The Art Diary November 2023 – Revd Jonathan Evens

Art Diary November 2023,Nengi Omuku,Hastings Contemporary

For my November Art Diary, I highlight exhibitions in Cambridge, Venice, Hastings, Lisbon, St David’s, Cookham and Colchester which explore aspects of relationships. These range from the familial to the transcendent through the work of Chantal Joffe, Celia Paul, Nengi Omuku, Berlinde De Bruyckere, Raul Speek, Stanley Spencer and Roger Wagner, among others.

Family, on one level, seems a very simple and familiar concept, yet the past fifty years have brought far-reaching changes to how families are formed and how they endure. ‘Real Families: Stories of Change’ at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge asks us to consider, through the eyes of contemporary artists, what makes a family today and the impact our families have on us. Bringing together more than 120 artworks spanning painting, photography, sculpture and film, the exhibition explores all aspects of family life, including themes of separation, loss and harm. Some of the changes explored reflect innovations in science and technology, while others speak to a new acceptance of long-suppressed and silenced identities and communities.

The exhibition features historic works by artists including Joshua Reynolds, Nicolas Poussin and Albrecht Dürer to reveal how family life has been portrayed throughout art history. A spotlight on Chantal Joffe brings together ten of her paintings made over the past two decades, capturing the joys, tensions and complexities of her family experience and inviting us to explore the intricacies of modern family relationships.

Works by Aliza Nisenbaum and JJ Levine challenge the traditional notion of family as made up of two married heterosexual parents and their biological children, while portraits by Celia Paul and Lucian Freud remind us that every family changes over time. Jim Goldberg, Tracey Emin and Paula Rego are among those whose work challenges the typical ideas of ‘happy’ and ‘unhappy’ families, instead revealing how families are a product of relationships between family members and the environments they live in. Cathy Wilkes, Hardeep Pandhal and others look at how each family leaves its imprint on the next generation – through biological, social and cultural influences.

Developed in collaboration with the Centre for Family Research in Cambridge, Real Families shows us that what matters most is not the family’s make-up but the quality of family relationships and the social world in which the family exists.

November Art Diary 2023,Celia Paul
Celia Paul, Old Woman Embracing Her Young Self (After Carpaccio), 2023, Victoria Miro Gallery, Venezia

Celia Paul’s art is founded on deep connections – familial, creative, looping back and forth across time – to people and places that resonate with her career-long enquiry into the complexities of interior and exterior life, constancy and change. Myself, Among Others, is an exhibition of new paintings by Paul completed during a recent residency with the Victoria Miro Gallery in Venice.

Against the backdrop of Venice, which is a city of fragile balances – liquid and solid, past and present, art and actuality – the essential themes of Paul’s work – its focus on memory and mortality and the formation of the self – assume additional resonance. She has said that ‘Venice is full of memory – my own memories, everyone’s memories.’ Her paintings are portals through which we are invited to enter her inner world.

In Venice, Paul found in literature and art history tutelary spirits from Proust to the Venetian masters Tintoretto, Giorgione and Carpaccio. Giorgione’s beguiling work ‘La Tempesta’, 1506–1508, on view in the Accademia, is a touchstone in Paul’s painting ‘That Obscure Object of Desire’, in which she leaves out the male figure to focus on the eroticism and vulnerability of the female figure while tapping her sense of how lost and alone she often felt as a young single mother. Struck by Carpaccio’s ‘The Visitation’, 1504–1506, seen in the Museo Correr, depicting the Virgin Mary embracing her elderly cousin Elizabeth, Paul responded with ‘Old Woman Embracing Her Young Self’, in which the older woman, in her bright red cape, offers comfort and support to the young woman in green, encouraging her to be strong. Shown alongside these and expanding on the theme of life captured at various stages are portraits of those young women who looked after Paul in Venice, which reveal their kindness and calm.

The exhibition’s shifting relationship to time is underscored by a still life capturing the incandescently short lifespan of a peony as it sheds its petals, revealing the ephemeral nature of its beauty. At the same time, depictions of the light on the water seen from Paul’s studio in a trio of ‘Laguna’ paintings were painted from life in different conditions as spring progressed to early summer. She describes Venice as ‘the most beautiful place in the world’ where everything ‘is centred around beauty’; the ‘light, the art, the water, the architecture’. Yet she also concedes that ‘It can feel overwhelming’, a feeling she distils in her self-portrait ‘Overwhelmed by Beauty’.

