Surveying New Exhibitions With A Spiritual Twist January 2023 Art Diary – Revd Jonathan Evens

Kamala Ibrahim Ishag, States of Oneness Kamala Ibrahim Ishag 2022. Photo: George Darrell, Courtesy Serpentine

Surveying current and upcoming exhibitions at the turn of the year provides evidence of the breadth and depth of the past and present engagement between art and spirituality.

Briefly profiling a wide range of exhibitions in order of opening, we can begin with WE at Sara Hildén Art Museum, where Thomas Houseago has taken a radical response to the invitation for a solo exhibition. By including artworks from Nick Cave and Brad Pitt, he introduced the concept of WE, recontextualizing the idea of original creation to challenge the sense of the artist as a solitary individual and celebrate a more collectivist approach. One of his exhibition partners, Nick Cave, with his own conversation partner, the journalist Seán O’Hagan, had already produced in ‘Faith, Hope and Carnage’ a profoundly thoughtful cooperative exploration of what drives his life and creativity including examination of questions of belief, art, music, freedom, grief and love. In that book he explains how the ceramic series he is exhibiting at Sara Hildén Art Museum, The Devil – A Life, is a narrative series depicting the life of the Devil in 17 stations, from innocence through experience into confrontation of our mortality. The series is inspired by Victorian Staffordshire Flatback figurines, of which he is a collector

M.K Čiurlionis, Lithuania’s best loved artist, was a symbolist painter and pioneer who explored early abstraction, spirituality, and philosophy. Between Worlds at Dulwich Picture Gallery positions him as a singular figure in the history of European art whose ethereal, and occasionally fantastical, paintings and drawings travel between mythology and reality. His use of structure and colour make his works precursors of abstract painting. The exhibition, which brings together his most accomplished masterpieces, including ‘Creation of the World’ (1905/1906), ‘The Zodiac’ (1906/1907) and ‘Rex’ (1909), highlights the breadth of his interests with a focus on humankind’s relationship to the universe. Curator, Kathleen Soriano, says: “His body of work has an intensity of vision and, at its heart, aims to transcend different worlds, to reach higher, mystical planes where art and music, abstraction and figuration, light and dark, calm and chaos, nature and the spiritual, exist in harmony.”

Samson Kambalu’s sculpture Antelope on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square,
Samson Kambalu’s sculpture Antelope on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square, Photo © Artlyst

Samson Kambalu’s sculpture Antelope on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square, depicts a 1914 photograph of Baptist preacher John Chilembwe and European missionary John Chorley. Kambalu has said that the original picture his artwork was based on “looks ordinary” at first glance: “But when you research the photograph, you find that actually there’s subversion there, because at that time in 1914 it was forbidden for Africans to wear hats before white people.” For him, “the Fourth Plinth and my proposals were always going to be a litmus test for how much I belong to British society as an African and as a cosmopolitan, and so this fills me with joy and excitement.” In his design, Chilembwe is larger than life while Chorley is life-size. By increasing his scale, Kambalu elevates Chilembwe and his story, revealing a hidden narrative of underrepresented people in the history of the British Empire in Africa and beyond.

The work of pioneering Sudanese artist Kamala Ibrahim Ishag intertwines the earthly and the spiritual through an understanding of our connections with the natural world. With a career spanning over sixty years, Ishag is a defining figure of modern and contemporary art and her major survey exhibition at The Serpentine’s South Gallery includes large-scale oil paintings, works on paper, and painted calabashes, screens and leather drums, alongside displays of her graphic design practice, personal archival material and new works. Ishag’s work embraces different landscapes, histories and subjects to contemplate themes of spirituality, kinship and human relationships with the natural world. Her paintings, where often human and plant forms intertwine, use a distinctive palette rooted in the colours of the sun, sand and sky and contemplate both the cyclical flow of life and the intangible aspects of women’s lives in Sudan. Her work is inspired by the flora in her Khartoum home garden, mythology, the stories of spirits told by her mother and grandmothers, and the field research she carried out with spiritualist women convening healing Zār ceremonies, a traditional practice in North Africa and the surrounding region. From time spent in London, she has also drawn on William Blake’s visionary subjects and Francis Bacon’s distorted figures which she connected to the reflections of human faces and figures she saw during the 1960s in the curved windows of Underground trains.

