The Feast Wagon

Co-curated by Kerry Harker, Zoë Sawyer and Irfan Shaw, The Feast Wagon attends to ‘ideas of exchange, circulation and migration’ in a world where identities are too often rendered partial, fragmented or cast adrift. In the Tetley’s first floor atrium is a charming articulation of the ‘glocal’, an installation of found and embellished carts of all shapes and sizes by Lubaina Himid and Susan Walsh, inspired, we are told, by an the earliest moving picture of horse-drawn carriages crossing Leeds bridge. Decorated with paintings of exotic animals and fish, the carts are an allegory of the travel of non-indigenous species through commercial routes. The motley assembly is overseen by an effigy-wagon in the form of a long wooden shipping crate mounted vertically on the wall above, with an undercarriage fashioned from skateboards. Are we being asked to imagine trade and migration networks as a kind of playground, or perhaps a skate park?

Postcolonial commentary is continued in Walsh’s series of framed collages of wagons, carriages and caravansaries, found in two of the nine office-size galleries that house the bulk of the exhibition. In one example, a horse is supplanted with a medieval drawing of an elephant, a ‘non-Western’ reminder of cultures traditionally left out of frontier mythology, or else on the receiving end of it. Over the course of the exhibition a series of billboard collages will appear offsite across the city. Here and elsewhere there is an attempt to tie the idea of the wagon to the messy business of identity formation in the aftermath of colonialism and global commerce. Less successful is a more literal attempt to extend the wagon theme into into the past: the inclusion of a painting by J. L. Bottomley from 1863 (part of the Tetley’s permanent collection), depicting a team of horses straining to pull a cart full of beer kegs, falls a bit flat.

The exhibition takes for its starting point Irfan Shah’s research on Victorian Yorkshire, specifically the work of Louis Le Prince (the moving image pioneer behind the aforementioned bridge scene) and his brother-in-law John Robinson Whitley. Whitley, who lived near the Tetley brewery, was instrumental in bringing Buffalo Bill’s ‘Wild West Show’ to London in 1887. Archival posters and press clippings populate research displays in Galleries 2 and 8, with frontier exoticism in full swing – Stetsons, stallions, lassoes – bold signifiers of new beginnings, adventure, hubris and machismo. One includes an illustrated poster of the ‘distinguished visitors’ to Wild West London, including Queen Victoria herself. A vision of the frontier is sold back to the motherland, with not a touch of irony.

The other two artists, Delaine Le Bas and Simeon Barclay respond to this rather elaborate historical backdrop in subtler ways. With dazzling effect, Le Bas brings colonial mythology crashing down to earth, sending cogs and springs flying. In a room filled with curiosities (e.g. tambourines and biscuit tins depicting dancing gypsy ‘types’, custom-made costumes mixing flamenco polka dots with Sex Pistol t-shirts), Le Bas refracts British Roma culture through the lens of stereotype. Her hybrid ensembles expose the one-dimensionality of potted cultural tropes such as the Romany Gypsy outsider and the British punk rocker. A collection of notebooks and books, some with annotated jackets, attest to the heavy-handed interpretations of traveller societies and their customs on the part of scholars and authors since the eighteenth century (including William Blake and Bible salesman turned ethnographer, George Borrow). A single video work, Gypsyland (2014), has an unsettling ethnographic feel, effectively blurring the distinction between authenticity and parody in a series of performative interventions around London, the sites chosen based on a set of engravings from the 1800s showing ‘Traditional Gypsy Stopping Places’.

On the ground floor Le Bas’ mixed media wall installation, Death for Being a Gypsy takes this critique still further. Enlarged articles and website pages recount the systematic oppression and weeding out of Roma in Europe and beyond, including a shocking account of Gypsy hunting for sport in Switzerland and Holland in the eighteenth century. When the hunt is on, we’re always the hunted? Insurrection gitane includes a textile patterned with fox hunting scenes, a vintage ‘gypsy’ mask and dolls dressed in customised outfits. Applique text on the reverse of a Union Jack flag reads ‘History and Legacy’ and ‘Truth or Myth’. An artist and activist from an English Romany Gypsy background, Le Bas tests the limits of these false binaries. At what point does history become legacy, and vice versa? How can we decipher truth from myth, particularly in a postcolonial, post-technology age when cultural identity is passed through so many filters, across so many borders?

With a still looser interpretation of the exhibition focus, Barclay’s work occupies three adjoined gallery spaces, and deals in the slippery business of class, race and gender construction. Muscled pinups, rearing stallions and Heinz tomato ketchup bottles peer out of three stacked plastic boxes of descending sizes in An Arrangement On Grey (228); all products cast in a mould, seductively streamlined. On the wall a commercial lightbox illuminates the phrase Non Illigitamus Carborundum, translated roughly as ‘Don’t let the bastards grind you down’. From a Black British Caribbean, working-class background, Barclay acknowledges that even while critiquing normative modes of representation we are still implicated in the transaction. At the same time, his assemblages imaginatively subvert the stock categories on offer, juxtaposing and layering with purposeful grace.

Barclay’s second room presents a compendium of surfaces, colours, images and symbols, somewhat overcomplicated by the preponderance of the gallery windows and reflections caused by natural light. Hallmarks of Western masculinity (football, bromance) and femininity (stilettos, nailpolish) punctuate a series of acrylic Arrangements in red, green, yellow and black, mounted onto a timber framework that acts as an inner membrane. Pasted on the walls behind are images from film and fashion media: Albert Finney lights a cigarette, neon lipstick glows; a model stares longingly into her smartphone. Vinyl adhesives pop and fleshy curves seduce in this slick checkerboard of associations that refuses coherence. In the centre of the room stands a concrete reproduction Venus after Canova (is this where it all began?). The room operates on the level of aspiration and desire, sweet glossy perfection with a hollow centre.

The conflicted and contradictory self-fashioning explored by Le Bas and Barclay seems somehow more invested than the distanced commentaries presented by Himid and Walsh. Their work sheds light on the challenges and possibilities of cobbling together an identity from constantly shifting, splitting and multiplying components, set against the forces of hegemony, societal norms and consumer capitalism. The exhibition’s local/historical premise seems faint or altogether lost in these powerful personal agendas, united under the tattered banner of cultural disorientation. Even so, in exploring a bigger historical picture The Feast Wagon is better positioned to comment on how systems of exchange, circulation and migration have shaped both our contemporary world and our individual, yet always composite identities.

The Feast Wagon continues at The Tetley until 10th January 2016.

Lara Eggleton is an art historian, writer and curator based in Leeds.

Top image: Lubaina Himid and Susan Walsh, Installation Shot, The Feast Wagon, 2015. Image courtesy: The Tetley. Photo: Jules Lister

Image: Simeon Barclay, Installation Shot, The Feast Wagon, 2015. Image Courtesy: The Tetley. Photo: Jules Lister.