In the February 2024 Art Diary, the Revd Jonathan Evens looks at the Pre-Raphaelites, the works of Alison Lapper, Monica Sjöö and various group exhibitions, including shows at Cross Lane Projects, Drawing Room and The William Morris Gallery.
Selected from Birmingham’s outstanding collection, ‘Victorian Radicals’ allows visitors to discover the story of the Pre-Raphaelites – Britain’s first modern art movement – and their influence on artists and makers well into the 20th century. The exhibition explores three generations of progressive British artists working between 1840 and 1910: the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and their circle; the second wave of Pre-Raphaelite artists who gathered around Rossetti from the late 1850s, including William Morris and Birmingham-born Edward Burne-Jones; and a third generation of designers and makers associated with the Arts and Crafts movement, working from the turn of the century to just before the First World War.
Victoria Osborne, Curator of Fine Art at Birmingham Museums Trust and one of the exhibition’s co-curators, has said: “The ‘Victorian Radicals’ believed that art and creativity could change the world and be a real force for good in society. The questions they explored in their lives and work are as relevant today as they were 150 years ago.” In the exhibition, vibrant paintings and exquisite drawings are set alongside jewellery, glass, textiles and metalwork to explore the radical vision for art and society within these movements. With more than 160 works on display by artists such as Ford Madox Brown, Edward Burne-Jones, William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, William Morris, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and Elizabeth Siddall, the exhibition’s paintings, drawings, watercolours, and decorative arts explore the relationship between art and nature and the search for beauty in an age of industry.
The collection also celebrates Birmingham’s historic importance as a centre for the Arts and Crafts. In Birmingham, paintings made by artists including Kate Bunce, Joseph Southall and Arthur Gaskin combined the poetry and intensity of the Pre-Raphaelites’ work with a distinctive identity. By the early 20th century, Birmingham’s School of Art was one of the most important centres in Britain for progressive art and design. Women artists were particularly significant in the School of Art, winning national art prizes and raising the city’s profile through national and international exhibitions. They included the painter Kate Bunce and her metalworking sister, Myra; stained-glass designer Florence Camm; enameller Fanny Bunn; and embroiderer, painter and designer Mary Newill.
Drawing Room was initiated by curators Mary Doyle, Kate Macfarlane and Katharine Stout in 2002 and is a non-profit public organisation that champions the unlimited potential of drawing to help us understand ourselves, each other and our world through exhibitions, learning projects and a unique library. Their latest exhibition, ‘The Time of Our Lives’, focuses on the pioneering drawing practices of women artists and their impact on feminist activism from the 1980s until today. Beginning with drawings made by Monica Ross in the 1980s, the exhibition includes works by Sutapa Biswas, Venice Golden Lion winner Sonia Boyce, Margaret Harrison, Claudette Johnson, Lizzy Rose and Soheila Sokhanvari. It includes new commissions by Kate Davis and Jade de Montserrat.
The exhibition’s title derives from a statement made by Monica Ross – “and we’ll make art out of the time of our lives that is always between one job, one role and another”.
Originally working both independently and collaboratively, often without commercial or institutional support, the voices of these agents for change are now being heard, and a contemporary generation of women artists takes forward their trailblazing work. The exhibition examines drawing’s versatility as a medium and the ways women have used it to raise consciousness around social and political issues, such as reproductive justice, sexism, racism and other forms of oppression. ‘The Time of Our Lives’ also includes an interactive study display in our library, showcasing drawing in magazines, newsletters and posters from UK feminist collectives past and present. This is one to see alongside ‘Women in Revolt! Art and Activism in the UK 1970-1990’ at Tate Britain.
Monica Sjöö also features in ‘Women in Revolt!’ and has a retrospective at Modern Art Oxford. An exhibition at Alison Jacques reveals the artist’s sources of inspiration, including pre-Aztec and monumental Aztec sculptures, Catholic art and the vibrant revolutionary paintings by artists including Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. The consistency and range of her concerns regarding feminism and spiritualism are indicated by the titles of her work in the exhibition – including ‘Women Becoming’, ‘Child of the Mother-tree’ and ‘Priestess at Tarxien Temple on Malta’. Some of the work in the exhibition references Sjöö’s years spent travelling to ancient sites in Malta, Sweden, Wales and to Neolithic centres of the ancient Great Mother, pilgrimages to the sacred land in England, Ireland, Scotland and Brittany, “communing with the spirits and connecting with other women… involved in Earth Mysteries”. Sjöö explained that her chosen landscapes are “full of spirits and the haunt of the powerful and most ancient…” She communicated often with what she called “the ancient sisterhood” of pre-patriarchal Goddess societies and portrayed women as strong and life-giving.
