Grace Wales Bonner: A Time for New Dreams at Serpentine Sackler Gallery
Since graduating from Central Saint Martins in 2014, Grace Wales Bonner – acclaimed for the way in which she explores identity and self-expression – has quickly risen to become one of the most exciting new lights in the British fashion firmament. In 2016 the British Jamaican artist received the LVMH Young Designer of the Year award. Over the next four weeks, the Serpentine Sackler Gallery provides the setting for a compelling exhibition designed by Wales Bonner herself which will culminate in the presentation of her Autumn/Winter 2019 collection, Mumbo Jumbo. This show is to be the first of a new series of annual short-term projects at the Serpentine to bring “interdisciplinary practice” to the gallery.
A Time for New Dreams, taking its title from poet and novelist Ben Okri’s 2011 volume of essays of the same name, showcases the artist’s characteristically multi-layered approach to her practice, incorporating cultural, artistic, musical and literary influences.
This new display examines spirituality, mysticism, ritual, rhythm and magical resonances from a black cultural perspective, along with aesthetic practices. The exhibition takes the form of a series of shrines created by international black artists with whom the designer has collaborated. Wales Bonner often works with artists, writers and performers for her award-winning collections and has done so again here. The gallery has been transformed into a spiritual domain, with each contributor creating a highly personal shrine reflecting upon their ancestry and sources of inspiration.
There is much for the visitor to experience here in what is a multi-sensory show. American musician, mystic and “laughter meditation practitioner” Laraajii is giving a series of performances and workshops during the opening days of the exhibition. On the opening night, his performance drew a large number of visitors, although the potential for meditative intimacy was perhaps undermined by the sheer volume of people.
The core threads of the collation are black identity and ritual mysticism. At the entrance of the exhibition, one finds a dreamscape installation by Rashid Johnson featuring two daybeds covered in animal skins, each set on carpets. The artist refers to the exoticisation of African aesthetics whilst also encouraging contemplation and reflection.
Franco-Canadian artist Kapwani Kiwanga focuses on anti-colonial struggle and its memory in Flowers for Africa (2012-present). Floral sculptures reference four documented images of ceremonies from the past held to celebrate the independence of an African country. The flowers revive a particular moment, their inevitable wilting at the end of the show’s run a visual metaphor for the fading memory of that same historical event.
Wales Bonner’s own shrine unites material by and in consideration of an array of artists, writers and musicians, including James Hampton, the Black Audio Film Collective and Okri. Elsewhere, American artist Eric N Mack has contributed impressive assemblages of multi-coloured fabrics that resemble tents or a market place. Wales Bonner has also included the work of the late photographer Rotimi Fani-Kayode, whose images of nude black figures evoke black homosexual identity. Texts by Okri appear on the walls of the gallery throughout.
This absorbing exhibition ultimately enhances Wales Bonner’s reputation as a cultural polymath. It’s a richly sensual installation, referencing the images and rhythms of rituals and ceremonies from all over the world and entering them into dialogue, whilst also posing important questions about black cultural identity.
Photos: Erol Birsen
Grace Wales Bonner: A Time for New Dreams is at Serpentine Sackler Gallery from 19th January until 16th February 2019. For further information visit the exhibition’s website here.