dwelling-places of memory. The domestic sphere collapses, the stability of the cosmos falters and our recollections, as though in a faraway dream, transform. For Rankine, this strange patina of reverie can call these past selves into new realisations by being re-presented as something else, whether in verse, prose, or paint. For the artists discussed in this essay – whose paintings hang together in the exhibition Citizens of Memory – the possibilities of metaphor enable them to turn memory into matter. These are paintings depicting the expanding fields of youthful experience, ancestral history and the ambivalent joys of starting over somewhere new.


‘Like the dead-seeming, cold rocks’, wrote the poet and novelist Zora Neale-Hurston: ‘I have memories within that came out of the material that went to make me... Time and place have had their say.’[2] This is true for the interior landscapes of London-based artist Rachel Jones, whose raw-edged and uncompromisingly anti-rectangular canvases are expressive arenas in which she uses colour ‘to seduce, assault and convey the inexplicable nature of [her] interiority as a Black woman.’[3] Two diptychs form part of the Lick your teeth, they so clutch (2021) series, a body of work that uses abstract forms to address the relationship between interior life and the materials we use to give it voice; in part through the metaphorical possibilities of the mouth as an entry point to the self. For Jones, the taut balance of rich and mesmerising pigments, from incandescent reds to glacial blues and greens suggest the geological laminas that trace the passing of time, ‘can act as a form of communication of the autonomous, imaginary and multiplicitous construction of the Black Interior.’[4]


Cassi Namoda, 'Ernesto finds potential on the other side', 2021. Acrylic resin on cotton poly, 152.4 x 121.9 cm. Photograph by Andy Stagg.

The passing of time might be understood as a succession of losses and endings, of that which was but is no longer. Yet everywhere we see the fluid distributions of the past linger on as traces in the world of which we are a part. In several works in the exhibition, a sense of how one relates to one’s past is represented through boundary lines and momentous crossings from one space to another. Cassi Namoda’s Ernesto finds potential on the other side (2021) features a subsistence fishing farmer who seeks meaning, security, and compassion in the harsh landscape, and Namoda has noted how we are on a ‘journey with [the figure] in which we hope that they “find what they are searching for.”’[5] For the artist, the suite of purple paintings of which this is a part ‘offer a portal into the future.’[6]

In Sail me down deep river (2020) by Ndidi Emefiele we find ourselves on a small red boat with a youthful yet majestic figure, arms crossed with a bird resting on her index finger, beside a cat and a translucence boatman – part-psychopomp and part-spirit guide – ushering us across the waters. As coherent as the meanings of a lucid dream only in its moment of revelation and as stately as the theatrical court portraits of Peter Paul Rubens or Sir Anthony Van Dyck, Sail me down deep river transports us from one space to another, from one time to another, in an intoxicating metaphorical composition. Similar to Neale-Hurston’s cold rocks, the Brooklyn-based artist Walter Price imbues arid palm trees, abandoned automobiles, and coiled snakes – the objects and symbols of his visual language – with densely textured pasts and ambivalent futures. The cold rocks only seem dead; they contain multitudes.


Walter Price, 'Pendulum Swooshing', 2018. Acrylic and flashe on linen, 63 x 63 x 1 3/16 inches (detail). Photograph by Andy Stagg.
Walter Price, 'Pendulum Swooshing', 2018. Acrylic and flashe on linen, 63 x 63 x 1 3/16 inches (detail). Photograph by Andy Stagg.

In Pendulum Swooshing (2018), the distant expanse of wild vegetation counterposes with the sea in a blurred horizon line, which Georgia-born Walter Price, who served for four formative years in the United States Navy, ‘spent a long time trying to get away from’ but now ‘embraces.’[7] Price’s characters share a similar back-and-forth with the past, both magnetized by it and repelled, and seemingly search for the places from which they once sought to escape. In the painting, the youthful female figure appears to dart from the centre to the top-left of the canvas while furtively looking back, a common compositional arrangement in Price’s surreal paintings, as in The whole darn family have arrived (2017). Brown square bricks suggest a boundary for the figure to scale but instead each seem to hang in neither foreground nor background, as though suspended in an indeterminate frontier of time and space. The detailed contours of the figure’s hands are presented palm-up, like a pilgrim in prayer. An untended fire burns in the distance.