Bethlem Museum of the Mind is showcasing Alison Lapper’s work that explores her journey of grief since the untimely death of her son Parys. Tragically, Parys died at the age of 19 on 23 August 2019 from an accidental drug overdose. The exhibition presents new work that delves into a world where silence often shrouds the depths of human suffering, and the power of creativity emerges as a beacon of hope. Alongside Lapper’s own work are sculptures and photographs from friends and contemporaries Marc Quinn and Rankin, echoing and exploring her recent life events and the effect these have had on her as both a mother and an artist. The dialogue between these three artists presents viewers with an intimate narrative that explores grief and mental health alongside Lapper’s reflection on the complexities of motherhood, even in the direst of circumstances.
Recipient of an MBE for her services to art and a leading member of the Association of Mouth and Foot Painting Artists of the World, Lapper came to wider public attention with her collaboration with sculptor Marc Quinn at a time when she was pregnant with Parys. The result was an iconic statue, ‘Alison Lapper Pregnant, ‘ which sat atop the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square from 2005-2007.
In the exhibition, alongside a variety of paintings by Lapper of her beloved son, are sculptures by Quinn showing Lapper pregnant and a later sculpture that included Parys after he had been born. These show the joy of motherhood, in what Lapper called “her greatest achievement”. A series of new photographs by British photographer Rankin capture Lapper in a series of images that chart in stark reality the grieving process of a mother, from mental and physical pain to glimpses of hope and happiness. The exhibition charts how one life can encapsulate both bliss and sorrow and how the perception of work can change depending on subsequent events that unfold.
Lapper’s determination to ensure her son’s life and death were not in vain has also resulted in the creation of the charity ‘The Drug of Art’, which launched last year. Bethlem Museum of the Mind is an apt location for this exploration of grief being situated within the grounds of the historic Bethlem Royal Hospital, where mental health services are delivered to this day.
‘Epiphany (Temporaire)’ is a solo exhibition by Midlands-based artist Exodus Crooks, which features sculpture, text, film and installation works. Exodus Crooks is a British-Jamaican multidisciplinary artist, educator and writer whose art practice centres on questions of self-actualisation and the role that religion and spirituality play in that journey to enlightenment. In their work themes of epiphany, temporariness, displacement, home, heritage, tradition, imagination, diaspora, creativity, honesty, spirituality, and self-determination are explored. For ‘Epiphany (Temporaire)’, Crooks has undertaken a process of carving out (sometimes literally) dialogues from the layers of history, heritage and culture around them. By interrogating domestic and familiar surfaces, Crooks investigates the embodiment and repository of memories, histories and traditions, inherited, stored and transferred through time and shared space.
Key works in ‘Epiphany (Temporaire)’ include ‘Doing Duties for Miss Dell’, an installation comprising a washing line, turf, clothes and a bedsheet with text which was inspired by the artist’s memory of hanging out laundry for and with their maternal grandmother. This work speaks to the relationship with the artist’s matriarchal lineage, where chores and domestic duties were prioritised over, or equated with, the duty to love. Another installation, ‘A message from my ancestors’, uses the significance of the wardrobe, seen in biblical and magical contexts, to represent a portal to other worlds. When visiting their ancestral land, the artist received a poem, originally titled ‘For your twelve-year-old self’, which has now been carved into the wooden wardrobe, itself sourced from their childhood home. The exhibition also includes film works such as ‘Leti’guh’, which comments on the process of gathering, having, holding and letting go of ideas, and ‘Y: the symbol of man’, which considers Western discourses on gender, which continues to be complex and inhibited.
Wangechi Mutu is a Kenyan-American, New York–based artist working in print, film, sculpture, and painting. Her work features mythical creatures and surreal landscapes inspired in part by legends from both Western and Eastern cultural pantheons to explore globalisation, overconsumption, environmentalism, and femininity. Dichotomies around beauty/ugliness, West/East, and religious/secular are paradigms that Mutu finds unhelpful, so her work encourages the viewer to examine the relationship between seemingly contradictory ideas and to think more broadly.
Her 2020 video ‘Wangechi Mutu: My Cave Call’ is a parable on wisdom seeking. Set at Mount Suswa, a holy site in Kenya, the film recounts moments from recent and distant Kenyan history. A meditation on reconnection, the film highlights histories that have been lost and forms the beginning of a process of reclamation. The film’s setting—first in a field and then in a cave (under Mount Suswa)—creates a surreal journey for the viewer. Narrated by the off-screen voice of a young child, it presents moments of frustration but also of hope, leaving space for a renewal of wisdom that has been lost. Additionally, ‘My Cave Call’ weaves in spirituality, questioning in what ways humans have become disconnected from their roots with the earth.
