“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” Oscar Murillo’s current exhibition at Kettle’s Yard starts with these words by John Donne. This quote is a testimony of the artist’s mourning for his friend, Nigerian curator and unique contributor to the art world, Okwui Enwezor, who died earlier this year. But it makes me think that if Murillo were an island, he would have been a floating island.
Murillo is the son of a Colombian family, which migrated to London in the1990s. His mind seems to be always aware of where he is and how this is not where he was born. Life is a journey, but his has become more literally just that. Murillo travels very often, thinking and drawing during flights. Buildings, roads, planes, territories of the mind and the land are drawn with thousands of lines and some repeated words. He may take flights as an initial phase of his work without a clear purpose or destination, before returning to his studio in North London to execute it. He embodies migrating birds and his ideas are formed on the move.
‘Violent Amnesia’, the title of the show, is also the name of a painting made over four years. Murillo says that the title has to do with the idea that the world is upside down. It is a large un-stretched canvas hanging like a curtain from a rail besides a world map missing Europe and the US, which features birds and prints of foreign banknotes. For Murillo, birds are a counterpoint to human experience as they migrate freely without restriction.
The installation, ‘The Institute of Reconciliation’ (2014- ), runs through different rooms of Kettle’s Yard as well as the House and the beautiful neighbouring church St Peter’s. The performative aspect of Murillo’s work is remarkably evident in this piece. Some canvases have been soaked in black, cut and stitched, and hit against a white wall to make a mark. For other elements of the installation the artist has gathered long, wooden, old church benches and destroyed them to an extent that makes you think of the recent tragedy in Notre Dame.
The installation in St Peter’s Church is inspired by the Colombian tradition of making Mateos, human figures to be burnt on New Year celebrations. Murillo has also selected paintings by Alfred Wallis, a fisherman and artist, from Kettle’s Yard’s collection to reflect on. Perhaps due to the similarities between Wallis and Murillo, they both seem to be always on the run.
Murillo’s work is special in its way of displaying its process – from the original thought to its gallery-ready state. His aeroplane drawings, made with simple, widely available pens, in typical red, blue and black biro colours, are exhibited in the House. These drawings form the basis of Murillo’s ‘Catalyst’ series in which he pours paint onto a big canvas lying on the floor, lays another canvas on top, before the paint dries and draws on the canvases with a stick. This act creates a matrix of lines, which you can see have not been slowly and peacefully drawn.
‘Violent Amnesia’ is essentially about having something that needs to be forgotten - either systematically by being stripped of one’s memories or through choice, simply to get some comfort. Rising from the symbolisms and abstract expressions of the show is the sound piece ‘My name is Belisario’ (2016). This is Murillo’s father’s testimony about arriving in North London from La Paila, Colombia, performed in a variety of languages. Calm, realistic and touching, it is a rich contrast to the rest of the show, but an important piece to complete the picture.