Sin at York Art Gallery has been organised by the National Gallery with York Museums Trust, and explores the concept of sin through art. Sin is a concept which has permeated life since the earliest days of humankind and the exhibition explores changing ideas about sin and morality while inviting visitors to reflect on their own ideas about sin and society today, including attitudes to crime, alcohol, the body, the environment and more. This version of the exhibition – the original was at The National Gallery in 2020 – includes paintings from the National Gallery’s collection, such as ‘Venus and Cupid’ by Lucas Cranach the Elder and ‘The Woman Taken in Adultery’ by Rembrandt, as well as works on loan by Tracey Emin (‘It was just a kiss’) and Ron Mueck (‘Youth’). Alongside them, a selection of works from York Museums Trust – ranging from a medieval stone-carving of demons devouring the soul of a sinner to Sarah Lucas’s sculpture ‘NUD 4′ – enables visitors to discover connections to York Art Gallery’s own collections. A new work specially created for the exhibition by Yorkshire-born artist Zara Worth (‘Think of a door (temptation/redemption)’) is also on display.

Lebanese-Canadian artist Marya Kazoun has responded to the question of how we create a new world free of pollution, environmental disasters, and global warming in an installation inspired by the Nativity. Its protagonists are tree-like silhouettes of the Magi, standing 2.60 meters tall, made of cotton wadding and covered in a milky white fabric. They bring gifts of clean energy, represented by the wind turbines that extend out from their summits. The installation is named First Act, and has been sharing its environmental message throughout the Christmas festivities from the Sala Bianca, within the Palazzo Pitti in Florence. Within the installation, wind represents the transitory and elusive, and acts as the vital breath of the universe and those who inhabit it. In opposition to it, the ominous presence of a swarm of locusts, made of Murano glass, symbolises the climatic ruin increasingly looming over the fate of the planet. In this way, the artist associates the ancient biblical plagues at the Exodus with the current ecological crisis, to prompt the viewer to reflect and act. The birth of a new world – the spherical sculpture in the centre – is admired by six figures representing the union between human beings and, following the Christian tradition, include the figures of the Virgin Mary and Saint Joseph, the ox and the donkey.

Image, Symbol, Prayer at the Kukje Gallery in Seoul is a solo exhibition by the Thai artist Korakrit Arunanondchai. Working across a diverse range of mediums from video and performance to painting and installation, Arunanondchai interweaves an intricate co-dependency of forms to ask fundamental questions regarding existence and meaning, processed through the personal and the collective, life and death, and different belief systems. Arunanondchai’s History Paintings surround the viewer on a floor made from compressed ash and clay. A prayer text is sculpted into the floor and reads: “In the beginning there was discovery / New nightmares, to challenge sleep / The need to impose order unto chaos / We create this world through unanswered prayers. / There’s a splendor beyond the upheaval / A nostalgia for unity / In the landscape of mourning / Give yourself to the air, to what you cannot hold / The ghost possesses Nothing.” Above the prayer that runs along the edge of the room are History Paintings and Voids (sky paintings). With the History Paintings, the artist burns the original paintings and, once the fire is extinguished, assembles the remaining fragments of the paintings and the ashes back together with a photographic documentation of the painting on fire; thereby creating an object that carries the image of its own making. Through this pyro-spiritual journey centred on ash, viewers are invited to survey the universal cycle of creation and de-creation.

The Blind Jesus (No-one belongs here more than you) is an image in charcoal of the Last Supper which includes the central character of a visually impaired Jesus, surrounded by twelve people of differing ages, backgrounds and abilities. At the table, an empty chair invites the viewer to find themselves at the table. The image has been commissioned by Celia Webster, Co-Founder of Wave (We’re All Valued Equally), as part of a project in which it seeds other images of the Last Supper that are truly for everyone. Schools, churches and community groups are being invited as part of this project to create their own Last Supper images. The latest exhibition of this image at St Andrew’s Church in Wickford includes additional Last Supper images created for the (Still) Calling from the Edge conference and by WAVE and school in Hampstead and Barnet.

Angels In Purgatory will be the first solo show at Vitrine Fitzrovia of Bahraini artist Zayn Qahtani and will present a new body of work exploring themes of destruction, resurrection and rebirth through a personal retelling of stories of the Nephilim. The Nephilim were a race of Angels that were cast out of paradise for disobedient and immoral behaviour. They were doomed to spend the rest of eternity, not in Hell, but on Earth. Angels in Purgatory will follow the episodic, autobiography of a fictitious character ‘the Self’ based on the Nephilim, making a pilgrimage through the purgatory of the mind. Qahtani works across painting, drawing and sculpture to retell of the story of Nephilim, creating an exhibition that will explore the ironic dichotomy of humankind – life and death, light and dark and pain and pleasure – challenging the binary nature of these extremes. The artist aims to investigate the ways in which these so-called opposites may co-exist in time and space.

