London

 Reece Auguiste, Twilight City, 1989, 16 mm transferred to digital video, color, sound, 52 minutes.

Reece Auguiste, Twilight City, 1989, 16 mm transferred to digital video, color, sound, 52 minutes.

Grace Wales Bonner

Serpentine Galleries

 Reece Auguiste, Twilight City, 1989, 16 mm transferred to digital video, color, sound, 52 minutes.

LONDON-BASED FASHION DESIGNER Grace Wales Bonner’s show “A Time for New Dreams” operated as a mood board for her Autumn/Winter 2019 collection “Mumbo Jumbo,” unveiled during the final weeks of the exhibition. Driven by the concept of “Neo-Hoodooism,” Ishmael Reed’s name for an absorptive, spiritual, political, and aesthetic blackness that’s both indigenous and internationalist, the exhibition was framed as a “research shrine” comprising sculptural arrangements of image, text, textile, sound, and performance by a host of black artists and writers. As a curator, Wales Bonner is interested in work that situates extant mythical, spiritual, and ritual practices in the context of contemporary art. The show aimed to mobilize these traditions to produce, per the title, new contours and new worlds. These frames of reference have operated as a key to her fashion practice: Throughout her burgeoning career, she has incorporated traditional and modern art into designs, as with her use of fabrics patterned after Jacob Lawrence’s 1941 “Migration Series” in her Autumn/Winter 2018 collection. This show pushed the imbrication further, troubling the ever blurrier yet persistent distinction between contemporary art and conceptually derived design and fashion, revealing tensions around formal and cultural differentiation within the gallery and in the larger discourse.

 Kapwani Kiwanga, Flowers for Africa: Mozambique, 2014, floral arrangement, signed protocol by artist, iconographic documents, dimensions variable. From the series “Flowers for Africa,” 2013–.

The exhibition opened invitingly onto Rashid Johnson’s Untitled (daybed 1 and 6), 2012, a pair of zebra-skin beds modeled on furnishings from the house in Accra, Ghana, where W. E. B. Du Bois died in voluntary exile. Works from Kapwani Kiwanga’s “Flowers for Africa” series, 2013–, consisting of precise re-creations of floral arrangements from important ceremonies of African statecraft, adorned the gallery’s right-hand side. Together, these two smart nods to Pan-Africanism via the history of design and decoration introduced visitors to a space that was intellectually expansive, if perhaps not ultimately cohesive. The show continued with iconic works from a generation of elders, including David Hammons’s Money Tree, 1992, and photos from Rotimi Fani-Kayode’s series “Bodies of Experience,” 1989. Wales Bonner’s desire to bring the aesthetic and the social together was compellingly embodied in Eric N. Mack’s immersive textile installations A Lesson in Perspective, 2017, and Capital Heights (via stretch), 2019, hung to evoke a bustling street market. The multiple currents of diaspora at play in these patchworks were captivating and overwhelming.

Bonner’s research-based curatorial approach, however, yielded uneven results. Along the rear wall, Black Audio Film Collective’s classic meditation on urban London, Twilight City, 1989, was set up on a small monitor with a single pair of headphones, like an afterthought or simply a reference. In contrast, Liz Johnson Artur’s There is only one . . . one, 2019, enchanted because it was given room to sprawl across the gallery’s floor—its muted arrangement of talismans, everyday items, and photographs found, taken, embroidered, and printed on detritus formed an enticingly tactile altar to black queer social life. On a similar note, Reed’s capacious ideas of black aesthetic freedom resonated with Johnson Artur’s work but, unfortunately, were relegated to the show’s handout, while the actual gallery space, and indeed the exhibition’s title, gave pride of place to the kitsch-ridden verses of Nigerian poet Ben Okri, whose ossified form of magical realism, embodied by such banalities as “Bring a clear dream for the world / You who walk this way. Bring your light. / Bring your wisdom, your fire, your hope. / Bring a new courage and a new fight,” lined the walls.

Eric N. Mack, A Lesson in Perspective, 2017, wool, net curtain, tent cover, acrylic paint, linen, silk, polyester, velour. Installation view. Photo: readsreads.info.

The interplay of the social and ritual as spiritual and artistic practices was perhaps best exemplified in the happenings that took place during the show’s run, serving to activate the installations. Klein, a stalwart of South London’s experimental-music scene, hosted a reading with a child under Mack’s canopy, accompanied by her own richly layered sonic compositions. Dancer Michael-John Harper’s set of performances, culminating in An Exercise in Balance, 2019, combined interactive movement with an original poetic monologue, engaging and effectively transforming the work on display. The most illuminating pieces in the gallery were the two sculptures Wales Bonner herself assembled, drawing on The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly, 1950–64, by artist James Hampton, aka St. James. (A book in the gallery was open to a page showing the work, a massive assemblage of ephemeral found objects indebted to both Afro-Atlantic spirituality and Christianity.) Bonner’s Shrine II, 2019, combined sounds from conceptual electronic musician Chino Amobi with recordings from the Howard University Chamber Choir. In Amobi’s words, the piece “functions as a conflating portal between disparate rhythmic lineages, lived histories, redacted geographies, intellectual schools of thought, and spiritual realms.” Though accurate, these comments reveal something concerning in the tendency among artists in this milieu to play fast and loose not only with formal traditions, but with political ones—flattening the difference, contradiction, and social antagonism internal to the radical cultural histories and concepts they wish to mobilize. 

Ultimately, Wales Bonner’s Autumn/Winter 2019 collection was underwhelming, too, centering on preppy collegiate looks with jazz-era twists and “African” embellishments. Varsity jackets, tailored blazers, high-waisted trousers, embroidered jumpers, rugby jerseys, and patchwork jackets populated a largely gender-ambiguous collection, whose perhaps overly elegant and clean-cut finish felt at odds with the premise of the exhibition’s art and research. In many respects, the power of the fashion collection seemed to lie in its absence from the gallery space, which left the visitor’s imagination to grasp after the almost psychedelic visions of clothing the show conjured.

Superlatives from Reed in the collection’s press release, which likened Wales Bonner’s practice to those of Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, and Sun Ra in its reassembling of European and black aesthetic traditions, provided a conceptual framework of far greater interest than the designs on view. That said, in both of these compelling if sometimes frustrating endeavors, the exhibition and the collection, Wales Bonner certainly threw down a gauntlet with an implicit exhortation to creators of all kinds: Pay attention to those practices whose interweaving of radical cultural histories blurs the remnants of all formal distinctions. 

Kashif Sharma-Patel is a writer and poet based in London.