“I hear we had over one thousand people on the opening night,” Peju Oshin says with a smile. It’s been two weeks since the opening of Rites of Passage, her first show as Associate Director at the Gagosian and visitors are still coming and going in their numbers.
The group exhibition of 43 works from 19 artists is anchored around the idea of “liminal spaces”, a term attributed to French Anthropologist, Arnold van Gennep. The title of the exhibition is, in many ways, an homage to his 1909 book of the same title.
In Gennep’s worldview, “liminal spaces” refer to transitional events which are significant on account of the ritual functions which attend them and which transcend cultures. These events could be birth, puberty, marriage, and death.
In presenting 42 works from “contemporary artists with a shared history of migration’, Ms. Oshin anchors her exhibition around the three stages of liminality – “separation, transition, and return” with the works grouped along the broader sections of “tradition, spirituality, and place”.
Visitors are welcomed by Elsa James’ “Ode to David Lammy” a text-led piece realised in the black neon text – I AM HERE BECAUSE YOU WERE THERE highlighting not just a sense of place but of space and bringing to mind Glenn Ligon’s ME WE neon piece in the lobby of The Studio Museum in Harlem.
Mary Evan’s “The Rest is History” explores the theme with a set of figures depicting the transition, as it were, from the cradle to the grave. This theme of transition is also at the core of Manyaku Mashilo’s ink and acrylic piece Celestial Cartographies with its depiction of figures moving in an abstract landscape that mimics the cycle of life from birth to death.
Sharon Walter’s lone piece New Beginnings is an interesting paper cut-out enclosed in glass. At just a little over 23 x 33 inches, the all-white piece demands that you lean close to engage, allowing it to unfurl before your close gaze.
Patrick Quarm’s mixed media pieces are playful with a pop art feel but the use of fabric situates it within a decidedly African milieu while Adelaide’s Damoah’s cyanotypes presented with golden accents carry on a multi-generational conversation with her family’s matriarchs as collaborators, interlocutors and subjects.
Photo credit: Gagosian website
Asiko’s photographic images printed on baryta paper manage to transpose an African staple into a Western context. His stilt-walker masquerades are cultural migrants in a strange landscape and the contrast is startling.
Alexandra Smith’s mixed media exhibits presented as three-dimensional wood assemblages are playful yet surrealistic works conveying an other-worldly tableau.
Fabrics are front and center in the pieces by Emily Moore and Enam Gbewonyo even though the approaches differ. While Brown favours bright red accented with gold-plated beads and cowrie shells Gbewonyo gravitates more towards black with works made from used tights and recycled yarn. While Moore’s presentation of her works teases African masquerades, there is something angry and dark, and forbidding about Gbewonyo’s pieces.
Victor Ehikhamenor’s “Do this in Memory of Us” imbues the term “the middle passage” with new meaning as it collapses nautical and religious and commercial symbols to highlight the evil of slavery not just as an accursed commercial enterprise but one that transcended the three stages of liminality – separation from loved ones, migration across the seas and now return.
Mr. Ehikhamenor stitches together thousands of rosary beads to canvas and lace to create a tapestry that is at once haunting and tear-inducing as it depicts blacks shackled and packed together in the hold of a ship as they make the journey from Africa to slavery.
The reflection of the hanging work on glass creates a vertiginous optical illusion compelling the viewer to relieve the seasickness the shackled and abducted Africans must have felt in the hold of the slave ship while the funereal soundtrack brings to mind the dirges they must have sung, songs that would ultimately become negro spirituals.
Peju Oshin’s debut at the Gagosian may have broken footfall records for an opening night but its relevance lies beyond attendance numbers. It lies more in the urgent conversations it has managed to open up around issues that resonate in contemporary diasporic discourse.
Photo credit: Gagosian website
Elsa James Ode to David Lammy highlights the ongoing conversations around the Windrush scandal, Asiko’s transpositions speak to the larger issue not just around cultural identity for migrants in the diaspora but also riffs on cultural appropriation.
But it is the spiritual aspect that resonates most and it finds fullest expression in Victor Ehikhamenor’s piece; a haunting installation that anyone mouthing platitudes about slavery and even restitution of looted African art must see in order to fully understand the stridency around calls for return.
“Rites of Passage” ran from March 16 to April 29, 2023, at the Gagosian’s Brittania Street Gallery, London.