We Out Here is not an ordinary show, not to my eyes. It feels like something is happening here. It’s a humble premise in some ways, a show of six artists living and working in Hastings, but this is far more. It’s a band of ambitious makers with global subjects that come together with this local remit. They live and work here, but their vision is international, their vision is activist, and their product is based on research at doctoral or postdoctoral level. Each artist has something considered and well-executed to offer. It’s quite exhilarating to think that my local town is full of such artists.
It’s a band of ambitious makers with global subjects
If something is happening in Hastings, it’s focused on by the curator Lorna Hamilton-Brown – the others mainly refer to her as the leader of the group with great love and respect. She is one of those bold makers who are choosing a maligned craft as the focus of their practice, helping us re-see this skill as being of value and helping us re-imagine its potential. I say ‘us’, I don’t only mean me, but I definitely have been brought up to look at knitting, her chosen medium, in a disparaging way by my father, who saw it as a waste of time. My mother liked to knit in her downtime, enjoying the generosity of this skill, its domestic nature, and its family roots – her family were cottage weavers from Yorkshire, and this work connected her to her mother and female ancestors – but my father disapproved of it. I think this is typical of the struggle of knitting inside the fine arts, and Lorna is its champion.
Lorna’s practice, though, is one of fine art, based on ideas of drawing, based on graphic choices and using these to comment on social artefacts. She creates knitted magazine covers and found this format to be excellent for such commentary with its combination of headline and portraiture of the cover model. There are two covers on show here, one created for the exhibition itself, a Windrush issue to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the arrival of Caribbean passengers on the Empire Windrush who arrived in the UK. The 802 were the first of the 500,000 Commonwealth citizens who settled in Britain between 1948 and 1971, answering the call to come and help rebuild the ‘mother country’, invited but who found life as a British citizen for them meant living with daily prejudice. There are clearly so many stories so, but this knitted magazine cover is a format that allows for the selection of key iconic ingredients in order to engage with them in a broad way. The maker of such socially engaged works has to be focused and selective, bright and decisive.
It’s easy, apparently, to miss the craft in these pieces. Hamilton-Brown says that many walk past and think that they are paintings or prints, not realising that they are expanded knitting. (She also works on the covers with embroidery to get the finished result, a process which must have a crafty-name, but my knitting vocabulary is quite scant, and my research only comes up with such generic terms as embellishment). But Lorna uses a fine new word to me, intarsia, to define her technique, how the different colours and materials lie together to create layers of mixed colours. I never reached such advanced knit levels. She used a vintage domestic manual-knitting machine set to a fine gauge. Obviously, the smaller the stitch, the more detail, offering a finer outcome. She puts her cover design together first on the computer and then realises this through the machine.
I’m taken by the artistry and humour of her work, the mix of register and the bold activism made flesh through fine yarn work. Her other piece was created for Yarnadelic and is a study on ‘Woman Blue’, originally sung by an unnamed eighteen-year-old black woman imprisoned for murder in America in the 1930s. As a musician, I am intrigued by the process of translating song into art through the use of a punch card for a music box, originally done by Muriel Pensivy but then taken further my Hamilton-Brown into a punch card for a knitting machine. This enabled the music to be translated into knitted lace. It is hung in a square with another square of fine yarn above it with metal rods around the style, remembering the aesthetic of prison – windows with metal around them – which the artist has experienced in her work in prison. It is important for Hamilton-Brown to remember the young singer who sang that song so long ago but whose name was not recorded. The song was recorded by many mainstream artists, and the activist singer Joan Baez included a version on her 1960 debut album. The one line was extended into many more verses – ‘I know you rider, gonna miss me when I’m gone’. The original singer and her figure are elevated right here right now in Hastings Contemporary Gallery, and we think of her story.
The craft in these pieces is phenomenal. Paul Hope handcrafts black histories and creates artwork from his research in finely stitched leather. He has focused on the slave deck image from the transatlantic voyages in which so many enslaved people were transported across the ocean in the most abject misery, unfathomable. I find it so hard to focus upon their experience, yet we have to look to understand why and how we are here today. Paul is a lifelong researcher, fascinated by the iconic broadsides of the late eighteenth century, particularly ‘Description of a Slave Ship’ (1789) with its printed images of the human cargo of the Brookes. Without the tip and roll of the sea, it’s hard to visualise in 2D media, but with leather, the abstraction has gone into such a different process this adds to the power of the talisman nature of the art object. Leather is animal and has such an aroma and quality that it suggests to me the skin, the flesh, the physical pain and abuse those figures endured, those journeys on which so many died.
Elaine Mulling’s work is installational, with two large sculptures focusing on exploitation and injustice. The blue in her pieces jumps out. They really are phenomenal visual interpretations and have such a presence in the gallery. The blue is symbolic in so many ways, as are all her materials. So they look amazing and powerful, and they work as a means to both analyse and get inside a story. They are complex, so although I would like to bring out every element and its meaning, I don’t want to set myself up to fail. Back to the blue – it signifies cobalt, that element that is used in lithium-ion batteries. As we strive to be green and use eco-power, we pay a human and landscape cost in Africa. Mulling is referring to the mining in the Congo. There’s a story that a man digging a toilet hit a seam of heterogenite, an ore that could be refined into cobalt, a toxic but money-bringing discovery. People began to dig into their own houses, ruining their health at home. Southern Congo is known for 3.4 million metric tons of cobalt, half the world’s known supply. Mines exploit children, who are often drugged to suppress hunger, who Mulling represents through slumped blue rubber blobs slumped around circles of copper in a kind of horrific climbing frame. How can we continue to sacrifice children for our dreams of technological advancement? We have a duty of care to the children, and Mullings’s work tries to stop us from sweeping them beneath the carpet of forgetfulness, bringing an image of them back into our consciousness. Her large map of Africa is more graphic and uses less human representation – its Congolese heart is fractured with broken glass. This rich, rich land, with such incredible resources, mineral, animal, people is shattered so the other developed lands can see themselves in a beautifying mirror and marvel at their achievements. Congo and its cobalt rush, its open mines and its industrial pit lie on the other side, blocked from sight by those who do not want to see.
