Backwards into the future

A six part series of photogravures by Tacita Dean titled Fernsehturm is currently featured in the Whitworth Gallery’s Building on Things exhibition. Originally film stills, they show the changing light and atmosphere of a rotating restaurant located inside Berlin’s famous East-side TV Tower. Shot as the sun set, Dean’s images offer a delicate visual comment on how, even when a regime crumbles, its iconography and monuments may remain to be used in new ways. “As you sit up there at your table…and with your back to the turn of the restaurant, you are no longer static in the present, but moving with the rotation of the earth, backwards into the future”. Focusing on depictions of ruin and regeneration, Building on Things is the main reason I went along to the Whitworth today. However – keeping with the directional theme – their major exhibition at the moment is We Face Forward, part of a Manchester-wide West African art festival, so naturally I took a look at that too. The source for their title is a comment by Kwame Nkrumah, the first President of Ghana, who wryly reminded the major players of the Cold War that his country faced neither East or West.

Wandering around the galleries, these two exhibitions spill almost into each other. Indeed, Francois-Xavier Gbré’s stunning shots of abandoned, crumbling, or mid-restoration buildings act as something of a bridge between them. Educated at Ecole Supérieure des Métiers Artistiques, Gbré is of French/Ivorian descent, and although trained in fashion and design, his focus here is on identity, architecture and urbanism. Tracks comprises a series of elegantly composed photographs which are imbued with coolly subtle commentaries on the “absurd” ostentation of both French and British colonialism. His locations are not just West African; alongside Mali are ruins in Lyon, Israel and beyond. As he puts it: “Between memory and future, time seems suspended. These silent voids are loaded with a thousand wrongs, impregnated with the living being. I reveal what time has left us, secretly, timidly. Forgotten areas filled with memories, with possibilities, with History.”

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Serious points are being made in much of We Face Forward; the ecological and geo-political pressures upon West Africa; the strange gaze of the white man and the harshness of urbanity. Barthélémy Toguo’s long almost scroll-like watercolour, Purification, (113cm x 10m) suggests how slavery, violence, and the denial of nationality affects the bodies and minds of those oppressed in a supposedly “global” world. His figures are half sillhoute, half flayed; powerfully evocative and somehow pulsing with mysteries and life. There is plenty also which is playful, light, and optimistic. Georges Adéagbo’s The Becoming of the Human Being “illuminates and traces relationships between Manchester and Cotonou, via the wider context of the UK, France, America and Africa”. Described as “museological”, archival and archaeological in its layout, this installation is full of strange juxtapositions made within a fantastically careful yet vibrant assemblage of papers, posters, records, political and musical ephemera and poetic jottings on the nature both of destiny and Nicolas Sarkozy. These highly personal artefacts relate both to the artist’s own life and those of friends and relatives; at the same time they say something about broader West African sociocultural and geographic connections. An essay in one of the books on offer in the exhibition’s reading area – Kobena Mercer’s “Black Art and The Burden of Representation” – stimulated further thoughts along these lines.

How much can art reveal about the condition of a whole region? About the lives of millions of people spread across more countries than most of us could name? Does an exhibition curator have some responsibility to make a definitive statement, present a coherent political view, in the works that are chosen? Clearly it is not possible to fix and define any diverse population of people; and creativity will always leave space for the illusory, the momentary, the subjective and the unknowable. Victoria Udondian plays beautifully with these ideas in 6 x 7m of glorious woven textiles. Aso Ikele (1948) is made entirely of second-hand fabric and – despite the title – it was actually created this year. I couldn’t help smiling to myself as I read the little leaflet provided to accompany the piece. Inside, Udondian embeds a fiction of Aso Ikele within a historically plausible narrative, rooting her work in a variety of facts about Nigerian weaving, the patterns of the European clothing trade, German anthropologists; she even cites books on the subject. And as well as playing with notions of provenance, origin and historical fact, Aso Ikele is (you’ll just have to trust me) the warmest and most wonderful smelling artwork that I’ve ever been close to!

Back at Building on Things, and Liverpudlian printmaker Ann Desmet’s Roof Shattered was one of my own favourites. Although not as grand and attention grabbing as her cyclical Babel Flower collages, and not globally focused like the works in We Face Forward, this deceptively simple work manages all the same to say something about cultural renewal and the fragmentation of memory. Made from six pieces of a broken mirror found amidst the ruins of Manchester’s still-to-be-restored Victoria public Baths, Desmet has overlaid each piece with cut outs from one of her linocut prints, giving them a patterned appearance. But, encased within a little glass box, the pieces are destined to never quite be reassembled.

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