An Unexpected Journey: Tavares Strachan’s In Plain Sight
by Kaler Wong | 03 December 2020
“Every Knee Shall Bow” (2020), a painting featuring Queen Elizabeth and, on the cover of Jet magazine, Haile Selassie I, the former emperor of Ethiopia.Credit... Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Jurate Veceraite
A couple of weeks before lockdown 2.0, I ventured to the Marian Goodman Gallery tucked away in Soho, to view the exhibition In Plain Sight by the Bahamian artist Tavares Strachan. In need of a dose of culture after a week of screens, and attracted by images of African masks paired with sculptures of famous black figures, I took a punt on Strachan to enrich my knowledge of black history – October was Black History Month after all - and enhance my academic study of the Atlantic. And boy did he deliver.
Entering the gallery the viewer found themselves in an unlit corridor, at the far end of which stood a flickering sculpture of a neon skeleton. As with much of the exhibition, I was subsequently compelled to do my homework and discovered that the skeleton is a reference to the Cuban prima ballerina Alicia Alonso. As she became partially blind, Alonso had to retrain herself to dance using spatial awareness and sensory perception to light and her fellow performers. An intriguing introduction, Strachan is certainly one to leave questions hanging.
Two rooms beckoned on the left and right. To sidestep any social-distancing related issues I turned left. Lining the walls of the darkened room (Strachan clearly likes the dark) were large collages, compositions that sliced together Haile Selassie and a youthful Queen Elizabeth, an outline of a basketball court with James Baldwin and Matthew Henson. The latter is a key point of departure; Henson was a black American explorer and a member of what is supposedly the first group of men to reach the North Pole in 1909, alongside the American Navy Officer Robert Peary and four Inuits whose names are not recorded. His story was long overlooked, not least because he was African American. What we choose to remember from history lies at the core of Strachan’s practice, coupled with a deep interest in exploration – Strachan himself has ventured on multiple expeditions to the North Pole.
This interest in historical memory became clearer in the second room. The walls were wrapped in densely worded and illustrated pages, the room empty apart from a glass box at the centre which enclosed a large, leather-bound book, the spine of which read ‘The Encyclopaedia of Invisibility’. As I later discovered, this forms an ongoing project to challenge the Enlightenment notion of the encyclopaedia as a neutral, inclusive repository of knowledge. Strachan’s encyclopaedia is constantly evolving and being added to, the entries dotted with largely unknown figures, marginalised individuals and events left out of official canons. It was at this point, whilst browsing some of its fifteen thousand entries, that the unexpected journey really took off. The show has since ended its run, so I won’t hesitate here to include spoilers. From the ether of the upper floor, the low bass notes of a singer echoed. A smartly dressed gentleman in a suit and top hat emerged, singing a soulful lament on the tragedy of war and forgotten histories. Shortly after, two hidden doors within the gallery walls swung open, out of which emerged two further figures; a woman in a lab coat and a younger woman in dungarees. All three sang together in wonderful harmony, the lab-coated woman in particular possessed a voice that reverberated powerfully within the space. Having expected a conventional gallery experience, where I would walk at an admiring and not too hasty speed around the works, I found myself in the midst of a live performance (during a pandemic no less). Two separate scripted performances ensued inside the hidden rooms, which consisted of a cosy nineteenth-century bedroom and a foliage-filled greenhouse respectively. These performances asked questions evoking the theme of historical memory (“What were the names of the Inuits?” stuck in my mind) and on how history will always be judged by the present.
Tavares Strachan, Distant Relatives (Mary J. Seacole), 2020, Fang Ngil mask (Central Africa), pigment, horsehair, plaster, brass, acrylic. Photo: Lewis Ronald. © the artist. Courtesy the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York, Paris & London
Following the performers to the upper floor, like a devotee entranced in a cult, here were the African masks and sculptures I had expected, albeit in different circumstances. The installation, called Distant Relatives, contained plaster busts of notable black individuals, including James Baldwin, Matthew Henson, Mary Seacole, Nina Simone and Robert Smalls, placed behind colourful tribal masks from across Africa and Papua New Guinea. Of these Strachan says: “I really love this idea of a dialogue between these folks that have done incredible and interesting things in the 450-year-old story [of African slavery] and being removed from that story”. I should point out that not only was the singing ongoing but that by this point I was the only one left in the gallery. Thus, the sung questions of the performers – “What are you afraid of?” - who had clearly been told to stare directly into the eyes of their audience left me with clammy hands. Like myself, the performances walked around and in between the plaster sculptures, in what felt like a particularly sinister game of cat and mouse in which I was outnumbered three-to-one. After a long period of confrontational singing in which I did start to become slightly afraid that more performers might emerge from hidden doors, the performers exited as quickly as they had arrived.
Strachan is clearly an artist seeking to challenge the viewer as much as he challenges himself. “The trans-Atlantic slave story is not really articulated well [in the Bahamas]” he has said. “So, you’re on an island, and you’re just like, ‘All right, something doesn’t really add up.’” In this sense, his work is a process of coming to understand himself and his community within and alongside forgotten histories. Like the explorer Matthew Henson, Strachan ventures into unchartered territory, pulling together live performance with installations and collages to unnerve his audience. My experience was less a measured dose of culture than a subcutaneous injection of art, history, and a myriad of questions.
Marian Goodman Gallery