Peter Callesen: In deep water at the Ribe Art Museum will tell, on paper, big and small stories about the destructive and creative power of water. Callesen works almost exclusively with white paper in different objects, paper cuts, installations, and performances. In an interview with ‘Church Times’, he explained that he is interested in exploring “transformation, transcendence — things that transform from one dimension into another.” His paper cut sculptures explore the probable and magical transformation of the flat sheet of paper into figures that expand into the space surrounding them. Also exploring aspects of faith in Denmark is Maja Lisa Engelhardt, an abstract artist who is known there for her church decorations where she demonstrates an exquisite sense of colours and materials. Her Almanac of faith 2023 takes nature and the changing of the seasons as a starting point for images and texts. She has carefully selected and compiled the material for each week, including her own works and texts among a selection of especially Danish and Nordic poets and painters.

Mike Nelson immersive installations
Mike Nelson immersive installation

In February, the Hayward Gallery hosts the first major survey of the psychologically charged and atmospheric installations and sculptures created by Mike Nelson. Constructed with materials scavenged from salvage yards, junk shops, auctions and flea markets, Nelson’s immersive installations take the viewer on enthralling journeys into fictive worlds that eerily echo our own. Utterly transforming the spaces of the Hayward Gallery, his large-scale installations will weave references to science fiction, failed political movements, dark histories and countercultures, as they touch on alternative ways of living and thinking: lost belief systems, interrupted histories and cultures that resist inclusion in an increasingly homogenised and globalised world. Nelson explores the underlying structures of beliefs – whether religious, political, social or economic – that individuals hold in a way that is mostly subconscious. The artist stated in 2001 that his installation: “The Coral Reef for me was indicative of a complex but fragile structure of belief systems that exist below the surface of a prevalent ideological structure, of capitalism.” The feelings of confusion and disorientation that viewers experience in The Coral Reef become an analogy for his sense that belief, while giving individuals an illusion of freedom, is in fact deeply restrictive.

Souls Grown Deep like the Rivers: Black Artists from the American South at the Royal Academy from March will enable viewers to discover Black artists from the Southeastern United States who created some of the most spectacular and ingenious works of the last century. For generations, Black artists from the American South have forged a unique art tradition made from materials available locally – clay, driftwood, roots, soil, recycled and cast-off objects. Working in near isolation from established practices, they created masterpieces that articulate America’s painful past – the inhuman practice of enslavement, the cruel segregationist policies of the Jim Crow era, and institutionalised racism – while also embodying the promise and attainment of freedom in the modern Civil Rights era and addressing some of the most profound and persistent issues in US society, including race, class, gender, and spirituality. Drawing its title from the work of Langston Hughes, the exhibition will bring together sculpture, paintings, reliefs, drawings, and quilts, including the celebrated quiltmakers of Gee’s Bend, Alabama and the neighbouring communities of Rehoboth and Alberta.

Tate Britain’s first exhibition of the year will focus on The Rossettis, showing how siblings Christina and Dante Gabriel Rossetti forged a counter-cultural circle in 19th Britain, inspired by new ideas about life, love, religion, sex, society and art. Born to an intellectually minded Anglo-Italian family, Christina and Dante Gabriel were two of four supremely talented children, all of whom succeeded as artists and writers. Dante Gabriel, was the leading member of the avant-garde Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and Christina became a favourite model for the group. She sat for the face of Christ in William Holman Hunt’s The Light of the World, while both John Everett Millais and Frederick Sandys illustrated her poetry. Later on, the pioneering photographer Julia Margaret Cameron and the great Belgian Symbolist Fernand Khnopff were inspired by Christina’s enigmatic verses. A committed supporter of animal welfare, and a keen observer of the diversity of creation, Christina considered it her Christian duty to maintain creation in a state of equilibrium and equality. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, as Susanna Avery-Quash and Jeffrey Richards have noted, played a significant role in “spreading an understanding of the development of Christian art in ways acceptable to a British and largely Protestant audience.” This will be the largest exhibition of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s paintings in two decades and the first time all the surviving paintings and major works on paper by his wife Elizabeth (née Siddall) will be seen in public.

