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Time is Always Now: through the vision of African diaspora

By Yoyo Hou

"Each of us is a cacophony of experience. Not just a seamless self." (1)

-- Nathaniel Mary Quinn

What does Black Art mean to you? Are they provocative works reversing the traditional artistic convention to present specific political messages, or are they works foregrounding elements of traditional African motifs to express a sense of pride? Featuring works of 22 artists, the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition Time is Always Now offers a truthful vision of the African diaspora in the Western world (mainly in the UK and the US), revealing their struggle, frustration, pride, complexities, memories of the past and wonders of the future. The exhibition is not only a pure celebration of Black Art, but it also offers an in-depth exploration of the complexity and precarity of African diaspora identities.

Three guiding themes divide the exhibition into three sections: Double Consciousness, The Persistence of History, and Our Aliveness – sparking a conversation between us and Works of 21st-century Black figurative art.

The multi-media collage in the central corridor by Nathaniel Mary Quinn immediately caught my attention. In Buck Nasty: Player Hater’s Ball (fig.1), the single portrait of a black man consists of fragments of facial features of sizes incongruous with each other. The figure is in a 3/4 view, dressed in a lavish fur coat depicted in meticulous detail in coloured pencil, dedicating him to dignity and status. However, the middle of the fur coat is also torn, revealing a gash of pink evoking a sense of vulnerability. Here, Quinn presents the difficulties for African Americans in self-identification. Being both African and American, they look at themselves twice–through the eyes of themself and the eyes of others. This composite portrait depicts Quinn’s subject from both the outside and the inside–presenting us with confident images of black masculinity on the outside and the sensitivity and fragmented nature of the inside. In 1897, the African American writer and civil rights advocator W.E.B. Du Bois in 1897 coined the term ‘Double Consciousness’, describing the African diaspora’s experience of living physically within and psychologically outside white society. Perfectly adhering to this concept, Quinn creates a picture of a cacophony of experience and identities. However, his inclusion of cut-off photographs’ facial features of different Black individuals makes this collage become a collective portrait of the whole population of African Americans, revealing the mixed emotions and self-realisations experienced by many African Americans in reckoning with their two identities.

to construe is to interpret, so technically you are construing, not the piece itself. what is a better verb you can use here?


Fig. 1: Buck Nasty: Player Hater’s Ball, Nathaniel Mary Quinn, 2017, black charcoal, gouache, soft pastel, acrylic gold power on paper. Hall Collection, now on display at the National Portrait Gallery.

Stepping into the next room, we see a wall of seemingly uncompleted [1] [2] works that only a small section of the picture is sketched in detail, with the majority of the picture left blank, forming a stark contrast against the vermilion wall. Approaching the work, the shallow indentations of the contour of human figures in the blank sections become visible, which are only noticeable through very close scrutiny. Barbara Walker’s Vanishing Point series engages with the presence and visibility of the African diaspora by reversing the historical representations of Africans and Europeans. Take Vanishing Point 24 (Mignard) (fig. 2) as an example, Walker adopts the Old Master portrait of Louise de Keroalle by Pierre Mignard (fig. 3). Walker erases the original protagonist of the white duchesse, and instead only emphasises the Black attendant who was marginalised and objectified in Mignard’s painting. The artist’s deliberate depiction of bushes in the background of the original painting with the same amount of detail as the Black attendant immediately explains that Black figures functioned as backdrops of Old Master paintings or as accessories of the white aristocracy. In her artwork, Walker courageously revisits and confronts this degrading practise, powerfully advocating for more African presence in art today.

why is this in quotes?

Because the works are not really uncompleted, they look like uncompleted, which is the effect the artist wants to create.

Fig. 2: Vanishing Point 24 (Mignard), Barbara Walker, 2021, graphite and coloured pencil on embossed, 89 x 74.6 cm. Hall Collection, now on display at the NPG.


 Fig. 3: Louise de Kéroualle, Duchess of Portsmouth, 1682, Pierre Mignard I, oil on canvas, 120.7 x 95.3 cm. National Portrait Gallery (not part of the Time is Always Now exhibition).




In the last section – Our Aliveness, Toyin Ojih Odutola’s painting series depicts an aristocratic African family. In her 2016 work, The Adventuress Club Est, 1922 (fig. 4), Odutola applies a contemporary, graphic style and uses blocks of vibrant colours and fluid lines to render elegantly dressed figures of wealth, creating a cheerful and sophisticated scene. According to the exhibition’s curator, Ekow Eshun, the artist emphasises the depiction of affluence in her painting; it is a depiction from her imagination, but also a depiction of possibility.[1] Odutola invites us to reimagine a world centred on Black sovereignty, where all Black people are prosperous and free–free to be the dominant figures in academic painting, free to actively engage in politics, free to do anything without prejudice. Immersing in a lively green space with carpeting reminiscent of new-grown grass (fig. 5), Odutola’s forward-looking works become even more powerful and exhilarating, that we can make anything happen, we can make possibility possible.


Fig. 4: The Adventuress Club Est, 1922, Toyin Ojih Odutola, 2016, charcoal, pastel, and pencil on paper. Laurie K. Silverman, Private Collection. Now on display at the NPG.


Fig. 5: View of the final room of the exhibition.


The visit was a totally different experience since I last went the National Portrait Gallery for the David Hockney exhibition four months ago. The curatorial team did a fantastic job on interior decoration, that the grey walls are repainted in different colours for each of the three guiding themes of Time is Always Now: blue for Double Consciousness creating a sense of sorrow and mystery; red for The Persistence of History forming a stark contrast with Barbara Walker’s almost all blank works; and green Our Aliveness symbolising future and energy. By painting the walls in different colours for each guiding theme, the team thoughtfully provides signals for the change of themes for the visitors, making the exhibition extremely accessible and easy to follow for people of different age groups and  backgrounds.


Time is Always Now was a spectacular exhibition from the beginning to the end. With impressive interior decoration suitable for the themes of the artworks, the exhibitiongoer feels the same anger, powerlessness, and thrust to change with the artists. Through exploring themes of Black figuration, we begin to reconsider the experience of the African diaspora, both sociologically and psychologically. In this short review, I only had a chance to include a drop in the bucket of this extensive exhibition, you can only get a complete glance of it by unravelling it yourself!




[1] “Nathaniel Mary Quinn | Gagosian,” Gagosian (Gagosian, April 2019),


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