Eugene Palmer’s ‘Songs on the Sea’ returns to historical slavery, a pull felt by the descendants of slavery. I actually think its time we left the word ‘slave’ behind because of its racial associations – it’s a term the Romans gave to all captives, but it began with ‘Slavonic captive’, and I feel its use of a section of the population to describe a condition in which some people keep others is the kind of thing we are walking away from now, rightly, but here we are with the word. Palmer’s ‘Songs’ are two significant paintings painted so well, using photographic imagery floating on flat backgrounds to make a collection to understand. He is focusing on his own community – one painting composites pictures taken at a family member’s baby shower – but thinking of their ancestral journey. He is thinking of his Hastings home. The sea and its connection to the slave trade, how so many journeyed through it, surviving, and dying, is cameoed in portholes looking into this distant cinematic memory, as is a black-and-white photograph of a black flower seller from the town’s archives. He speaks of his delight in discovering this image. Here is a woman who settled here, and worked here, years ago. And now he has a figure with whom he can feel a connection, living here in Hastings today. I’m really taken by her image too and am proud to be a small part of ‘A Town Explores a Book’ in which St Leonards-on-Sea is looking at ‘Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands’. Through this project, initiated by ExploretheArch and Gail Borrows’s team, images of a black woman in Victorian costume are beginning to pop up in shops all around, hopefully inspiring us to contemplate the black residents of our own town. They were here, flower sellers and others who contributed to our lives with their labour.
Palmer’s large-scale painters are impressive through size and skill. Good painting is good to see. But there are so many disciplines represented here. Richard Mark Rawlins has created a series of tea-towels, using this unusual format to represent the collective of natterers who come together over the ritual refreshment of tea in order to discuss the day’s concerns and share experience. Faces of people with British Afro-Caribbean heritage drinking tea are printed on these towels which are hung on a washing line to create an illustrative installation. One part of physicality suggests a history which I perhaps had encountered but forgotten until Rawlins points it out to me. Those cloths, those tea-towels were to wrap precious bone-china in because none could touch the vessels apart from the designated handlers. They were to be kept pure. The tea-towel has continued to be an important part of our history and our art-history with material-poor painters using it as a canvas substitute. Rawlins is concerned to cross registers, and this tale lifts it out of its domestic origins, giving it some gallery-precedence. With his graphics training and experience Rawlins is expert at interpreting story into visual pieces and you can see he’s ambitious to do this. He is also a mark-maker and I am really drawn into his drawing of Moko Jumbie. Carnival figures are very appropriate for Hastings which as a town seems able to make a carnival for any day of the week or year, and Rawlins and I laugh about this, feeling affection for this eccentric town where we live. His rendition of Moko Jumbie is affectionate, intimate, wide ranging and full of cartoon, tale, text, drawn collage of printed image and word, making a fine portrait of this divine spirit that walked across the sea from Africa to be with the enslaved people. So spirits cannot cross the water. Moko Jumbie walked on stilts. Ingenious. We all need someone to be with us and tell our stories. Moko Jumbie, perhaps for personal reasons of resonance as I have worked so much in theatre and news, is one of my favourite pieces in this beautiful, important show.
Maggie Scott’s work is to inspire conversation about our own collusion in consumerist ecological destruction, but I’m initially impressed by its texture and materialism. Felt has always seduced me, that broken-down soft cloth with its matted fibre and how the lines of thread have been distressed into something flatter. Its allure that it had for my childhood self has continued, and I enjoy standing close by the part of her work that presents this textile texture. But the felted cloth has a significance for the audience as part of a wider work about waste and consumerist colonialism in which, again, the backwaters of the world and certain parts of Africa become the dumping ground for the waste of the developed regions. The piece certainly has a wow factor with its concertina design juxtaposing a poster image of young white women shopping and having fun with fashion. It’s an advertising image of the kind to lure youth with money into trying to achieve happiness by buying consumer items. On the other side of the concertina is the felted image of the waste grounds in Africa – I think it’s a composite of two dumping sites in Uganda and Congo – and depending on where you stand, you see more or less of one of the other sides of this situation. The fashion branding allows Scott to have some little satirical pointers, using labelling of the company Shein, considered to be a top offender in the production of low-quality fashion and its unsustainable synthetic manufacture and consumption of oil. Maggie Scott is introducing me in this work to the global impact of fashion on the ecology of our planet and is doing this through the material itself. Scott’s work uses the Nuno felting technique in which wool and fibres become entangled through an open weave fabric, giving a support to the cloth and allowing pictorial representation. The felt blurs and softens the image. It is, in part, the low quality of fashion that leads to so much being dumped. Maggie Scott has made a high-quality textile work to be valued, shown and re-shown.
Overall myself and my editor Paul at Artlyst, are so impressed by this show that I agree when he says it could be in the Turner Prize shortlist exhibition. We feel proud by association to be in a town with such artists and with a far-sighted, well-appointed gallery that gives such an opportunity for this developmental group show. I feel almost quite tearful and have written quite enough, so I’ll stop now, but I really felt this collection of work deserved my time, contemplation and action.
We Are Here, Hastings Contemporary, 1 April – 4 June 2023
Lorna Hamilton-Brown, Paul Hope, Elaine Mullings, Eugene Palmer, Richard Mark Rawlins, Maggie Scott