Swedish painter Hilma af Klint
Swedish painter Hilma af Klint

From April, Tate Modern will enable viewers to discover the visionary work of Swedish painter Hilma af Klint and experience Dutch painter Piet Mondrian’s influential art in a new light, enabling a reassessment of these two pivotal figures in art history. It will reveal how their visual language of vibrant signs, shapes and colours as found in their beautiful yet complex work was rooted in a shared fascination with the natural world. Although they never met, Af Klint and Mondrian both invented their own languages of abstract art rooted in nature. At the heart of both of their artistic journeys was a shared desire to understand the forces behind life on earth. Best known for his abstract work, Mondrian in fact began his career – like Af Klint – as a landscape painter. Alongside his iconic grids, the exhibition will also show rarely exhibited paintings of flowers he continued to create throughout his life. Also on display will be enigmatic works by Af Klint in which natural forms become a pathway to abstraction. Both artists shared an interest in new ideas in spirituality, scientific discovery and philosophy. Af Klint was also a medium, and this exhibition showcases the large-scale, otherworldly masterpieces she believed were commissioned by higher powers.

In May, the National Gallery will open the first major art exhibition in the UK to explore the life and legacy of Saint Francis of Assisi, one of history’s most inspirational and revered figures. It will present the art and imagery of Saint Francis from the 13th century to today bringing together paintings from across the National Gallery’s collection – by Sassetta, Botticelli, and Zurbarán –  with international loans, including Caravaggio’s ‘Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy’, Josefa de Óbidos’s, ‘Saint Francis and Saint Clare adoring the Christ Child in a Manger’, as well as works by Stanley Spencer, Antony Gormley, Giuseppe Penone, Andrea Büttner, and an exciting new commission from Richard Long. The exhibition looks at why this saint is a figure of enormous relevance to our time due to his spiritual radicalism, commitment to the poor, and love of God and nature, as well as his powerful appeals for peace, and openness to dialogue with other religions. From some of the earliest medieval panels, relics and manuscripts to modern-day films and a Marvel comic, the exhibition shines a light on how Saint Francis has captured the imagination of artists through the centuries, and how his appeal has transcended generations, continents and different religious traditions. Like Sin at York Art Gallery, this exhibition has Joost Joustra, the Ahmanson Research Associate Curator in Art and Religion at the National Gallery, as curator, on this occasion together with Gabriele Finaldi, Director of the National Gallery.

Where The Apple Ripens is a retrospective for Peter Howson at age 65 in City Art Centre, Edinburgh. Howson has been one of Scotland’s most successful and popular artists since he shot to fame in the 1980s as one of the New Glasgow Boys. This major retrospective brings together important early work (the Glasgow hardmen, boxers and tramps with which he made his name) with paintings from his time as a war artist in Bosnia, and a significant body of recent work, much of it unseen in Scotland. It explores Howson’s religious painting, and his complex apocalyptic scenes influenced by Dante and Milton, as well as offering a chance to see the intricate mixed media works he made during lockdown. A central member of the group of young artists to emerge from the Glasgow School of Art during the 1980s dubbed the New Glasgow Boys, Howson has become one of his generation’s leading figurative painters. His recent work uses his apocalyptic vision of violence and inhumanity to explore his fears of contemporary radical right-wing politics. He is unusual among mainstream artists in his unashamed use of traditional religious iconography and application of a Trinitarian framework to his artistic practice.

Paula Rego: Crivelli's Garden
Paula Rego: Crivelli’s Garden

Also coming to the National Gallery in 2023 is Paula Rego: Crivelli’s Garden, which will explore the relationship of Rego’s work titled ‘Crivelli’s Garden’ to the 15th-century altarpiece that inspired it. Thirty years ago, Dame Paula Rego, the first Associate Artist at the National Gallery, was commissioned to create a mural for the then new Sainsbury Wing Dining Room. Rego’s ‘Crivelli’s Garden’, took its inspiration from an altarpiece by the 15th-century Italian artist Carlo Crivelli, ‘La Madonna della Rondine (The Madonna of the Swallow)’ painted after 1490 to tell the story of women from biblical history and folklore based on paintings in the collection and stories from the Golden Legend. Figures including the Virgin Mary, Saint Catherine, Mary Magdalene and Delilah found themselves in the maze of Crivell’s re-imagined garden surrounded by Portuguese blue and white tiled walls. The depictions of these courageous and strong women were based on the people that Rego knew, including friends, family and members of the National Gallery staff at the time. The original life drawings will be presented alongside the painting – allowing viewers to discover and enjoy the connections between them. Rego’s religious work has previously been explored in exhibitions such as Paula Rego/Josefa de Óbidos: religious art in the feminine and Secrets of Faith. She is an artist who explored Catholicism and its mysteries with an intense sensualist charge imprinted on her paintings and an imaginative ability to reconfigure religious themes.

