‘Akimbo’ is the largest presentation of Jimmy Robert’s work in the UK to date: a survey spanning nearly two decades of Robert’s video, collage, drawing and sculpture. ‘Akimbo’ aims to embody the action of its title (standing with hands on hips) as a defiant posture which converges works in new arrangements to create new conversations and fresh perspectives. Throughout his practice questions of intimacy and touch, and what it means to see and be seen are explored using the body as a vehicle for enquiry.
Robert is renowned for his choreographic work, which on the surface appears to be absent from ‘Akimbo’. Instead, the exhibition challenges visitors’ expectations of witnessing one of his performances. Through careful curation, the objects on view at Nottingham Contemporary and viewers are subject to the choreography that resonates from Robert’s most recent work, ‘Untitled (Plié II)’ (2020), a cylindrical print forcing the viewer to walk its perimeter in order to absorb its entirety. This contrarian scenario, which immerses the viewer in its choreography, invites the audience to become aware of how they inhabit the gallery space, amongst the physical works.
Paper, in both two and three-dimensional forms, is the predominate material within the exhibition. Gestures applied to the paper make reference to early twentieth century avant-garde movements—namely, Dadaism. Robert’s collages build and amplify certain sections of imagery, and remove or erase others. Repeated manipulations, such as folding to create motifs, act as signatures of Robert’s artistic hand. Other works are subject to differing processes: flattening, scanning and printing. Hung casually (often pinned in corners), the works on paper remain ephemeral in their nature even whilst the material has been made eternal by celebrating it in this way. Put differently, the works curl and coil, meaning that their autonomy is not subject to the conventions of museum display mechanisms.
The majority of Robert’s artworks are ‘Untitled’ and followed by a reference in brackets; this source of information is often descriptive and distinguishes the works as opposed to ascribing a singular understanding. Deliberately vague, an informality is conveyed without a narrative direction, so the audience feels able to take the interpretative lead. Through these purposeful decisions, the work reads as un-pin-downable, despite its being coded and referential to moments in cultural history. For example, ‘Untitled (Agon)’ (2015) is a collage which incorporates drawing and archival images of ballet. By reading around Robert’s practice, we learn that these images are the ‘pas-de-deux’ from ‘Agon’ (1957), directed by George Balanchine. ‘Agon’ was the first production at the New York City Ballet to be created for a Black lead dancer (Arthur Mitchell). The presentation of this imagery confronts the audience with a pivotal moment of Black representation within the White dominated cultural landscape of ballet.
‘Akimbo’ offers a challenge to the viewer, not only through the works included in this exhibition, but through the architectural space they inhabit. By disrupting our expectations of image-making and display mechanisms, Roberts invites us to personally critique the existent construction of artistic norms.