Described as “one of our most pensive and poetic artists”, Saad Qureshi’s exhibition ‘Conversations Before The End Of Time’ explores ideas of Paradise, religion and mythology. The exhibition includes large-scale sculptural installation alongside a new body of works on paper. It runs simultaneously with the artist’s new site-specific sculpture titled ‘Convocation’ showing at Raffles London.
His sculptural installation ‘Something about Paradise’ was originally commissioned for the Chapel at Yorkshire Sculpture Park in 2020, and its creation resulted from his travelling around the country talking to people of faith (and no faith) about what the concept of Paradise meant to them. The sculptures are ‘mindscapes’, towering and sprawling monochrome constructions that portray both a paradise of the afterlife with sprawling palaces and the Paradise of the here and now, with quaint communities and treehouses. They are accompanied by a series of Gates: thresholds or gateways to the imagined realms of Paradise beyond.
Large paper tapestries (‘Tanabanas’) are grounded in a long family tradition of craft and needlework. First created by the artist during lockdown, the Tanabanas are woven paper tapestries that weave intricate motifs from textiles, architecture, and mythology. Alongside, and being shown for the first time, is a series of watercolours: ‘Hell Is Empty’. Startling and humorous, these jewel-like drawings, reminiscent of pages from illuminated manuscripts or tarot cards, imagine the devil as evoked in Islamic theology: a creature of fire, mischief and destruction.
‘Landscapes of the Gods’ at Cross Lane Projects brings together the work of nine artists to explore an interconnection with the landscape, the ceremonial, the mythical, the man-made, the dystopian, the inhabited and the emotive. The idea of the exhibition, curated by painter Rebecca Scott, initially developed from a conversation with the artist Michael Petry, in which they discussed Petry’s ongoing visual investigation into the places of the Gods and Scott’s own emotive exploration of the Cumbrian landscape, which surrounds her. Through his paintings, Michael Petry celebrates the ceremonial, memorialises the mythical, and acknowledges, honours, and explores the deeper spirits within us whom we all feel and hear yet have found hard to name. For Petry, our belief (or disbelief) in the Gods is of no importance to them, for we are mortal, whereas they are divine. Scott’s series of paintings emerge from the inherent conflicts surrounding the notions of ‘the romantic’ and ‘the real’. The works reference the rolling hills and lakes, an idealistic ‘picture-postcard’ view of the Lake District.
‘The Way of All Flesh’ in Galleries 1 and 2 at The Saatchi Gallery beckons visitors to contemplate the ephemeral nature of existence, to gaze into the mirror of mortality, and to recognise the universal embrace of life’s impermanence. This exhibition is more than a collection of artefacts; it is a communion of minds, hearts, and flesh. The exhibition promotes questions but promises no answers: it asks us to contemplate the fleeting nature of life, the fragility of our mortal existence, and the universality of our journey toward the inevitable. It is an invitation to introspection, a quiet moment of reckoning with the eternal mysteries that bind us all.
The Sainsbury Centre is investigating how we can know what is true in the world around us through a series of fascinating, interlinked exhibitions. Against the backdrop of fake news, elaborate scams and the burgeoning presence of Artificial Intelligence, four interlinked exhibitions – ‘In Event of Moon Disaster’, ‘Liquid Gender’, ‘Jeffrey Gibson’ and ‘The Camera Never Lies’ – question whether we are experiencing a time when increasingly sophisticated technology can distort reality and diminish our own sense of authenticity.
‘In Event of Moon Disaster’ uses AI to bring to light how an event as influential as the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing could be manipulated and cast doubt on even the most well-known of facts. Caught up in conspiracy theories about the event is a prepared speech by President Nixon that was to be given in case the mission ended in catastrophic failure. The speech, titled ‘In event of moon disaster’, was never delivered. Still, now American new media artist Halsey Burgund and British digital artist Francesca Panetta have reconstructed the speech with the use of state-of-the-art deepfake technology. Played back on a vintage television like the ones that carried the moon-landing broadcast to 1960s living rooms around the world, the installation highlights the media that are used to either build or destroy trust.
‘Liquid Gender’ explores the relationship between gender expression and identity, with a focus on pre-colonial traditions, through works by a myriad of internationally acclaimed artists. New Orleans-born Rashaad Newsome has made a new holographic work titled ‘In the Absence of Evidence, We Create Stories’, which uses objects from the Sainsbury Centre’s own collection in a visual dialogue with African sculptures that transform into futuristic cyborgs and speak about their past, present and future. American artist Martine Gutierrez showcases her ‘Demons’ series in its entirety, with the artist depicted as a deity from Aztec, Maya and Yorùbá traditions. Afro-indigenous photographer Laryssa Machada and Indigenous creative Antônio Vital Neto Pankararu document queer Indigenous identities in the Brazilian Northeast in ‘Origem’. With ‘Kuchu Ndagamuntu (Queer Identity Card)’, Leilah Babirye is inspired by drag queens and, in these vibrant works on paper, depicts the many faces and identities of her ambiguously gendered subjects.
