The London-based polymath’s new exhibition connects the dots between her practice and the artists who are her influences and collaborators
Few public places in central London are situated far enough from public transport to require a 15-minute walk, over grass and past lakes, trees, and wildlife, to reach them. The Serpentine Gallery and its sister institution the Sackler is one such treasure, and seeking it out in a rare stretch of green feels something like a pilgrimage.
Which is appropriate given that from now until February 16, the Sackler is showing A Time for New Dreams – an exhibition by cultural polymath Grace Wales Bonner which takes the rich and rigorous research practice she has built her eponymous fashion brand on, and exposes it for visitors see. The exhibition straddles photography, music, sculpture, text, sound, and installation, a noisy and harmonious cross-pollination of media, but it was born out of a fascination with shrines. (Hence, the pilgrimage to see it.)
“I wanted to give an insight into my process and my research practice, which is something that I’ve always done for myself, but has maybe not always been communicated,” Wales Bonner explains softly as we walk through the exhibition space. “The starting point for me was Robert Farris Thompson's book Face of the Gods, which looked at altars of the black Atlantic. I was interested in the aesthetics around shrines, and the connection that writers like Thompson have made between African and Caribbean spiritual and ritual practices, and how these qualities and temporalities and rhythmicalities manifest within aesthetics and literature.”
Beginning with this seed – of magical realism within black cultural practices – Wales Bonner has sought to connect some of her most established contemporaries with the great thinkers, writers, and artists who have gone before them. “It's bringing these different generations into dialogue,” she explains. From peers such as Harlem-based artist Eric N. Mack, whose textile installations have framed her catwalk shows, and frequent collaborator photographer Paul Mpagi Sepuya, to their forebears – prolific and pioneering writers such as Ishmael Reed, who Wales Bonner commissioned to write a new text to accompany the exhibition, and Ben Okri, after whose 2011 collection of essays it was named. Or, for example, the late photographer Rotimi Fani Kayode, whose sensual works she encountered through Sepuya.
The list is long and generous. Crucially, it’s also democratic; not only are all of the artists she draws upon present in the show, rather than simply referenced in it – but they are all equal, and in dialogue with one another. She adds; “Anyone that's in this show is someone whose work I greatly admire, and who greatly enriches my own vision. It's these important histories that give someone like myself space and licence to be as I am.”
Long though the list of participants is, the cavernous halls of the Sackler itself feel calm and meditative, even when they’re full of energy. The exhibition is accompanied by a rich and diverse programme of ‘happenings’, from artist talks to devotional sound workshops. “Surprise, crowdedness, spontaneity kept coming up,” she says. “The idea that you can come one day and there's an incredible writer speaking, or on another day there's a sound performance or a meditation. I think allowing chance encounters is really important, so that people have a different experience.”
To this end, the walls are speckled with easy-to-miss fragments of text by Ben Okri: “In early discussions, he came to this idea that shrines only have a meaning if there is intentionality around them – activation and invocation – so he's bringing his voice and presence to the space. The writer becomes an oracle,” she says. Meanwhile, the tannoys play an ever-changing loop of archival sounds and invocations read by Okri and James Massiah. It’s impossible too, looking through Laraaji’s vivid and meditative installation in the powder room to Canadian artist Kapwani Kiwanga’s fresh floral installations on the other side, to have the same experience twice. “The other thing that is also coming up in this space, as well as this idea of writers as oracles, is this idea of the mind,” she adds. “This space almost becomes a mind.”
“Anyone that’s in this show is someone whose work I greatly admire, and who greatly enriches my own vision. It’s these important histories that give someone like myself space and licence to be as I am” – Grace Wales Bonner
In keeping with the theme of shrines, whose physical manifestations range from Liz Johnson Artur’s newly commissioned assemblage work, to Eric N. Mack’s sensuous sweeping textile installations, Wales Bonner has created her own, too. It takes the form of a dresser, full of and weighed down with books, and bearing a TV set playing films by Ben Okri and Ishmael Reed. It feels like the nucleus of the show, somehow – a shrine to research itself, and an homage to her influences. “There are things from my studio in here, and also things hidden in other things,” she says, picking up a book from the display and opening it to reveal a feather tucked in its pages. “This feather in here, for example. These objects are loaded with a spirituality through the way I've interacted with them.”
At the front of the gallery, a male muse reclines on one of Rashid Johnson’s majestic animal skin-covered daybeds, wearing a kimono created collaboratively by Wales Bonner and Mack. It’s a preview look from the collection, which will be shown in the space before the show closes next month, and which is grounded in its themes, too. “The characters are fully integrated into this environment,” she says. “I'm thinking about important American radical intellectuals, and their dress, and also this idea of the artist-as-shaman and his wardrobe.”
In the chaos of a capital unsure of what’s to come, Wales Bonner has created a space for reflection, exploration, calm and surprise – a new lens on black aesthetic practices and modern magical realism. It’s extraordinary. If that’s not worth the pilgrimage, I don’t know what is.
Grace Wales Bonner: A Time for New Dreams runs until February 16, 2019, at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery, London