Eastside Projects, 86 Heath Mill Lane, Birmingham, B9 4AR

The Range

Eastside Projects

26 January - 27 April 2019

Review by Divya Osbon

Curated by artist Rehana Zaman, ‘The Range’ features new work by six artists, including Ain Bailey, Adam Farah and Beverley Bennett, following close to a year of mostly digital correspondence amongst the group. Internet culture provides much of the source material for their shared exploration and humour, as well as the show’s title, which makes reference to a ‘Little Britain’ sketch and the popular Twitter thread it inspired. In this, Matt Lucas’s Shirley Bassey caricature dismisses acclaimed vocalists one by one, declaring, “she doesn’t have the range” - a phrase which is then ironically employed in the thread to criticise a long list of esteemed singers and celebrities. Tongue-in-cheek then, perhaps, is the group’s self-determination that they too have ‘the range’, a joke turned on cultural criticism itself, in which subjective appraisals are so easily cloaked in the language of objectivity.

Hashim Ali’s two-part video work, ‘My Mate, Jim Roberts’ (2019), presents a collage of filmed moments captured in his home streets of a Pakistani neighbourhood in Glasgow. In ‘pt. one’ Ali uses rediscovered footage from early camera-phones, often pixelated and juddering, to compile an authentic portrait of a community typically only featured in racially motivated news stories of gang violence. With occasional captions (“Phatman getting arrested after a fight”), the clips appear as an act of preservation from within, whether filming banal social moments like two young men lip-syncing to a Hindi song, or documenting someone being beaten up on the street. In ‘pt. 2’ blurred out figures are interviewed in documentary style formality, as they reflect on past crimes, prison time, and the socio-political causes behind gang violence. Initially viewed as a sober, even remorseful, contemplation of the consequences of crime, the combination of both videos invites the viewer to question their sincerity. Is Ali mocking the efforts of outsiders to “understand” something characterised as foreign to them?

Two plastic paddling pools filled with sex toys make up Seema Mattu’s wryly-titled installation, ‘DON’T POST PICTURES ON THE FUCKING TV’ (2019). Bright, synthetic phalluses and cock rings float gently on the shifting water, and appear as props in the video works playing on four screens rigged up over the sides. In one of these, ‘Sex Curry’ (2019), a pair of hands saws through rubber dildos and anal plugs with a kitchen knife, frying them up in a spice paste like a YouTube cooking tutorial. A slideshow of images features phrases like, “lasbian kiss scern” and “Very hot bhabhi showing nice b**bs” - spelling mistakes which hint at the underbelly of the internet, where sexual stimulation and pornography are sought out in privacy. A question is prompted over whether Mattu is exposing the internet searches of strangers, or in fact revealing the nature of her own desire as a young, queer, brown woman. Juggling the supposed incongruence of these intersecting factors of minority identity, Mattu humorously picks out ubiquitous symbols of South Asian culture in the UK (like curry) to display alongside her queerness, uniting factors of her identity that might frequently render her invisible both within the South Asian community and in more overtly queer spaces too.

Zarina Muhammad’s greeting card memes, enlarged onto two of the gallery’s walls in her work titled ‘Good Morning’ (2019), are normally to be found circulating in particular WhatsApp networks in the Indian diaspora. Originally sincere, the memes take on a layer of amusement here, aided in part by syntactic confusion (“may your Wednesday / be magical one” and “Have a wonderful THURSDAY / Good Morning”), and their psychedelic collage of fake flowers and sunsets. Greetings from these memes and others provide a chorus to Muhammad’s on-site performance, accompanied by rousing live dhol drumming in which she reads from a text proclaiming the revolutionary nature of such kitsch imagery, as a radical and universal language of the subaltern. The confetti thrown at the climax of this celebratory, sermon-like speech, which has been left to decorate the concrete floor, characterises this defiant reclamation of a non-Western aesthetic.

Like the process of group building that lies at the heart of the exhibition’s making, of which we hear a limited amount, there is a sense that more in-jokes remain just out of reach to the viewer. In a show which tacitly handles cultural identity without making this an explicit organising principle, perhaps there is a deeper level of satire still hidden within this concept of “the range”, which targets the perceived limitation of black and brown artists’ capacity for abstraction.

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