London

View of “Rita Keegan,” 2021. Photo: Andy Stagg.

View of “Rita Keegan,” 2021. Photo: Andy Stagg.

Rita Keegan

South London Gallery

In “Social Fabric Stories”—an index to the fabrics that decorate the impressive train of the garment at the center of the mixed-media installation Trophies Revised, 2021–, invited artists, friends, activists, educators, and archivists offer to Rita Keegan scraps of their own work: homages to times and art scenes past, present, future, and ongoing. These collaborators recall not only Keegan’s art, but also her work behind the scenes, helping to establish the Brixton Art Gallery, cofounding the print technology cooperative Community Copy Art, building the Women of Colour Index. They speak of fabric, both cultural and material, of the texture of cloth and everyday life, of clothes worn, handed down, inherited, like traits or a lineage. This vibrant “social fabric,” in Keegan’s words, undergirds the installation, which reconfigures one of the artist’s germinal works, Cycles, 1992. It also gestures to Keegan’s lifelong interest in collaborative and communal art practices, and the ways in which they relate to identity. As she says, “I’m made of many places, people, and things.”

For Keegan, to be an artist is not just to make, but to remake—to invite people in, to work against conventional understandings of what art is and how it is made. Cycles was informed by the British Black Arts Movement, which was founded in the early 1980s and influenced by cultural theorist Stuart Hall. The work’s present realization includes some of its original components: sand, spices (an olfactory summoning of colonialism and global trade), photographs on acetate dangling in strips from the ceiling. Collage, montage, and archives are the core of Keegan’s work: The images intermingle the personal with the political and historical, combining family photographs with ethnographic and archival documents related to enslavement. New additions to Trophies Revised include monitors that loop a trio of Keegan’s films from the ’90s, in which some of the same images appear, scanned and digitized, merging and swirling together in unexpected sequences. At the center of the installation—as if watching over its surrounding material—stands a wax-print fabric “conceptual costume”molded on Keegan’s body, from which flows the evocative, collectively sourced train.

In a new film that gave the show its title, Somewhere Between There and Here, 2021, the artist muses on the power of layering images to unsettle and surprise, and on the lure of new technologies that encourage experimentation. “I think a lot of artists of color are working in new media because it’s uncharted territory,” Keegan said in 1997. “They can make their own rules rather than follow somebody else’s.” Upstairs, a strikingly colorful grid of thirty “photocopy collages,” Views from the Interior, 1983–86, displayed another aspect of Keegan’s historical engagement with unorthodox technologies. The works are monoprints on sugar paper, fed through a photocopier multiple times to layer different images and colors. Faces of girls and women—some were recognizable from the films; others appeared in an archival display in the next room—smile from behind bold prints of flowers, news images, abstract patterns, fragments of text, all skillfully montaged like memories or glimpses overlaid.

Keegan’s immense personal archive has recently been acquired by the Women’s Art Library at Goldsmiths, University of London. A modest selection in the exhibition focused on Keegan’s family, in particular her uncle Keith Simon, also an artist, whom she sees as a forerunner to her own vocation. (The title Somewhere Between There and Here was inspired by a poem of Simon’s.) By incorporating her uncle in this living record of her own work, Keegan asks us to view art and artists as inextricable from the invisible ecologies and economies that have given them shape. “When you have a history,” she says, “you have a future.” At a moment in which institutional systems of reification seem keen to present “recuperated” artists as examples of individual genius, Keegan’s generous refusal to stand alone is refreshing, important, and bold.