Tackling issues from race to gender fluidity and fracking, the new generation of London artists are speaking out about what matters to them. Here, we turn a spotlight on 11 of the city’s path-forging creatives — from Rosa Johan Uddoh, whose clay-art explores connections between object and animal and George Ruoy, whose bewildering paintings take us far outside the realms of reality.
At first glance, Sofia Ginevra Giannì’s practice is an unapologetic manifesto for flaunting and feeling herself. It took a reckoning to get there, though. “I remember thinking, ‘Jesus, I’m making work that anyone who graduated from art school and lives in south London could be making right now,’” says Giannì, recalling the mood after wrapping up her Camberwell College of Arts BA. It took a summer spent back in her hometown of Naples, Italy for things to fall into place: renaming herself SAGG Napoli in homage to the city, she began producing “work that doesn’t look like art, but looks like me”. Now, her multimedia mix of semi-autobiographical film, photography and performance is steeped in her own tastes, social and political interests – in a way that is, like her, unmistakably a product of southern Italy. She calls it ‘south aesthetics’. Whether shared online or in a gallery space, it’s a mash-up of meme culture and IRL identities which riff on no-bullshit-taking matriarchs, peacocking teens on mopeds and false-nailed flawlessness. A recent Instagram video shared on her birthday came with the deadpan caption: “It has been an emotionally draining year but I kept the camera on me as I am the only thing that i will never be disappointed by.” As Giannì puts it, “Creating a personal brand was a way of packaging an aesthetic which is the result of a sociopolitical landscape I embody. Although there is a level of irony, I am dead serious.”
When painter, curator and creative director Hamed Maiye coined the term ‘Afro-portraitism’ to define an energetic new wave of black artists in the UK and beyond making self-representational work, it wasn’t about getting recognition from the art establishment. “There’s a huge DIY scene happening at the moment (in London), where collectives are joining up together, putting on their own shows and not really waiting for co-signs from institutions,” Maiye explains. Self-definition was a radical, vital way of recognising the work happening right now, but also of creating an identifiable art movement – like dadaism or the Young British Artists, but unquestionably blacker. Whether with expressive strokes on canvas, or a staged photograph, Maiye’s portraits recreate the assured, regal stance of traditional European portraiture, his young Afro-Caribbean subjects looking back at the observer with an unbroken gaze. They’re the antithesis of passive. Speaking of the artists, groups and peers driving the Afro-portraitism movement, Maiye says there are way too many to mention, but namechecks BBZ, ABOE, Yellowzine, Black Girl Festival, SXWKS, Body Party, Sistren and AZEEMA magazine as all “(creating) spaces (from) which different groups of people can learn and vibe together.” Maiye has also just wrapped his first music video, a “faux opera” for south London singer Roxanne Tataei. “I worked on it with some of my favourites – artists Nwaka Okparaeke, Kobby Adi and Favour (Jonathan). Seeing all the new work and narratives being produced is beautiful in itself.”
ROSA JOHAN UDDOH
The ceramic objects Rosa Johan Uddoh made for her piece “Hold Me” are functional dinnerware, but they’re also ceramic clones of herself. She cast bowls from the curves of her knees and heels, shaped vessels from her fingers, and even crafted a tagine by wrapping clay around her tightly ponytailed hair for the pot’s conical lid. The objects, Uddoh explains, are a way to be in multiple places at the same time: “I’m interested in exploring the relationship between myself and objects – and how they have different effects on us – because a very strange thing happens when you charge objects with personal and intimate meaning.” Uddoh’s next piece of work, “Thigh House”, plays on the myth that the distinctive curved terracotta tiles adorning roofs across Cuba and beyond were cast on the thighs of black female slaves. Running workshops with women and non-binary people, she assembled a community to build a whole roof, on display at Sarabande: The Lee Alexander McQueen Foundation in London this May. “I’m not really concerned with whether the myth is true,” says Uddoh. “I’m interested in how gaps in the archive and word-of-mouth stories allow mythology like this to spring up.” Having already written and performed semi-autobiographical ‘fan fiction’ about Venus and Serena Williams, Uddoh is currently working on a confrontational story called Black Poirot: “He’s a refugee, no one gives him respect and he works without pay,” she explains matter-of-factly. “It just really makes sense when you think about it.”
