GENERATIONS Installation View, Showing: Hurvin Anderson, Is It Okay to be Black? (Image: Carlotta Pierleoni)
I think I should start this review by talking about my family. My Mum was raised in south London by my Jamaican grandparents, who came to England as children following their parents who were from ‘the Windrush generation’. My Dad is from the Lancashire town (now city) of Preston and has lived in the north of England nearly his entire life. The two of them raised me and my brother in the west Yorkshire town of Huddersfield, before I moved to London for university.
I feel that this disclaimer-style explanation of my next of kin becomes relevant in regard to The Courtauld MA Curating the Art Museum exhibition Generations: Connecting Across Time and Place for the most obvious reasons – it’s a show heavily concerned with the relationships between and around generations, whether that be familial, societal, or cultural. I saw the show twice, once with a friend; the second time with my Mum. Seeing it through the lens of my mother gave me a lot to say.
Unfortunately, at The Courtauld I am very used to white artists and a largely white art history. I always try and go into an exhibition unbiased, but I think in a building as emotionally and historically charged as Somerset House this becomes almost impossible. Yet, the Generations exhibition had a frank honesty and softness. If the exhibition was a person, it would be the smiling and understanding face of family. Something I have found since growing up is that family is a complex and ineffable concept holding too much memory to be expressed by a singular narrative, and I think this is the reality the exhibition attempts to curate. It would be impossible to create a singular answer, a single ‘this is what ‘generations’ means in 2019’ message. Instead, you get answers in the form of questions, and refreshingly, the artists answering those questions don’t all look the same.
GENERATIONS Installation View, Showing: Lubaina Himid, Cotton.com (Image: Carlotta Pierleoni)
Ranging from photography, video art and even furniture, the objects on display each explore what it means to be connected, or in some cases disconnected. Works such as Hurvin Anderson’s Is it Okay to be Black? gave me flashbacks to the forced education most Black kids will get from their parents regarding the heroes of the civil rights movement, the nostalgic familiarity of the barbershop. Works like this have a great deal of energy to them, unlocking memories and feelings that people such as my mother and I can relate to. It is very rare that art in exhibitions can do this – it’s not a story I see much in institutions such as this. My mum saw the painting in the Ferens Gallery in Hull, where someone actually asked her, ‘is it?’ in response to the painting. Stories like that make me laugh at first but then it reminds me the white dominance in art spaces, and how rare it is to see work like this.
Another work in the show that had strong ties to me was Lubaina Himid’s Cotton.com. The work explores the Manchester mill workers of 1862, who refused to work the cotton mills in protest against American slavery. Stories like this are what I was raised on, the kind of stuff my parents would talk about for hours. Seeing this work hang on a gallery wall was almost like a mirror, mixed raced political history, one which in turn reflects my ancestors, my parents, and me. The power of seeing this in my own university’s exhibition brought a smile to my face and being able to see it with my mum made that even better.
The exhibition doesn’t hold a singular message, or even pose an answer. But neither does family. It’s just a complex, and sometimes sad, mix of people tied together through experience and memories. I think the MA team behind the exhibition did a brilliant job at finding a way of making that complexity into a working show.
Generations: Connecting Across Time and Place is on at Somerset House, East Wing Galleries until July 3rd, 2019.