Eleanor Nairne writes in an accompanying text: ‘These are paintings that grow from the soil of your immediate self, but also stem from your many shadow selves that sometimes appear unbidden. They relate to the conundrum by which we can only ever really know ourselves through how we are known to others…’

‘The Dance of People and the Natural World’ at Hastings Contemporary is the first major UK solo exhibition of new and recent works by Lagos-based artist Nengi Omuku and explores her profound relationship with the natural world. The show spans five of Hastings Contemporary’s eight galleries and includes works made between 2021 and 2023.

Born in Warri, Nigeria, Omuku spent several years in London studying at the Slade School of Fine Art. Subsequently, she developed a distinctive style, which involves applying oil paint to gesso-prepared composite strips of the Nigerian fabric sanyan; a tightly woven, hand-spun material that is an important aspect of Nigeria’s cultural history.

From 2021’s ‘Lighthouse’ through to her latest, as yet-to-be-titled work made this year, the series focuses on a sense of re-immersion in nature, which provides her with a sense of safety and serenity. Omuku explains: ‘This comes from both a personal place, telling my story as a gardener and florist, as well as what I feel is a collective leaning, and re-communion with nature today.’

Her largest piece to date, ‘Eden’ (2022), invokes a sense of biblical paradise and a longing for a pre-fall state of tranquillity, alongside a sense of the solace to be found in nature. The display of this monumental painting (measuring 224 x 520 cm) includes stools, scatter cushions and pot plants, echoing Nengi’s own studio set-up in Lagos and inviting visitors to pause and relax, enjoying a moment of quiet reflection and respite.

‘Eden’ also acts as a conduit between the other works on display by further expressing the artist’s theme of the rest and sanctuary afforded by the natural world. ‘Eden’ represents an allegorical journey from darkness into light, as the eye moves from left to right across the canvas, following the passage of figures as they traverse a utopian landscape composed in a vivid, Fauvist palette of complimentary colours.

‘Welcome Home’ (2022) and ‘Lighthouse’ (2021) both feature her signature spectral figures set in a dreamlike landscape. ‘Still Life’ (2021) alludes to the time she spent working as a florist and horticulturist under her mother, while the foregrounds of ‘Repose’ (2022) and ‘Swing’ (2022) suggest the influence of Monet’s Garden at Giverny on her work and the artist’s own research into Impressionism. Nengi says: ‘The group of works presented focus on bringing love and light into the world, on concern for the environment and on sustainable practices to nurture and protect natural habitats.’

‘Crossing a bridge on fire’, the title of Berlinde De Bruyckere’s exhibition at the Museu de Arte Contemporânea/CCB in Lisbon, is taken from a short story by Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño. A powerful image that suggests the risk of passing from one side to another, it is also symbolic of both the appeal and the terror of the other, of transformation and metamorphosis, and of the trauma that follows any process of migration. De Bruyckere’s exhibition reflects on our relationship with the other, whether as transcendence, as the physicality of touch, or as personal projection.

Working with casts made of wax, animal skins, hair, textiles, metal and wood, De Bruyckere is profoundly influenced by traditions of the Flemish Renaissance and draws from the legacies of the European Old Masters and Christian iconography, as well as mythology and cultural lore, to render haunting distortions of organic forms. The vulnerability and fragility of human beings, the suffering body—both human and animal—and the overwhelming power of nature are some of the core motifs of her oeuvre. In her works, she layers existing histories with new narratives suggested by current events to create a psychological terrain of pathos, tenderness and unease. ‘I want to show how helpless a body can be,’ she has said. ‘Which is nothing you have to be afraid of—it can be something beautiful.’

Works from different moments in her career in the fields of sculpture, drawing, collage, and installation feature in this exhibition, enabling exploration of the great themes of art – death, redemption, sex, pain and memory – while being particularly inspired by the intermediary figure of the angel. To make her dialogue between historical times a visual reality, the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga has lent Lucas Cranach’s painting ‘Salomé with the head of Saint John the Baptist’, 1510, to be juxtaposed with the work ‘Infinitum II’, 2017–2019. Continuing the dialogue between institutions, the exhibition also includes a site in the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, where the work ‘Liggende — Arcangelo I’, 2023, is installed in the room dedicated to Francisco de Zurbarán (1598–1664), the Spanish Baroque painter whose work is a recurring point of reference for De Bruyckere. This sculpture, representing a fallen angel who has, therefore, passed from transcendence to immanence, is presented in the context of the mysticism of Zurbarán’s paintings, portraits that try to free themselves from earthly mundanity.

