Exhibition Commentary: the artwork

“It tunnels - you forget that there’s a cyber space out there that’s bigger than the computer, because at the moment I’m here in the computer and it’s a lot smaller than my studio...”

Gloria Ojulari Sule is a painter. In her work for Calling, she has explored whether digital image manipulation can add anything to the vividness and improvisatory quality of her work; whether the medium is in fact capable of being used in this way at all.

Her installation is a shelf of images. The shelf references the pixilated structure of the digital image, and consists of fragmented pieces - paintings and some video - which she has arranged into a rhythmic and satisfying whole.

But she has disrupted the impression of uniformity, the rendered flatness that can be typical of digital images, by creolising the blocks, the components of the shelf. Here the paintings, the pixel-substitutes, are round, square, oblong, painted, photographed and collaged. The work is full of little jokes and puns about multi-media: the shelf supports painted audio tape and CD boxes, a painting on a CD itself, a collage that looks like Imovie, a movie masquerading as a painting.
Vivid and literal as the work appears, it is underpinned by serious themes of loss, dislocation, exile; departures as well as arrivals; farewells as well as salutations; alienation and estrangement as well as sudden recognitions, affinities and synchronicities.

The shelf invokes the vibrancy, disguises and pied regularity of West African art. Every time it is installed, the arrangement changes. The work is in the tradition of the jazz aesthetic, “To be joyful in spite of conditions.” It uses those strategies, “collage, montage and bricollage,” said by Kobena Mercer to echo Black diasporic experience and thus to be particularly appropriate to convey that experience. Losing nothing of the artist’s usual vibrancy, lightness of touch and sense of improvisation, “In Other Words” achieves an unforced synthesis in which the technique of subversive appropriation, and the cut-and-paste, sampling digital aesthetic, continuously reference and resonate with each other and with the act of painting.
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Dalila Hamdoun brings a different perspective to the question of African heritage, that of the Muslim world. “Triptych: Veiled Woman” proved extremely problematic to make in practical terms. The artist’s struggles to do so are detailed in her diary.

The theme and the structure of this work are underpinned by the character of internet communication, and demonstrate the tension and interconnection between public and private. In “Triptych” the nature of internet space, through which the work is intended to be viewed and commented on - private, one-to-one, domestically-based but with a world-wide potential public - reiterates the nature of the act of wearing the veil.

The three sections of “Triptych” subtly reference the red, white and blue of the French flag, the tricolour, indicating one aspect of Dalila’s heritage that further amplifies the concept of diaspora. The visual style of each panel references a different style of representation, exploring possibilities for the portrayal of veiled women in Western media. The first panel is lyrical and exoticised, an image of hidden allure; the second panel quotes from the alienating starkness of documentary reportage. The third panel is a portrait of a woman engaged in the most ordinary of actions; candid, private, familiar and mundane, and at the same time ritualised and significant. Linking all three panels, the soundtrack is a chorus of interwoven voices which have been edited to appear to be in dialogue with one another.

“Triptych” is a complex work which the artist has reduced and compressed into a form which appears deceptively simple. The installation of the work plays on the public/private contradiction: a cupboard placed in the exhibition space, like a little dressing table with the monitor in place of the mirror and a keyboard inserted in its top. If you were so curious as to open the cupboard and peep in, you would see drawers full of veils of different colours. After you watch the film, a message on the screen invites you to either read the diary or to use the keyboard to post directly to the Calling message board in the appropriate thread. Rigorous, sensitive and resilient, “Triptych” is an elegant work that establishes valuable space for dialogue.
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Jenny Davis is a published author and playwright. Digital technology was extremely new to her, entailing an arduous process of engagement eloquently described in her diary. Starting from a comment about Bling culture, Jenny’s project grew to become eight short films, evolving to include her relationship with her mother and her teenage daughter, both of whom did the shooting for their respective films. Each film is accessed by pressing one of eight panels of a beaded, appliquéd quilt. The ninth panel, in the centre of the quilt, is the monitor screen.

The work is tactile, sensuous, humorous and moving; absorbing and seductive. New media often flattens its content, rendering it into a digital lingua franca with little diversity and much reiteration. To achieve naturalness and simplicity of expression in a complex, many-layered work is a difficult undertaking that takes many artists a lifetime to learn, whatever their medium; but Jenny has made the technology sing in her own language, use her own idioms, take on her own intonation. Out of all the pieces, this work suffers most from the bandwidth restrictions of internet publication - it’s sensory richness can only be fully appreciated on site.

The work is informed by the democratic methodology of oral history transcription as it has evolved through the Digital Storytelling Movement, as well as by the feminist practice of re-assessing and reclaiming craft-centred women’s work. The quilt was chosen as an emblem of Black women’s creativity and struggle to maintain their families, communities and traditions in the face of displacement and often fatal hostility. The quilt is a symbol of women’s role as keepers of community and family memory, celebrating and conserving, rendering personal stories relevant by weaving them into a background of contemporary concerns, rendering contemporary concerns meaningful by interweaving them with personal stories. “Threads” celebrates the individual voice while linking it hauntingly to wider social issues; and it achieves, among other things, an agile critique of mainstream media representation.

Just as the quilt, a private domestic artefact, could occasionally function as a public record of the richness of a family’s cultural heritage and invention, here it is also a pattern of, and homage to, the creative ingenuity that was capable of constructing useful, beautiful and nurturing objects out of a random collection of scraps. Jenny Davis infiltrates the frequently arid and gadget-ridden high-tech environment with this sophisticated intervention, lushly personal and deliberately craft-centred.
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