Darby English has observed how, in Price’s work, ‘[t]he presence alone of figures does not ensure a figure-ground relationship, which is often deferred’ and instead ‘characters and psychological objects proliferate, establishing a weird spatiality where one expects a plot or a setting that could explain things.’[8] This world of energetic lines and enigmatic falls of paint are compacted renderings of the artist’s poetic imagination. While the wayward contours and sumptuous swoops of the abstracted female figure suggest a body in motion, in which the unnaturally large feet and toenails overlap in orange and green as though tracing sequential movement, there is little sense of narrative development and even less of where we are going. ‘There’s an effective magic to repetition’, Price has said on his recent work, a hypnotic power suggested by the title.[9] Pendulum Swooshing, however,seems to exist entirely in the arc of time’s dispersed movement, in which memory becomes blurred with experience, as present thoughts give way to traces of the past.


Tunji Adeniyi-Jones, 'Three Figures in Blue II', 2021. Watercolour and ink on paper, 35.6 x 25.4 cm. Photograph by Andy Stagg.

Toni Morrison’s concept of ‘re-memory’ invites us to ‘journey to a site to see what remains were left behind and to reconstruct the world that these remains imply’ in order to re-humanise those who have been ‘disremembered and unaccounted for.’[10] Coursing through Tunji Adeniyi-Jones’ nocturnal reveries is the pitched battle between remembering and forgetting, and the attempt to reassemble the members of the body, the family, and the population of the past. In works like Sunset Duet (2021) and Midnight Duel II (2021), Adeniyi-Jones constructs flat planes of lush, ethereal colour that appear to be at once entirely flat while at the same time formulating a real sense of depth. The curvilinear shapes modulate as oval forms that recall the resist-dyed textiles of Nigeria, and the twinned figures gyrate as though enraptured in song.


When asked about the bodies in his paintings, Adeniyi-Jones described them as ‘siblings’, or rather ‘twins.’[11] Although himself an only child, he conceived of ‘these two bodies [who] share a spirit’ as though his work is populated by autobiographical truth twinned with an imagined network of affinities: ‘Here I am, by myself, with all these bodies dancing around me, and it feels like company, and it’s great.’[12] Adeniyi-Jones’s figures are mediated by the insistence of collective history into fictive congregations of music and dance, responding to folklore in ways that recall the silhouetted boppers of Aaron Douglas’s Harlem or the harlequin leisure-makers in Bob Thompson’s topographies, but they are also meditations on how we remember and commemorate familial pasts that are both our own and remain mysterious to us.


In Olivia Sterling’s six-part series Sweet Violence (2021), the playfulness of a family’s food fight – of pies launched into a rival’s face, of globules of salivia fired like a bullet from pursed lips, and two bloody teeth strewn beside gobstoppers in the palm of a hand – betrays the lurking menace of a childhood distressed by quiet acts of racialised violence. Amidst the chaos, a black hand tips a pie off the table in a profound gesture of resistance. Sterling’s luridly coloured scene is rich in narrative detail and all the pies, sweets, and icing sugar take on metaphorical proportions as stand-ins for a Middle England at war with itself. Sterling’s claustrophobic works give appearance to the domestic nightmare behind the carefully laid out table-cloth and the perfect puff pastry, housed as they are in spaces where we are always up close and never with the reassurances of the whole picture.


Olivia Sterling, 'Sweet Violence', 2021. Acrylic on canvas. Each canvas: 75 x 51 cm. Photograph by Andy Stagg.