Each room of the exhibition brings together different imagery. However, in all of them—except the last—the issue of gender duality and the bridge between images of the masculine, the feminine, and the undifferentiated are a constant presence. The last room of the exhibition features the installation ‘ALETHEIA (on-vergeten)’, 2019, a Greek word meaning unveiling or that which is not hidden. Here, the viewer can wander among deposited layers of animal skins cast in wax and accumulated on pallets, reflecting on the countless layers of meaning and interpretation that probe the dualities of love and suffering, danger and protection, life and death and the human need for understanding; the universal themes De Bruyckere has been dealing with since the beginning of her career.

Raul Speek’s new exhibition of his religious paintings finds a fitting setting in the beautiful 12th-century cathedral of St Davids in Pembrokeshire. ‘My Life Is A Prayer’ is an opportunity to view the religious iconography which forms one of the major themes of Speek’s work. “This exhibition is a chance to share my religious work and to continue my meditation on my walk along the faith trail,” he says, “and I hope my paintings may inspire others to reflect, too.”

Speek was born in Guantanamo, Cuba, in 1958, at the beginning of the Cuban Revolution. He lived and trained as an artist in Cuba until the early 1990s when he took part in a BBC Arena documentary, which was filmed in Havana and focused on the young artists and writers from the area. As a result of this, he moved to London in 1991 and opened a studio in Spitalfields Market, where he met people like Gilbert and George, who lived nearby. In 1995, he moved to Pembrokeshire, where, together with his wife, he opened Raul Speek Gallery at the Old Chapel in Solva. Today, he exhibits worldwide, but the Old Chapel is his home and base. His work includes originals, limited edition prints, 3D works, and commissioned artwork such as murals.

In Pembrokeshire, Speek and the late Reverend Canon Sarah Geach, a long-serving Diocesan Tourism Officer, founded the ‘Art On the Faith Trail’ exhibition. This exhibition sees artists select pieces of their work that they feel respond to and are in relationship with a setting either in one of the churches on the trail or in the cathedral. The trail refers to the paths used by the travellers on pilgrimage in the early Christian world making their way to St David’s Cathedral.

Religious iconography forms one of the major themes of Speek’s work, as is apparent through ‘My Life Is A Prayer’. He says there’s a frequent assumption that “Fidel Castro would have banned religion in Cuba during the years of the revolution, but he knew his people too well to do that”. “Religion is a fundamental need for Cubans, who explore their spirituality in many forms and are as motivated by it as they are by politics.” Speek, himself, was raised as a Christian and still has a strong faith. ‘The Passion’ is a subject that inspires him to explore it time after time, although every image is different. Although, in some of his images, Christ’s eyelids droop in a semblance of peace, the cruelness of the crown of thorns is undeniable.

‘Everywhere is Heaven: Stanley Spencer & Roger Wagner’ is the Stanley Spencer Gallery’s first collaboration with a living artist. Roger Wagner has been deeply inspired by Stanley Spencer’s paintings, and both artists have been described as ‘visionary geniuses’, each seeking to evoke the mystical in everyday experience. Just as Spencer found Cookham to be ‘heaven on earth’, so Wagner evokes biblical happenings in contemporary settings.

A number of works by Wagner, who is also a published poet, will be hung alongside Spencer’s from the Gallery Collection and the Fitzwilliam in Cambridge, including ‘Builders of the Tower of Babel’ and ‘Making Columns for the Tower of Babel’. The two artists are united by a love of ‘metaphysicals’, as Spencer would have said, including the poets John Donne and Thomas Traherne. Traherne, in particular, wrote with a visionary innocence and found mysticism in the natural world. The title of the exhibition references Spencer’s own words about his painting, ‘John Donne arriving in Heaven’, which has been loaned for this exhibition, and his description of the four figures facing in all directions because ‘everywhere is heaven so to speak’.

