Since its inception in 1949, New Contemporaries has been spotlighting early career visual artists from all over the UK’s art schools and alternative peer-to-peer learning programmes and supporting them to ‘ensure the long-term sustainability of emerging practices’. Past exhibitions have introduced us to artists such as David Hockney, Derek Jarman, Gillian Wearing and, more recently, multi-disciplinary artist Rene Matić and video artist Ufuoma Essi. Essi’s recent film ‘Is My Living In Vain’ (2022) just won the Silver Hugo award in the Documentary Short Film category at Chicago Film Festival and Matić was recently named as one of the artists tapped to be ‘the future of London Art’ by TimeOut.
This year’s selection panel consists of world-renowned artists Helen Cammock, Sunil Gupta, and Heather Phillipson. New Contemporaries has opened in Blackpool for the first time, filling the large exhibition spaces on the ground floor of the Grundy Art Gallery with work from fifty-five artists making their mark on the UK’s contemporary art scene. With a range of video work, sculpture, painting, and installation, the wide breadth of works on offer is best served by a day-long visit – you need this much time to really get lost in these worlds.
Although it feels busy it doesn’t feel cluttered. There’s room to breathe from one piece to the next. There are no artist statements or contextualising texts about the works immediately visible, though after my visit I’m made aware that information on each artist and their works is available on New Contemporaries online platform, accessed through a QR code throughout the gallery. This gives you a choice – to read how the artist contextualizes their work, or observe what each piece offers and create your own narratives or ways of resonating.
I took a circular route through the gallery, bearing left, looking for ways to connect the seemingly endless offerings, to find a line through the curated thread. Adama Dercilia Bari’s opening piece ‘Mariam’s Space’ (2021) is an intimate video work with the artist and subject both seen on screen, conversing about what it means to take up space as Queer Black people. The filmmaker asks where Mariam’s place in the world is, and the answer is the very room that we are witnessing her in. During one shot in Mariam’s bedroom, we are told: ‘everything I own is here.’ This is the space in which she feels most comfortable – within the four walls that belong to her. On taking up space outside of the bedroom, Mariam asks, ‘why is me just living and breathing such a “woah” thing for everyone else?’ In her bedroom there is no pressure to ‘exist loudly’ or be seen as ‘passive’, and Mariam’s presentation of Blackness and Queerness isn’t expected by any stereotypes of these communities. At home, with her plants and belongings, there is no gaze that can lead to discomfort or demand a performed version of herself.
In contrast to the colour and plants which splash Mariam’s lived-in bedroom with her personality, Thomas Cameron’s subject in the oil painting ‘Delivery’ (2023) is faceless, surrounded by dark, delicately stroked lines. The delivery driver’s employer is recognisable only through colour. The piece comments on how the people who do these jobs become nameless, faceless members of our society. Just Eat, Uber Eats and Deliveroo staff were members of the workforce who were expected to continue working without interruption when much of the world shut down in the face of coronavirus in 2020, but were not paid an ‘essential’ staff’s rate of pay. I think the darkness of Cameron’s painting, and the subject’s hidden face, is a comment on how we’re unable to see this workforce even though they take up so much physical space. Although delivery drivers, often migrant workers, are everywhere, we become blind to their presence.
Savanna Achampong’s ‘I can be myself here: Red World Landscape, Red World Attire, Red World Portrait’ (2022) takes us out of the darkness into a possible safe space. The Red World is not a world but a series of moments made into an installation – an item of clothing is hung on the Grundy’s wall, having jumped out of the nearby portrait in which it is worn. The titular phrase, ‘I can be myself here’, reads like a battle cry to my mind. It feels like this piece is silently calling to Bari’s work and also asking what it means to take up space as Black Queer and Transgender people. For those of us marginalised by intersections such as Race, Sexuality and Gender, taking up space is often a question of safety. Should our mere existence be a revolutionary act? Achampong’s painted face in the ‘Red World Portrait’ and garments carry the aesthetics of the Club Kids and contemporary queer cabaret performers and drag things. This gives me hope – that the artist can be themselves in the spaces Queer communities have been cultivating for decades, as spaces in which to thrive and celebrate our creativity and existence, even when the world outside requires us to tone ourselves down in some way, to pass as straight or cisgender people in order to be safe from harassment and violence.
Some of the pieces feel like they are in direct conversation with each other, like Polish artists Iga Koncka’s ‘Dolls Hung by Their Necks’ (2023) and Alicja Rogalska’s ‘News Medley’ (2020). Koncka’s installation consists of handmade corn husk style doll figures hanging from white threads in a corner of the room. Their shadows float against the white wall, and if it wasn’t for the title I think the display might feel less menacing – the dolls don’t look like they’re dead, they could be levitating or flying. There is an innocence at first glance that’s wiped away the moment you learn what Koncka has called this work. Though it might not be the artist’s intention, the word ‘dolls’ makes me think of my friends who are transgender women, who lovingly call themselves and each other ‘dolls’, and the question of safety enters my mind again. Placed diagonally across from Koncka’s installation is Rogalska’s moving-image piece, featuring the Women’s Choir of Kartal singing of their town’s desolation: how the young people are leaving home because there are no job prospects, how things have changed so girls can now choose who they want to marry, how they used to take beatings for daring to divorce, how the women ‘lured’ members from the community to join the choir with ‘beautiful traditional dresses’. The line ‘oh so red, the colour of dripping blood’ is one of the lines repeated in the song and the women ask, almost in surprise: ‘how can women’s lives be so hard?’
