UNTITLED provides a number of guilty pleasures and does not try to hide its cheeky side. Opening with Harold Offeh’s video Covers Playlist (2016), in which a slightly over the hill man works on his disco diva moves, the show manages to maintain that identity politics can be playful as well as a serious subject. Beside the video is a fanboy selection of album covers featuring the stars of the 70s and 80s, which are often restaged by Offeh in his performative, gender-reversing makeovers.
A theme of UNTITLED is the assimilation of once racialised and transgressive imagery by the mainstream culture industry. Michael Jackson has a walk-on part in Appau Junior Boakye-Yiadom’s sculptural installation PYT (2009), his shoes suspended by colourful balloons. Since his death, Jackson’s controversial personal life and the serious crisis that his ambivalence towards his own imagery presented for American Pop culture has been erased. Along with Offeh’s album covers, PYT introduces the theme that black identity remains conditioned by a pressure to perform and conform to renewed stereotypes.
The projected film Imitation 34/59 (2013) is a reminder of the extent that some barriers remain resolutely in place. The artist NT merges clips of the original black and white film Imitation of Life (1934) with the soundtrack of the 1959 remake starring Lana Turner. We only see and hear a brief clip of the key scene where the character of Peola (Fredi Washington), attempting to pass for White, denies recognising her Black mother Delilah (Louise Beavers). The sequence succinctly conveys the crisis of a Black identity internalising racism, as set out in Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin White Masks, and NT drives home how little attitudes had changed little by the time of the 1959 remake, or – considering the whitening up of Michael Jackson – even by the 2000s.
NT’s other films South more (2014) and Moore into you (2016) also evoke feelings of disappointment and melancholy, by presenting a Henry Moore sculpture standing in its Council estate as a metaphor for successive governments’ failure to deliver on the egalitarian promises of the 1960s and the end of Empire. Fanon identified Modernism’s fixation with ‘the other’ with the worst excesses of European colonialism. This complex interchange is illustrated simply and brilliantly in the display of Cedar Lewisohn’s woodcuts. Lewisohn has worked as a curator of graffiti art for Tate Modern – another instance of ‘the other’ being made consumable – and leafing through the sheets of woodcutting, the extent of what he calls ‘cultural cannibalism’ is clear.
The scheduling of UNTITLED coincides with ‘The Place is Here’ at Nottingham Contemporary, which showcases the work of Black artists, writers and thinkers from the 1980s. UNTITLED features a dozen artists who mostly began exhibiting after 2000, yet there are plenty of comparisons to draw between the two shows. Kimathi Donkor’s stunning Under Fire: The Shooting of Cherry Groce (2005) taps the same history painting vein as Sutapa Biswas and Chila Kumari Burman’s works of the mid-1980s. By installing Cherry Groce into the cannon of martyrs and heroines, Donkor presents the continuing struggle to claim representation.
History is also revised by Barbara Walker in The Big Secret VI (2015), a reworking of an archive photograph of one of the Indian brigades that fought for the British Empire in the trenches a century ago. It is a moving elegiac image to a lost generation whom, as Walker points out, the British establishment deliberately ‘whited out’ from history. Walker’s Polite Violence III (2006) shows a stop and search form produced on her son by West Midlands Police, a shocking document of continuing institutional racism. The work’s position, near Donkor’s depiction of the Cherry Groce shooting, reinforces the message that artists still have an essential social function to remain watchful of continuing injustices.
The centrepiece of the exhibition is Phoebe Boswell’s Tramlines (2015), an epic ‘sign of the times’ drawing made during a residency in Gothenburg. It could be the preparatory cartoon for a vast town hall mural. Though presented as an unfiltered observation of scenes along a regular commute through the city, it is carefully composed to display a sequence of civic spaces, and the aspirations of the good society are represented by a series of allegorical figures. The various strata of social groups occupying the same physical space appear isolated in their own experience of dislocation. Boswell’s inclusion of the abandoned boats of contemporary human traffickers and the Mediterranean refugee crisis connects her masterful piece to the representation of the Middle Passage of the Black Atlantic and a broader sweep of British art history. It is a story that demands to be properly retold.