To Kingsley Ifill, the idea of the ‘lonesome artist’ is romanticised. He would know – the artist estimates he spends 95 per cent of his time painting in solitude in Herne Bay, Kent. Society’s creative circles may have a strange fascination with the routines of artists (and which ones to copy for a path to fruitful, happy success) but the reality is quite different. “Rather than becoming content with quietness,” says Ifill, “its more for me about making peace with the madness. Primitive man would wander off into the bush for years alone as the norm. Maybe that’s what I’ve been trying to do, and modern life is the madness.” In large-scale paintings and silkscreen prints that tend towards monochrome or muted reds, Ifill often isolates outraged headlines from British tabloid newspapers. Out of context, they appear with a new and ironic sense of humour: when “Thieves sell £500k work for just £45” is divorced from the real tale of a Henry Moore sculpture gone to scrap, for example, it becomes a knowing wink at who gets to decide on art’s value anyway. There are darker moments, too: photographs from the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and an undressed Kate Middleton covered in Budweiser logos are grim reminders of what captures the attention of the public psyche. Ultimately, Iffil is not one for over-conceptualised works – when his show Mute exhibited at Golborne Gallery in London last year, he opted out of the obligatory official press release. Pictured here with Penny, his rottweiler-Staffordshire bull terrier, and his painting “Burst Bubble”, he reflects: “It’s important for me to not lay any concrete foundations in terms of meaning. I believe that a power lies in the unknown – and if the work is strong enough, whatever it is that you’re looking for will appear as time goes on.”
Hatty Carman’s cartoonish, Polly Pocket-coloured paintings explore pleasure, queerness and utopia, as well as rats, teeth extraction, sexual freedom and vaginal power. “Despite the challenges of making rent each month,” she says, “I try to create worlds in which those things can co-exist.” Painting usually happens in front of the TV with Friends reruns, though she says the show has “aged really badly and offensively.” Carman has always been happy inhabiting other worlds; growing up in rural Devon, she used to fantasise about being very small. She liked to imagine herself as a mouse who lived in a tree, eating only tiny things, like little fruit-shaped sweets. “I sound mad, but it was really fun,” she laughs. As such, she’s been making small things – like minute, painted toy sponge cakes – ever since. “As a queer woman, it was ingrained in me (and us all) that we should take up less space, so that’s where that started. But as I got a little older I shifted that narrative, reclaiming it for myself to mean a moment to concentrate, to take care of myself by focusing on detail, on these objects made with my love.” But Carman’s appetite isn’t sated by doll-sized delicacies; she’s also a regular on London’s queer cabaret scene with her conceptual bands A Cinematic Masterpiece and drag king act BOYZ, with whom she is “creating a fantastical world on to which we can map our queer future”.
Paloma Proudfoot is just back from examining anatomical wax figures in a 16th- century palazzo in Bologna, Italy. “I saw the most incredible, intricately rendered 18th-century models of flayed humans in various states of disease and death,” she says with glee. “I’m hoping to channel some of their uneasy beauty into the show!” The show in question is an upcoming solo exhibition at London’s Cob Gallery. Proudfoot, pictured here with one of the fabric-covered boards she uses to roll clay on (“That’s where it all begins!”), prefers being a professional jack-of-all-trades rather than sticking to one medium. She’s a ceramicist, maker of clothes and performance artist. The three practices “bleed into one hot mess”, she says, but they also open up the possibilities of the others. When making, say, a slippery, erotic porcelain eel, she’s a controlling perfectionist. But staging confrontational performances with her four-woman-strong collective Stasis, unexpected things can happen that encourage vulnerabilities elsewhere. The year ahead looks equally energetic for Proudfoot – right now, she’s building a bullet-bra clad mannequin for a duo show at Galerie Sultana, Paris (with George Rouy, featured below). And then she’s “marrying” collaborator Aniela Piasecka, sandwiched between two papier-mache grooms, no less.
“It started with trying to paint like trails in water,” explains George Rouy, whose figurative paintings can be recognised by their soft pink pigmentation that’s often mistaken for airbrush. “The technique’s moved on loads and almost comes like second nature now – so, I can focus on the content of the work.” In Squeeze Hard Enough It Might Just Pop!, his recent solo show at the Hannah Barry Gallery, seashells, a coy swan and figures (both cuddling or in solo ecstatic contemplation), spread out across the walls in a wash of hot red and pink beneath Peckham Rye station. Without a helpful blurb to guide the eye, it might not be obviously apparent that the movements of those figures was inspired by euphoric dancers in clubs, but there’s something undoubtedly lovable about these round, Picasso-chinned gurners. While his prior work as a model has brought Rouy into contact with some of the industry’s most enigmatic figures – shooting with photographer Harley Weir and walking for Hedi Slimane at Saint Laurent – painting comes first and foremost. This summer, the artist has two new shows opening in Copenhagen and New York – right now, he’s “really excited to start the next series of work” and let loose with new narratives of human emotion, colour and even more figures within the frame.
