Flags can be many things. They can be used to communicate, to signal. They can lay claim to land, to a place, or act as a marker in the landscape to signify our existence. They can be waved for attention, for caution, for celebration. In Andrew Omoding’s solo exhibition with Crescent Arts and ActionSpace at Woodend Gallery they colourfully burst forth with all these possibilities, and with an energy and tactility that invites you to walk amongst them. Entering the exhibition, I encountered six standing sculptures convened in a circle, and I immediately read them as flags. Described as ‘fishing marker flags’, they are used to mark out fishing gear and netting below the surface. Here they are heavily adorned and intricately woven with Ankara fabric, referencing both the coastline of Scarborough and Omoding’s Ugandan heritage.
It quickly becomes clear that these sculptures go beyond any usual definition of flags; some could be fishing rods, drums or marching batons. In the corner of the room on a vertical screen is a video of Omoding at Scarborough beach and harbour. He is singing and holding a sculpture, waving and circling it while acting out stories through song. He has a playful smile and I beam right back at him. Standing on the beach, he holds the sculpture in the most natural way, turning it and positioning it in front of himself, horizontally and then vertically. It flaps vigorously in the coastal wind. It seems to belong here in the Northern seaside resort with its glorious colours, tassels and printed fabric. It is big, colourful and eye-catching, elements that Omoding takes pride in. He bangs on the empty plastic container fixed to the pole, drumming out an accompanying beat. I watch the short video until it starts all over again. His performance is joyful, captivating and mesmeric.
In the second room there is an array of sea creatures formed from wood, fabric and sponge, and adorned with beading and gold lamé fabric. The choice to make sea creatures for this seaside town exhibition is deceptively layered. They are hung from the ceiling, beached on white display blocks and on castors by our feet. Everything about the work seems to invite play, encouraging visitors to walk amongst the sculptures and circle the space. With the large glass of the gallery roof and wall of windows, it doesn’t take much to imagine you are in an aquarium, looking at them from every angle and very much a part of their world. Beached mammals, small and large fishes, and even divers can be made out, but their ambiguous forms allow for a multitude of interpretations. There are whales with human hands as fins, adorned with work gloves that hug their sides. Instruments are built into some of the works, giving them a puppet-like presence (if a troupe of performers got hold of them, what worlds could they create and stories could they tell?).
The sculptures on the floor, with wooden bases and armoured backs of wire, call out to be wheeled around on their castors across the slick wooden gallery floor. Play feels central to this exhibition, but I feel slightly denied this tactile experience as a visitor. Museums often embrace interaction with exhibits, encouraging visitors of all ages to learn through play, but in galleries we are still asked to follow the general rule of engagement: ‘look but don’t touch’. I felt uncertain as to whether I could break from convention, and so refrained from touching anything.
On the large fabric banner that hangs in the adjacent room there are handwritten extracts from a story Omoding tells of the sea. Repeated phrases describe his experience of visiting Scarborough: ‘Welcome everyone, merci, merci’ it reads, ‘Fisherman and flagz blowing big big wind. Big Beach, going to walk and can see big fish swimming’. It also features the words ‘The train, Choo Choo’, echoing the ‘Scarborough – It’s Quicker by Rail’ vintage LNER poster prints available in the gallery cafe. Scarborough is very much the end of the line, and it’s clear that Omoding has immersed himself in the place and its rich history in the making of this new work. The writing on the banner is loose and free, and Omoding refers to them as ‘books’, holding the stories and events that narrate and accompany his work.
Omoding was brought up in Uganda and the country’s rich history of storytelling echoes through the exhibition. The banners follow his approach of using what is to hand; all the materials are recycled, found or repurposed. The stitches, knots, staples and nails holding them together are all on show. The process of making is not hidden. Seeing how each piece was made acts as a provocation and speaks to the joy of using scraps to make something that is textured, thoughtful and distinct. It also points to the waste that we continually create and live amongst. Omoding cleverly connects these lines of thought with the stories, creatures and symbols of the sea, telling a story of rescue and revival through abundance and colour.
On the wall there is a landline telephone wrapped and adorned with ribbon, yarn, beads and chain. The handset hangs loose. Mounted to the wall next to the phone is a button. Initially I dared not press it, then later read in the exhibition guide that ‘visitors are encouraged to press the button and hear the recording of Andrew’s call home to Uganda’. I rushed back to press it (I reached to grab the handset intuitively, but the recording plays from a hidden speaker), and I could just make out his voice asking his family to visit. In the recording Omoding recounts a story in which a big fish eats a little fish before being caught and sold by a fisherman. ‘£200 for a fish? Too much? Go get more money’ he narrates. The cost continues to increase, ‘£20, £200, £2000’, encouraging us to consider the true price of depleting the oceans and the wider impact this has on our planet.
The exhibition invites visitors to step into Omoding’s world, and I stay for some time in the two rooms, yet I want to dive a little deeper still and be more immersed in these oceans of thought and fantastical creatures. I want to hear Omoding’s voice more clearly and loud; hushed gallery convention seems to have washed it out a little. The sculptures are hung like costumes for display, and I yearn to see them activated. In previous exhibitions Omoding has encouraged visitors to take part in his improvised performances. For ‘It’s my work, come see, come see’ (2019) at Camden Art Centre he created a house from hanging fabrics in his studio, which viewers could enter and interact with. This exhibition in Scarborough opened with a live performance by the artist; having missed this event I can only wonder how I might walk in procession with Omoding, and which of my own stories of the sea I could sing.
Welcome To Me, Scarborough. To See and Hold My Work is a rich tapestry, weaving together the personal, local and global. The exhibition title is taken directly from audio recordings of Omoding whilst he was making the work. His work is about sea creatures, stories and redundant technologies, and joy, hope and the connections we share. It asks us to consider how we communicate to each other, to the place in which we find ourselves, and to the Earth on which we live.
Welcome to Me, Scarborough. To See and Hold My Work is at Woodend Gallery, Scarborough until 19 June 2022. There will be a Music and Flag Making Workshop and Parade with the artist on Saturday 18 June, 10am-12pm. The exhibition is supported by Crescent Arts, ActionSpace, Scarborough Museums Trust and Arts Council England.
Joanna Jowett is a writer, artist and producer based in Leeds and is also co-director of Copypages.org, an artist’s publishing platform.
This review is supported by Crescent Arts.