Born in 1957, Wagner read English at Oxford University before studying at the Royal Academy School of Art. He has had many exhibitions at Anthony Mould Contemporary, as well as retrospectives at the Ashmolean Museum in 1994 and 2010. He has produced several books of illustrated poems and translations and, in 2010, his major work ‘Menorah’ was acquired by the Ashmolean Museum and now hangs in St Giles Church Oxford. His first stained glass window was installed in St Mary’s Iffley in 2012. It was joined in 2014 by a font cover designed in collaboration with Nicholas Mynheer and an altar cloth installed in 2019. In 2014, he also painted the first portrait of Archbishop Justin Welby, which was installed in Auckland Castle. A permanent collection of his work in the Faith Museum at Auckland Castle is due to open this year.

Earlier this year, Wagner wrote an appreciation of Jane Greenham (née Dowling), whose “many-layered paintings, whether in watercolour, oil or tempera, though animated by an intense spiritual imagination were always underpinned by beautiful drawing”. He noted that “it was this commitment to drawing that made her such an inspirational teacher” at the Byam Shaw, at Maidstone College (alongside David Hockney), at the Royal Academy and at the Ruskin School of Drawing. Wagner taught alongside her at the Ruskin and described that experience as “an education”. “Though always gentle and encouraging with students, she could be alarming to any who did not take their work as seriously as she did”, and it was “exactly this intensity of gaze that was valued by those who sought out her advice”.

He recalls that, in the 1950s, “she and a group of fellow students at the Byam Shaw had been given a tour of Cookham by Stanley Spencer, which left a lasting impression.” Yet, he suggests, “whereas Spencer’s finest work is monumental, Jane’s most powerful spiritual images often take the form of small watercolours.” He concludes that her approach “was the reverse of conceptual”, “‘I wouldn’t know what an idea was if I met it coming down the street’, she once wrote. ‘What I have is experiences, and I talk about these in the wordless language of drawing’.”

Finally, as we reflect on exhibitions and artists exploring our relationship with the transcendent, is an exhibition about new magic and mysticism. ‘I Put a Spell on You’ at the Art Exchange in Colchester explores today’s growing affinity with magic, which coincides with a time when we’re experiencing a profound loss of faith in modern society. This exhibition suggests that the rationalism, science and the ‘progress’ of the capitalist era have left us lurching from one crisis to the next. At the same time, climate catastrophe calls into question our relationship with planet Earth. Against this backdrop, it argues that magic offers an alternative universe – a space where we can become re-enchanted with the world again.

The artists in this show – Alice Bucknell, Juno Calypso, Leonora Carrington, Chiara Fumai, Serena Korda, Akinsola Lawanson, Susan Pui San Lok, Freddie Robins and Tai Shani – embrace magic, myth and mysticism as they explore alternative ways of thinking and being. They are guided by the historic figure of the witch – always close at hand in Essex, where hundreds stood accused. Together, they make individual and collective gestures of resistance.

Jess Twyman writes that the artists in this show are responding to magic and mysticism as “mechanisms for re-evaluating our times and imagining our future”. They “explore feminism, forgotten folklore, ancient myths and religions, as they critique the violent superstructures of capitalism, patriarchy and colonialism”. Twyman suggests that “through creative acts of resistance that, magic and mysticism allows us the space to imagine a better world, build our resilience and come up with strategies for coping, individually and through collective action”.


‘Real Families: Stories of Change’, 6 October 2023 – 7 January 2024, The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

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‘Celia Paul: Myself, Among Others’, 28 October–9 December 2023, Victoria Miro Venice

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‘Nengi Omuku: The Dance of People and the Natural World’, 7 October 2023 – 3 March 2024, Hastings Contemporary

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‘Berlinde De Bruyckere: Crossing a bridge on fire’, 28 October, 2023 to 10 March, 2024, MAC / CCB Museum of Contemporary Art, Lisbon

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‘My Life Is A Prayer: An exhibition by Raul Speek’, 9 October-3 November 2023, St Davids Cathedral, Pembrokeshire

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‘Everywhere is Heaven: Stanley Spencer & Roger Wagner’, 9 November 2023 – 24 March 2024, Stanley Spencer Gallery, Cookham

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‘I Put a Spell on You’, 02.10.2023 – 17.11.2023, Art Exchange, Colchester

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