If Gray Wielebinski is feeling dysphoric, they find that hand-stitching strange creatures – like the rather cute “Hook”, pictured here in their arms, is a novel way to combat the shittiness. “I can play with the potentials of what gender a body can be, or in what ways it could be propositioned as obsolete or irrelevant,” says the Texas-born artist. A proponent of sensually vivid, fleshy work across video, sound performance and collage, here Wielebinski wears a baseball catcher’s chest plate which will feature in an upcoming collaboration with the dancer Chester Hayes, premiering at their MFA degree show at The Slade in June. Wielebinski feels a lot of love for seemingly “monstrous” characters like Hook, especially while media outlets around the world are pushing an agenda which villianises non-conforming identities. It’s “a way to engage directly with those realities within which we have to live - while imagining and proposing alternatives, even if it’s just in our imaginations.” As far as pop cultural influences go, Jennifer Lopez’s infamous green Versace dress, worn to the 2000 Grammy Awards, is up there. But Wielebinski makes it clear: “My interest in this iconic moment is in no way ironic or flippant.” It was that navel-grazing gown (and the public hunger to see it) that prompted Google to launch its Images search function. “It literally drove this technological advancement that has become mind-bogglingly influential and ubiquitous,” they exclaim. “We can learn a lot from J.Lo!”
There’s a moment in Gasland, Josh Wood’s Oscar-nominated 2011 documentary about the consequences of hydraulic fracturing, or ‘fracking’ in which one resident sets his tap water aflame with a lighter to show how much natural gas it’s contaminated with. Watching that film was a turning point for Louise Oates, whose ongoing work in photography and sculpture involves collecting materials from out-of-sight exploratory UK fracking sites and making them visible above ground. She doesn’t view it as protest exactly, more “a contemplative activism.” Part of her project Notes on Hydraulic Fracturing, includes the construction of careful ‘soil maps’, made of earth taken from sites and arranged to look like an aerial photograph of Pennsylvania, USA where fracking is now an established industry. “I tried to find ways of representing the physical processes and infrastructure that will emerge if the industry takes hold in the UK,” Oates explains, “using chemicals present in the fracking process.” It made, she says, for a synchronisation between the visual experiments she conducted in her own studio, and “in the industrial activities around the country I was tracking down to photograph.” Next up she’s turning her attention to the oceans, and the movement of commercial water across countries in, ironically, ocean-bound shipping containers.
Like many a kid growing up in the ‘90s, Lucas Dillon’s skateboard was what sparked his interest in art. Grungey stickers, graphics, posters and the gems waiting to be found within folded-up album artwork got him paying attention to the language of visual culture as a kid in Belfast. You’ll spot those early influences in his work today; charcoal drawings like cool, bastardised Walt Disney sketches, and recurring juvenile mascots appear in clay, charcoal and paint, looking ready with a sublime excuse about what they didn’t do their homework. You might have seen Dillon’s work without realising; working as Yoboh Studio, he produced covetable street-inspired graphics for the likes of Nike, Converse and Red Bull. The ideas bubbling away in his head right now are influenced by “distortion, feedback, repetition, humour, line, energy, and found information,” though he admits, “I think I am more interested in trying to create questions than I am in answering them.” It’s partly why he set up The Dinner Party, a new project space in north London that exhibits a shows by new artists each month. Getting to see certain works and ideas develop over time makes it all worth it, he told Dazed; even if working in London can be a difficult, “the community of people, it’s resources and multiculturalism make it a great place.”
When he’s not hand-painting wry, satanic t-shirts and leather jackets or sculpting in the garage at the bottom of his garden in suburban Elm Park, Jack Sabbat is writing and full-throat roaring about hell, torture and torment in hardcore punk band Subdued. But it was a trip to a tattoo parlour that first got Jack into painting: “I was working a shit job and the only thing that was making me happy was getting tattooed semi-regularly,” he recalls. Sabbat found a mentor in his tattooist, Simon Erl, who offered him a job helping with customers and cleaning. “That place helped me a lot. Being surrounded by productive, talented people set into motion my drawing. I didn’t manage to find purpose through normal avenues – but the need to make something good is helping me with one now. I’d like to make something good and leave something good.” Looking forward, Jack is penning a new 7” with Subdued this spring, and will perform with them across Europe after that. Touring gives him the chance to not only debut new music, but sell his twisted hand-painted merch, too. “I paint (the) shirts and sell them, the power of the internet has allowed for that,” he says. “It’s hard not to spread (my work) out thinly and (be the) master of nothing when you mention everything – but it all hangs together in the end.”
Photography Thurstan Redding, styling Charlotte Roberts, hair Jonathan De Francesco at LGA Management using Davines, make-up Siobhan Furlong at LGA Management using Sisley, photography assistant Jodie Herbage, styling assistant Yamine Daaboul, production Rachel Murray at Parent