Social Works II
by Sarah MacKay | 21 October 2021
Tyler Mitchell, Albany, Georgia, 2021, Archival pigment print Ⓒ Tyler Mitchell
Currently on view at Gagosian Gallery Grosvenor Hill, the exhibition Social Works II effectively unites works by 11 intergenerational artists from the African diaspora, bringing to light the thrilling nexus where meditations on space, time, social history and artistic practice naturally meet. The exhibition is a sequel to Social Works, recently on view at Gagosian Gallery in New York. Both iterations were curated by newly appointed gallery director Antwaun Sargent, who joins Gagosian with rich experience as both an art critic and a writer. In this second edition of the exhibition, Sargent brings geography, earth and nature to the fore, revealing how Black identity has been, and continues to be, informed by the history of the land beneath our feet.
Sargent’s curation is coherent and accessible, cleverly showcasing significant connections between artists of different age groups and working in diverse media and styles. In gallery one, two photographs from Tyler Mitchell’s ongoing series I Can Make You Feel Good entitled Georgia Hillside (Redlining), (2021) and Albany, Georgia, (2021) hang side by side. Mitchell, widely recognised for his ‘Vogue’ cover photograph of Beyonce as well as for his utopian images of Black people at leisure, here returns to his native landscape, the rolling hills of Georgia. In Georgia Hillside (Redlining), Mitchell captures a fanciful assemblage of Black families, couples and groups of friends leisurely lounging on a grassy hillside that is siphoned off into sections by blood-red lines painted along the ground. It is clear that the paradisical Georgian countryside that Mitchell holds dear remains haunted by the American South’s racist history of redlining that began in the 1930s. Nearby, in the same gallery, stands Asaase II (2021), a sculptural work by world-renowned architect David Adjaye. Adjaye’s path to architecture was deeply personal; witnessing his brother Emmanuel, who is partially paralysed, struggle to navigate a dilapidated specialised school building inspired Adjaye to work to democratise architecture. He aims to do this by creating physical spaces that provide equitable and optimal access to everyone. Today, he is celebrated for his many architectural feats, including the design for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington, D.C. With Asaase II, a tall vertical structure composed of four rammed earth beams (a West African building technique) made of British soil, Adjaye ruminates on the idea of the constructed landscape within London. Together, Adjaye’s and Mitchell’s works reveal how people in positions of power – here, white men and the able bodied – have historically used land to disenfranchise minority groups. They ask how members of the Black community can find peace while inhabiting such polarising land, and prompt us to consider how we can best use our supposed authority over the earth itself to create egalitarian spaces and experiences.
Moving into the second gallery, Sargent’s attention to thematic curation becomes apparent. Whereas the works in gallery one feature quite literal representations of earth, the pieces in gallery two suggest a more psychological or cerebral examination of similar themes. Rick Lowe’s Black Wall Street Journey #17 (2021), one of two cartographic paintings included here and in the original show Social Works, depicts a muddled labyrinth of paper collage paths painted in dark hues of red, yellow, green and purple and overlayed with thin layers of black paint. Inspired by the many hours he spent playing dominos as a child, Lowe has created maps akin to domino games throughout his career as a way of visualising and understanding his personal interest in urban development and its social and political implications. Lowe made Black Wall Street Journey #17 to memorialise the horrific Tulsa race Massacre of 1921, where masses of white people attacked the homes and businesses of Black residents of the Greenwood District of Tulsa, Oklahoma. With its chaotic interwoven pathways, the work seems to scream with distressing frustration and sigh with a heartbreaking sense of lostness. Similarly, two works on the abutting wall by Amanda Williams from her series, What black is this you say? are deeply poignant through their use of sombre, dark colour palettes. Reacting to the recent racial upheaval in the United States, Williams created this series as a means of self-reflection in times of tumult. Finally, across the gallery, hangs Haitian artist Manuel Mathieu’s toofarfromhome, which includes two large canvases. The first appears to molt like a snake, shedding thin, ragged layers of splotchy dyed-pink fabric, while the second is coated in thick impasto pastel paints that melt together into a pinguid vortex of pinks, greens, purples and yellows. Through abstraction, loss and destruction Mathieu represents holes in his own memories of his homeland. More generally, though, the work led me to consider where Black history has similarly slipped out of collective memory. In short, this room feels much heavier than the first.
In the third and final gallery, Sargent showcases Isaac Julien’s Lessons of the Hour (2019), a captivating filmic meditation on the life of Frederick Douglass, a celebrated African American who escaped slavery and then went on to become an esteemed social reformer, writer, and abolitionist. Like so many of the other artists in the show, Julien seems focused on Douglass’s fraught relationship with land itself. Towards the opening of the film, Douglass slowly meanders around a large tree in a meadow. As he gradually drags his fingers along its trunk, we begin to hear the bone-chilling whispers of a taut noose swinging in the wind. Later, we see long still shots of endless cotton fields swaying slightly under the hot sun. And yet, scattered between these haunting reminders of Douglass’s horrific past, are picturesque panoramic shots of the lush Scottish countryside; when he arrived in Edinburgh in 1846, Douglass was touched by his warm reception in Scotland, and was mesmerised by the land’s sheer beauty. In gallery one, a still from the film also hangs as an independent work called To See Ourselves as Others See Us (Lessons of the Hour). It shows Douglass’s wife wearing a voluminous brilliant blue dress and red-orange bow – perhaps a reference to the Madonna – as she sits calmly in a wooden chair and poses for her picture in front of a sublime landscape. Throughout the duration of the film, Julien pulls together snippets of a few of Douglass’s most acclaimed speeches including ‘Lessons of the Hour’, ‘What to the Slave Is the 4th of July?’ and ‘Lecture on Pictures’. It is at the film’s last moments, however, that Julien employs the abolitionist’s arresting prose to greatest effect, juxtaposing his impassioned voice with black-and-white videos of contemporary civil unrest, illustrating ominous and foreboding similarities between Douglass’s time and our own. As the final scene closes, we see a crowd of racially diverse people clearly taken from both time periods (some wear modern suits, and others sport 19th century dress) watching eagerly as Douglass gives his fervent speech. At its finish, a heartwarming chorus of raucous applause breaks out – a suggestion, both then and now, that a promise of a better tomorrow lies on the horizon. As a BIPOC woman – my father is Black and my mother is white – I felt that it is in these moments, when the viewer is forced to simultaneously reckon with Black history and celebrate Black experience, that Social Works II is most successful.
Social Works II will be on view at Gagosian Gallery Grosvenor Hill until December 18, 2021.
Artworks left to right: Tyler Mitchell, Georgia Hillside (Redlining), 2021, Archival pigment print, Tyler Mitchell, Albany Georgia, 2021, Archival pigment print, and David Adjaye, Asaase II, 2021, Rammed earth, Gagosian Gallery, London, 7 October-18 December 2021. Ⓒ Tyler Mitchell Ⓒ David Adjaye. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates
Manuel Mathieu, toofarfromhome, 2021, Acrylic, chalk, charcoal, paper, fabric, ink soil, and tape, in 2 parts Ⓒ Manuel Mathieu. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates
Isaac Julien, To See Ourselves as Others See Us (Lessons of the Hour), 2019 Inkjet photograph mounted on aluminum Ⓒ Isaac Julien