Francesco Pesellino, Fra Filippo Lippo and Workshop The Pistoia Santa Trinità Altarpiece,1455-60 Egg tempera, tempera grassa and oil on wood © The National Gallery, London Royal Collection Trust / © His Majesty King Charles III 2022
Francesco Pesellino, Fra Filippo Lippo and Workshop – The Pistoia Santa Trinità Altarpiece,1455-60© The National Gallery, London Royal Collection Trust / © His Majesty King Charles III 2022

Finally in this survey, Pesellino: A Renaissance Master Revealed, also at the National Gallery, will be the first ever exhibition dedicated to the Renaissance painter Francesco Pesellino and will open in December 2023. Active in Florence in the mid-15th century, Pesellino achieved a notable career but his early death at thirty-five and the difficulty of attribution have made him one of the greatest Renaissance painters that few people have heard of. This exhibition will seek to remedy that by presenting a monographic view of Pesellino’s achievements through his works in the National Gallery Collection and a number of key loans. He is noted in early biographies for his particular talent in the painting of ‘cose picole’ sic (small things), as well as his propensity for collaboration and his commissions by Florence’s ruling Medici family. These three concepts will form the key themes of the exhibition and in establishing Pesellino’s reputation as a skilful and sought-after Renaissance painter. The National Gallery is uniquely placed to introduce his work to a broader audience, given the presence in its collection of two of his undisputed masterpieces; two cassone panels with ‘Stories of David’ and the Pistoia Trinity Altarpiece. The two cassone panels, demonstrate the depth and breadth of Pesellino’s talents as a painter of complex narratives, ceremonial splendour and detail on a very small scale, while the Pistoia Trinity Altarpiece’ is one of the only two large-scale altarpieces he is known to have produced. Left unfinished at his death and completed by his onetime collaborator, Filippo Lippi, this is the earliest ‘pala’ (an altarpiece with a single main panel) in the National Gallery.

From renaissance altarpieces to sci-fi installations via an international collection of artists drawn from across the ages and works influenced by Christianity, humanism, shamanism, spiritualism, theosophy, and Zār, means that a breadth of exploration characterises the engagement between art and spirituality to be experienced in 2023.

Top Photo: Kamala Ibrahim Ishag, States of Oneness Kamala Ibrahim Ishag 2022. Photo: George Darrell, Courtesy Serpentine

Recommended Exhibitions

Thomas Housego: WE with Nick Cave and Brad Pitt, 18.9.2022 – 15.1.2023, Sara Hildén Art Museum

M.K. Čiurlionis: Between Worlds, 21 September 2022 – 12 March 2023, Dulwich Picture Gallery

Samson Kambalu’s Antelope, Fourth Plinth, Trafalgar Square

Kamala Ibrahim Ishag: States of Oneness, 7 October 2022 – 29 January 2023, Serpentine South Gallery

Sin, York Art Gallery, 7 October 2022 – 22 January 2023, York Art Gallery

First Act by Marya Kazoun, 15 December 2022 – 29 January 2023, Sala Bianca, Palazzo Pitti

Image, Symbol, Prayer, 15 December 2022 to 29 January 2023, Kukje Gallery, Seoul

The Blind Jesus (No-one belongs here more than you), 6 January – 9 April 2023, St Andrew’s Wickford

Zayn Qahtani: Angels In Purgatory, 20 January – 8 April 2023, Vitrine Fitzrovia

Peter Callesen: In deep water, 4 February – 29 May 2023, Ribe Art Museum

Mike Nelson: Extinction Beckons, 22 February –⁠ 7 May 2023, Hayward Gallery

Souls Grown Deep like the Rivers: Black Artists from the American South, 17 March — 18 June 2023, Royal Academy

The Rossettis, Tate Britain, 6 April – 24 September 2023

Hilma af Klint and Piet Mondrian, 20 April – 3 September 2023, Tate Modern

Where The Apple Ripens: Peter Howson at 65 – A Retrospective, 27 May – 1 October, City Art Centre, Edinburgh

Saint Francis of Assisi, 6 May – 30 July 2023, The National Gallery

Paula Rego: Crivelli’s Garden, 20 July – 29 October 2023, The National Gallery

Pesellino: A Renaissance Master Revealed, 7 December 2023 – 10 March 2024, The National Gallery

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