The aesthetic of the traditional attire is similar to the dresses Koncka’s hanging dolls are adorned in, the aesthetic similarities obvious even before you learn that the artists were both born in Poland. It feels like the women of Kartal in Rogalska’s film are singing a lament Koncka’s dolls might relate to. Both pieces seem to share a commentary on the plight of women in both history and the present in their respective culture.
To the left of Rogalska’s piece is SAM (Ayrton-Mendes)’s ‘AYABA-RAINHA-QUEEN’ (2023), a video work made up of archival footage from all over the world which documents Black Women and children’s experiences of attempting to survive under white supremacy. There are moments of police brutality in this video and it is uncomfortably long, but I think that’s the point or part of it, how different versions of the same dehumanising processes evolve and take on different faces over time. Footage of well-known figures such as Angela Davis, Lisa Simone, Dianne Reeves, Lizz Wright and Angelique Kidjo forces its way through snippets of Black women’s outrage. We see children weeping over their murdered parents. This performance of Black women celebrating their Blackness is chopped up by Ayrton-Mendes, with moments of degradation and objectifying inserted between moments of joy in a way that a lot of us who are racialised might be able to relate to when reflecting on our own lives. It feels like Ayrton-Mendes is showing the past and the present all blended into one thirty-minute clip. The Black Woman’s quest for safety continues.
To the right of Ayrton-Mendes’s journey through time is Alannah Cyan’s ‘Pistol Packer #2’ (2022), a large print of a transmasculine person dressed as a cowboy, wearing only a black cowboy hat and black chaps, showing both fresh top surgery scars and full bush in a way that doesn’t feel like objectification or sexualisation. There is a regal beauty to the figure, a gentle and tender portrayal of the trans body on display in a desert. The model is a friend and muse of Cyan’s. There is something important in the relationship between transgender subject and photographer in our current climate. To be portrayed by someone who knows and loves you as a trans person means comfort in how you are perceived. I saw the title as a fun play on words, adding a lightness to the piece and maybe adding to the attempt to show the subject as experiencing some kind of gender euphoria (the packer being a part of trans paraphernalia – if you know, you know). Maybe there’s a comment about safety in the title too – a trans person packing a pistol would mean they are armed and ready to fight, just as the trans community is still having to justify their right to exist and take part in society without being dehumanised and othered.
Recently it has felt increasingly important that marginalised people and communities tell their own stories. Like the women in Rogalska’s ‘News Medley’, one of Charan Singh’s subjects in the film ‘They Called it Love but Was it Love?’ (2020) talks openly about being trans. Because their face is blurred and hidden, they maintain an element of privacy and safety as they talk about how they were given a name by a lover that they’ve chosen to keep. Another laments a HIV/AIDS diagnosis from the safety of his own bed, then finds a moment of joy in singing a song from a Bollywood film and performing the same hand gestures as the star. Similarly, Samuel Zhang’s ‘In the Place Where We Arrived’ (2022) tackles migrating to the UK as an LGBTQIA+ person of East and South East Asian descent, from letters between the artist and their lover back home, to wider members of their community discussing why it felt pertinent to leave home in order to live their truth, and to find that ‘safety’ that all human beings seek.
There are some pieces I felt would benefit from some kind of Artist Statement, like ‘Propagation’ (2020) by Helen Clarke, and Zayd Menk’s piece ‘4.3.2‽_-⨅⨼’ (2022). Clarke’s is an installation of pale green propagation pots and Menk’s an installation of computer/circuit boards, monitors, keyboards, cables and printers – a lifetime’s worth of technological items repurposed. It makes me think of how much waste we build up in our lives and how so much of our world is not built to last. Menk’s installation feels akin to a Matrix of our own making, an element of our constant surveillance being built into the work (you are on display in Menk’s monitor as you make your way through the room the piece is in). I’m curious about what sensation or experience the artist is attempting to communicate with this striking installation. The title of numbers and symbols withholds even any hint of reference and I’m unsure what the work is trying to say about how and why are being observed and forced to be a part of the installation.
The lack of seeds being propagated in Clarke’s piece leaves me wondering what I am supposed to be taking from this emptiness. Maybe the absence speaks for itself, through the forty or so empty trays hanging up on the walls. These two pieces are curated diagonally across from one another, suggesting a relationship; similar opposites portraying different consequences of the extremities of how we live. Clarke’s empty propagation pots represent, perhaps, the looming lack of resources that will result in our tech-advanced lives where seeds may no longer be planted.
Daniel Rey’s ‘Collective Cuddles’ (2023) is an installation of a mattress-sized cushion with a screen displaying a recording of the live performance of the piece. There’s something about the way this screen is placed on top of the cushion – the place where the piece’s actors once congregated – which means that we, the spectators of the work, can’t step into their world.
As a self-described weird, queer nonbinary immigrant poet, it feels exciting to see emerging artists making work documenting and archiving the communities I have felt the most safety within. It is amazing to see works by and about the marginalised transgender and migrant communities, in spite of the discrimination from the government and UK media they are almost constantly having to campaign against. These pieces of art feel like a continuation of the activism happening in the streets and on social media. These voices are not being tokenised or presented through an outsider’s gaze – they are a part of the conversation started by New Contemporaries 2023 about what and who should be taking up space, who should see themselves in galleries and who should – like Matić and Essi have shown is possible – have a thriving career as an artist after graduating.
New Contemporaries 2023, The Grundy Art Gallery, Blackpool, 30 September – 16 December 2023.
mandla is a writer, facilitator and producer based in Manchester.
This review is supported by the Grundy Art Gallery.