In times of magnified instability and palpable uncertainty, it’s tempting to seek the steady hand of explanation, to cling onto what seems to offer refuge in simplicity and sureness. Truth and falsity, reality and artifice, the allure of these black and white flipsides lies in their illusory straightforwardness.
When things are seen as either ‘this’ or ‘that’, there is no space for grey areas. The need for ease of understanding, of something solid to steady ourselves, flattens the complexity of the world. It is in this context that the opening solo show, ‘Shades of Grey’, from Femme Inc. emerges.
Born to Sudanese migrant parents and raised in Newcastle, Femme Inc. is no stranger to navigating the grey areas.
“As an adult in my thirties, life is definitely in shades of grey for me,” Femme Inc. explains. “I’m confusing for many people - I’m a Black woman with an eccentric look and an unusual accent that is a mix of a northern English, south London and African… We all judge, it’s what we do.”
Instead of using monochrome to emphasise stark difference, ‘Shades of Grey’ categorically resists simplistic division through the continuous flow of a spectrum of shade. Here, monochrome is less about the absence of colour and more about what is to be gained from nuances of shade and the power held within these tones. Speaking to Femme Inc., she reminds me that “the grey area should be used wisely.” Notably, Femme Inc’s her late great uncle, the painter Hussain Gamaan (a contemporary of Ibrahim El-Salahi), was also fascinated with the gradations within monochrome and formed the Black and White Group, who exhibited together annually.
The flow is also present in the content of many of Femme Inc.’s images; one of the most striking shows a basketball heading on a curved trajectory towards a hoop. Do you make the assumption of what seems likely to happen next? Within uncertainty, there is chance, and it is these possibilities that re-occur throughout the exhibition. A door, a tunnel, a tower, a transport system – by asking curiously where these lead, there is a persistent sense of impending change.
As Susan Sontag wrote, “photographs do not explain; they acknowledge.” Equally, Diane Arbus once explained, “the more it tells you, the less you know.” In its apparent capture of the moment, photography has time and time again been linked with the desire for fact and truth; a source to inform an explanation. Instead, in ‘Shades of Grey’, the mental leaps that happen when looking at an image and the assumptions that fill gaps are some of the processes that come into focus. Did the basketball aiming for the hoop ever make it? Determinism may provide a sense of stability and security, but there are consequences to this. Assumptions are perhaps especially emphasised at the beginning of the exhibition where an image of an object appears with the background intentionally removed. Seeing the whole picture isn’t an option. Instead, we guess and grasp for clues - something we do unconsciously all the time.
Femme Inc.’s exploration of ambiguity is continued in the later pieces, though the use of monochrome never seems nostalgic. From faces that are lit with artificial light to figures that are hidden in the brightness of the sun, the harnessing of light and shade is just as much about obscuring parts of each image as it is about playing with the movement of attention. A figure guiding a camel across the desert commands centre-stage, yet it is the landscape behind and the sky that are illuminated most visibly. This technique continues through several other images in the show: a darkened door that beckons the viewer in, contrasting with the well-lit avenue behind; the gaps between the individual strands of a tasselled lamp that’s tapered lampshade blends into the room; a woman sheltering in a sliver of shade alongside a brick wall.
Photography, inescapably, is about the direction of attention. Moving towards the final works in ‘Shades of Grey’, a series of musical performances show individuals that are highlighted in front of a crowd – yet, perhaps as a means of resisting the pull of the stage lights in directing the gaze onto an illuminated subject, just as much attention is paid to the rhythm of the lights themselves.
The collection culminates in a series of beach and snowscapes. The blankness of removed backgrounds that was seen at the beginning has developed into expanses of misty skies, snow-covered landscapes and sandy plains in which water and fog blur the boundary between sky and ground. Grey areas abound. But, if you’re expecting them to be grey, they might go unnoticed.