Grace Wales Bonner @ Serpentine

Breath the air of those brave ancestors;

They were ladders to new worlds

– Ben Okri

In Old English, a shrine is the word used for a cabinet, chest or reliquary – i.e. a container for holy relics. In contemporary society, a shrine is more often associated with a holy place, marked by a building or another votive construction. Nestled amongst the work of 17 artists covering a range of disciplines – from writers to musicians – Grace Wales Bonner’s Shrine I (2019) consists of a cabinet, which stands as homage to those who have inspired her. The research material – which includes archival photographs, a television, books and feathers – is a physical representation of the many sources of influence to her current exhibition A Time for New Dreams at the Serpentine’s Sackler Gallery.

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Grace Wales Bonner, Shrine I 2019, Grace Wales Bonner: A Time for New Dreams. (Installation view, 18 January – 16 February 2019, Serpentine Galleries). © 2019 readsreads.info

Best known as a fashion designer, the Serpentine has described Wales Bonner as a “cultural polymath”, who was invited to exhibit at the London gallery in the first of a series of ambitious multidisciplinary exhibitions. Wales Bonner’s design process involves bringing together many sources to combine literary, musical and visual references. Resting on her cabinet are a number of books, some of which include Robin D.G. Kelley’s Africa Speaks, America Answers (Harvard University Press, 2012), Joseph E. Holloway’s Africanisms in American Culture (Indiana University Press, 1990) and Michel Fabre’s From Harlem to Paris (University of Illinois Press, 1991). And, while the immediate impression the exhibition evokes is an atmosphere for mysticism and ritual, a strong yet understated literary thread gently sews the show together.

Everything here is kind of true.

The true magic is the magic of you.

The world is the shrine.

And the shrine is the world.

– Invocation for the Shrine I, Ben Okri

The exhibition title was taken from Ben Okri’s 2011 volume of essays A Time for New Dreams (Rider), who was specially commissioned to write about the idea of the shrine for the exhibition, and his resulting words are printed on the walls of the gallery space. “I was thinking of this idea of a shrine, the shrine is a portal into another realm”, explained Wales Bonner at the press view, adding, “Whether that’s another spiritual realm, a connection to ancestors, another landscape or world.” Her idea of the shrine materialized after she started reading Robert Farris Thompson’s Face of the Gods: Art and Altars of the Black Atlantic World (Prestel, 1993), which prompted Wales Bonner to think about the shrine in relation to black aesthetics and artistic preferences. “I was looking at certain qualities inherent in shrines, a kind of sense of repurposing”, she says, “Giving an object meaning and intentionality through interaction with it. The idea of rhythmising through interaction and layering.”

 

The resulting exhibition certainly is multilayered with static physical objects mingling with sounds – including recordings of Okri reciting his own prose as well as music from the Howard University Chamber Choir, and a composition by James William Blades – together with a series of performances, meditations and talks. Perhaps the most overtly “shrine-like” artworks are Kapwani Kiwanga’s Flowers for Africa (2014), which comprise a series of four flower arrangements – dedicated to Mozambique, Nigeria, Tunisia and Uganda, honoring the independence of Africa. The bouquets are reminiscent of flowers that we give to loved ones as signs of celebration, love and loss.

Awaken the new brotherhood of dreams.

From these flowers

Draw new powers

To build new towers

Without fear.

– Invocation for the Shrine I, Ben Okri

 

The natural flora in Kiwanga’s posies seamlessly complement Rashid Johnson’s Daybeds (2012), which consist of zebra skin covered sofas resting on intricate rugs. “…[They] connect to the idea of a portal in West African spirituality”, explained Wales Bonner, “The idea that a bench could be an altar bench, a presence that connects to intellectual histories and story telling.” This sense of spirituality and contemplation, in relation to history, recurs throughout the exhibition. Comprising photograms, bamboo, linen, ropes and other trinkets, Liz Johnson Artur’s There is only one…one (2019) looks like a dedication to an extremely well-thought out personal history – from photographs of women dressed-up for a night out, to historical photographs of African tribes, to a section covered in photographs from a Pentecostal Church in Peckham – the viewer is given an intimate glimpse inside the artist’s heritage.

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Eric N. Mack, Capital Heights (via stretch) 2019, Grace Wales Bonner: A Time for New Dreams. (Installation view, 18 January – 16 February 2019, Serpentine Galleries). © 2019 readsreads.info

Wales Bonner’s fashion background becomes apparent – albeit subtly – in the exhibition of Eric N. Mack’s textile installations. The Harlem-based artist had previously framed Wales Bonner’s catwalk shows with his fabric creations, and it is no surprise therefore, that Capital Heights (via stretch) (2019), looks like a material corridor, just begging to be walked through. “In Africa”, Wales Bonner explained, “You are identified straight away by the cloth that you wear.” For the work in A Time for New Dreams, Mack made the fabric, and Wales Bonner constructed the overall installation. The influence of fashion is also apparent in David Hammons’s Rock Head (2000), which consists of a huge stone that has been given hair.

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Laraaji, Transformation 2019, Grace Wales Bonner: A Time for New Dreams, 18 January – 16 February 2019, Serpentine Galleries, © 2019 readsreads.info

Ancestors sleep in these shrines.

Us their dreams illumine.

They planted these flowers

Along the paths of time

Flowers that never die

Flowers that open up into

A thousand forms of art and living

– Invocation for the Shrine I, Ben Okri

Wales Bonner has ensured that each of her artists is equal, and that the balance between different practices is fair, allowing writers, visual artists and musicians to have their own space. Cult African-American musician Laraaji’s Transformation (Altar Objects) (2019) exists in a red-orange-yellow haze of trinkets amongst an exhibition space that also houses photography from Rotimi Fani-Kayode and text by Ishmael Reed, thus allowing a space for dialogue and conversation.

A Time For New Dreams presents a meditative arena for discussions about identity, mysticism and ritual, while exploring magical resonances within black cultural and aesthetic practices. Having already provided a space for a plethora of experiences, the exhibition will culminate during London Fashion Week with a runway show to present Wales Bonner’s newest collection.

Grace Wales Bonner: A Time for New Dreams is on display at Serpentine Sackler Gallery, West Carriage Drive, Kensington Gardens, London W2 2AR until 16th March 2019

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Lizzy Vartanian Collier is a London-based writer and curator. She is the founder of Gallery Girl - a London-based curatorial platform and website dedicated to modern and contemporary art from across the globe. Her work is primarily focused on supporting emerging female artists from the Middle East and the Caucasus. She has written for Canvas Magazine, Harper's Bazaar Arabia, Ibraaz, Jdeed Magazine, Suitcase and Vice Arabia among other publications. Her exhibitions in London and Armenia have been featured in Vogue Arabia, The Art Newspaper, The Art Gorgeous and numerous other news outlets. Gallery Girl has also spoken in the UK, UAE and Belgium about the contemporary art scene in the MENA region, and is planning further events in London and Amman.

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