The first Indigenous artist to represent the USA at this year’s Venice Biennale, Jeffrey Gibson’s work weaves together text-drawn lyrics, poetry and his own writing, complete with references to abstraction, fashion and popular culture. Of Mississippi Choctaw and Cherokee heritage, Gibson uses materials such as Native American beadwork and trading posts in his art that explores identity and labels. He is creating a vast installation incorporating 19th and 20th-century objects from Indigenous cultures across North America. Alongside the beadwork, parfleche and dolls that are common motifs in Gibson’s work, ‘I Can Choose’ will consider the artist’s relationship with these items alongside how they are displayed within public-facing museums.
The Camera Never Lies: Challenging images through The Incite Project will re-evaluate some of the most iconic images of the past 100 years. Sometimes seen as superior to text, photographs are now a mainstay of how the media and the public consume events such as war, famine, and celebrity. The exhibition is dedicated to the impact and influence photography has had on shaping – and in some cases misdirecting – the narrative of major global events. Featuring more than 80 works by photographers such as Don McCullin, Stuart Franklin and Robert Capa, it will chart a global century of documentation and manipulation through fact and fiction.
Coming to an end in February and ending this review of radical exhibitions is Radical Landscapes at the William Morris Gallery. This exhibition explores the natural world as a space for artistic inspiration, social connection, and political and cultural protest through the lens of William Morris, one of Britain’s earliest and most influential environmental thinkers. Organised in collaboration with Tate Liverpool, the exhibition displays work spanning two centuries. It features more than 60 works by artists, including JMW Turner, Claude Cahun, Hurvin Anderson, Derek Jarman, Jeremy Deller and Veronica Ryan. Delving into ideas of freedom, exploitation and trespass, the exhibition will reflect on how British landscapes have been read, accessed and used across social, class and racial lines, as well as the current global climate emergency, starting from Morris’ own relationship to and love for the land.
The exhibition starts by mining the connection to the land as seen through historical paintings and prints by Thomas Gainsborough and John Constable. Artists such as Turner, John Ruskin and Morris responded to the volatile and rapidly modernising times that they lived through, a period of environmental destruction comparable to the deterioration of the natural world today. A second section delves into the act of trespass, themes of geographical identity and belonging, and the ways in which communal rights to the land have been encroached upon by the enclosure, privatisation and commodification of green spaces. Five sculptures by Turner Prize winner Veronica Ryan reflect her interest in organic forms such as fruits, seeds and vegetables and their potential for recording histories of migration, intergenerational exchange and embedded memories. The overlap between art and environmental protest is explored with works that include photographs by The Format Photographers Agency. The final section draws directly from Morris’s utopian novel News from Nowhere’ and the collection of the William Morris Gallery to evidence the parallels between today’s environmental movements worldwide and Morris’s own stance on sustainability and critique of industrial capitalism.
‘Victorian Radicals: From the Pre-Raphaelites to the Arts and Crafts Movement’, from 10 February, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery Visit Here
‘The Time of Our Lives’, 25 January – 21 April, Drawing Room, 1b New Tannery Way, Bermondsey, SE1 5WS Visit Here
Monica Sjöö’, 1 February – 9 March, Alison Jaques Gallery Visit Here
‘Alison Lapper: Lost in Parys’, 7 February –11 May, Bethlem Museum of the Mind Visit Here
‘Exodus Crooks Epiphany (Temporaire)’, 9 February – 21 April, Ikon Gallery Visit Here
‘Wangechi Mutu: My Cave Call’, 12 January – 31 March, St Louis Art Museum Visit Here
‘Conversations Before The End Of Time Saad Qureshi’, 20 January – 14 April, Djanogly Gallery Visit Here
‘Landscapes of the Gods’, 25 January to 29 February, Cross Lane Projects – Vestry Street, London Visit Here
‘The Way of All Flesh’, 13 January – 3 March, Saatchi Gallery Visit Here
‘In Event of Moon Disaster’, 17 February – 4 August / ‘Liquid Gender’, 17 February – 4 August / ‘Jeffrey Gibson’, 24 February – 4 August / ‘The Camera Never Lies: Challenging images through The Incite Project’, 18 May – 20 October, Sainsbury Centre Visit Here
‘Radical Landscapes’, 21 October 2023 – 18 February 2024, William Morris Gallery Visit Here