Displayed opposite Sweet Violence in the present exhibition, Kudzanai-Violet Hwami’s With All Your Friends (2019) also documents kinship through metaphor but is less about mediating signs and symbols as stand-ins for something else, and more about the power of painting to transform the familial and the familiar into new territories of colour. These are gorgeously textured portraits that take great joy in the oscillating tension between semi-realist renderings of faces and bodies with expanses of pure and bright pigment that heave those figures into new modes of relation with the world outside. The people behind the pictures, who are here the artist’s cousins but are more widely modelled on ‘family photographs, vintage pornographic photos’ and whose story is told by layering ‘motifs or text to build a composition’, are both perfectly at home and yet strangely defamiliarised in these houses of paint.[13] Hwami described With All Your Friends, with its title as a warm and lyrical address to the absent other, as her favourite of a series of formative paintings that were exhibited at Gasworks in 2019: it was ‘the scale’ that ‘surprised’ the artist, and allowed the image to be ‘really inviting.’[14] We are ushered in to a portrait of family life that asks us to reflect on the distances between ourselves and our childhoods, between the people we were then and, in that moment, might have been.


We are reminded that, for Hwami as for each of the artists featured in Citizens of Memory, these are not paintings merely of reverie and abandonment of the world outside but compelling readings of imagined communities, of the people, places and objects that have their own pasts and their own means of shaping who we were and who we become. Memories and recollections may weigh heavily in these works but they cannot grant total access to the unwritten and unrepresented life of these places and these people, some real, and some fictional. Only the act of the imagination can do that.


‘Memory is a tough place’, writes Rankine later in Citizen: ‘You were there. If this is not the truth, it is also not a lie.’[15]


Kudzanai-Violet Hwami, 'With All Your Friends', 2019. Mixed media and acrylic on canvas, 30 x 30 cm (detail). Photograph by Andy Stagg.

[1] Claudia Rankine, ‘Citizen’, in Citizen: An American Lyric (London: Penguin Random House, 2014), p. 5. [2] Zora Neale Hurston, ‘My Birthplace’, in Dust Tracks on a Road (New York: Arno Press, 1969), p. 11. [3] Interview with the author, 2 October 2020. [4] Ibid. [5] Cassi Namoda, artist’s statement, 2021. [6] Ibid. [7] Walter Price, quoted in Andrianna Campbell, ‘Walter Price: Makin’ it Funky, Keepin’ it Fresh’, in Pearl Lines (Cologne: [Kölnischer Kunstverein, 2019), n. p. Print. [8] Darby English, ‘The Fluid Part’, Greene Naftali Gallery, August 2020 <https://greenenaftaligallery-viewingroom.exhibit-e.art/viewing-room/walter-price2> [accessed 5 May 2021]. Online. [9] Walter Price, in Enuma Okoro, ‘Pearl Lines by Walter Price – dancing with whiteness’, Financial Times, 24 April 2021 <https://www.ft.com/content/7f6c405d-e1a9-4491-ba54-f6ae0d98c3ce> [accessed 2 May 2021]. Online. [10] Toni Morrison, ‘The Site of Memory’, in Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir, 2nd ed., edited by William Zinsser (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1995), 83-102; p. 92. Print. [11] Tunji Adeniyi-Jones, guest, in William Jess Laird, host, ‘Tunji Adeniyi-Jones’, Image Culture (podcast), 10 June 2018, <https://image-culture.simplecast.com/episodes/ep-017-tunji-adeniyi-jones-wCHykx2F> [accessed 8 May 2021]. Online. [12] Ibid. [13] Kudzanai-Violet Hwami, interview with Jessica Draper, ‘How I identify isn’t what pushes me to create. I create because I cannot do anything else’, Studio International, 9 November 2019 <https://www.studiointernational.com/index.php/kudzanai-violet-hwami-interview-gasworks-london-venice-biennale-2019> [accessed 26 March 2021]. Online. [14] Ibid. [15] Rankine, Citizen, p. 64.

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