Archives for posts with tag: Race

The Caged Bird’s Song


This is a magical display. Chris Ofili has created a watercolour which has been woven into a tapestry by Dovecot Tapestry Studio. The tapestry is enormous, a triptych covering a whole wall of the exhibition space, and it’s beautiful. Ofili’s image is rich and bright, reds and oranges bleeding into blues and turquoises and purples. The left and right panels show figures drawing back theatre curtains to show a mythical, watery, tropical scene. A couple sit at the centre of the work underneath a waterfall, him serenading her on a guitar with a still ocean behind them. She’s holding a cocktail glass, into which a nymph or god in a tree pours a sparkling liquid. This heavenly cocktail waiter, it turns out, is Mario Balotelli. The adjacent room shows Ofili’s studies for his watercolour, the most magical of which are those where Balotelli rises from cocktail glasses like a genie robed in smoke. The piece is titled ‘The Caged Bird’s Song’, referring to the first part of the great Maya Angelou’s autobiography. A caged bird is depicted in the right of the work but the whole piece is musical. 


There’s a calmness in the room – I could sit in here for hours, like in the Rothko room at Tate Modern. There’s also a happiness and serenity in the tapestry, as well as a heady tropical expectation in the black storm clouds on the horizon. I’ve never been to Trinidad, where Ofili is based, but there’s a flavour of Caribbean nature in this piece. The couple are under the waterfall, so I doubt the imminent downpour will bother them. The work is so rich, I want to hear the tale of these figures and the myth of this landscape. The medium of tapestry is itself mythical – maybe Arachne wove this. This display doesn’t need a soundscape. You can hear the water through the tapestry. 

Balotelli the genie


From afar, the tapestry looks like a watercolour. The pigments bleed into each other like watered down paint, mixing with the waterfall and the sea. The level of skill in this piece is phenomenal – the weavers have somehow managed to translate water into wool. 

This is a tapestry not a watercolour – how

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The opening room places beauty and death at the heart of the American Dream. On the left is Andy Warhol’s Electric Chair, 1971, multiple screen prints of an empty electric chair, rendered in Warhol’s famous colourful style. Opposite is Warhol’s Marilyn, 1967, multiple prints of Marilyn Monroe, in similar scale and colours to Electric Chair. Warhol used press images as the basis for both of these series; the photograph of an electric chair standing in an empty room was taken after the last execution in New York, Marilyn’s photo was a press shot for one of her films.

Facing one another we have the face of American beauty and an iconic representative of death in America. And of course Marilyn killed herself, so death feels like the predominant theme here.

Across the back of the room is Rosenquist’s F-111, a print depicting an F-111 fighter jet, with images of mushroom clouds and of girls having their hair blow dried in a beauty salon. Making yourself beautiful seems futile in the face of the slaughter of the Vietnam War and the threat of nuclear destruction.

This is a pretty bold statement for the first room. Is this the American Dream – execution, war, suicide, with a thin veneer of beauty? These works are nice examples of Pop Art ridiculing and critiquing that which it impersonates.

I wasn’t that hot on Rauschenberg in his retrospective at the Tate Modern, but I liked the pieces from his Stoned Moon series on show in The American Dream. A bifurcated print shows in the lower left Neil Armstrong walking on the moon, the sky reaching out above him, and in the top right an American farmer sits in his field, the ground stretching down below him. The split image emphasises the distance and difference between the space program and life in America, but the farmer seems as heroic as the astronaut, he is even placed higher in the image. This is deliverance of sorts from the bleakness of the first room.

I fell a little bit in love with Ed Ruscha’s Standard Station 1966 and Hollywood 1968. The Hollywood sign disappears in an exaggerated perspective, brownish sky and hills create an empty and vast landscape behind. Similarly, a red, white and blue gas station vanishes swiftly in strong perspective, with an orange sunset sky. The gas station, treated in the same way as the Hollywood sign, becomes as quintessentially American. These two works were for me the perfect illustration of Warhol’s quote at the beginning of the exhibition: ‘Everybody has their own America, and then they have the pieces of a fantasy America that they think is out there…’ Hollywood and Standard Station depict images of my own myth of America (as formulated mostly by Neil Gaiman’s American Gods) – all empty golden sky and endless distance as shown through Ruscha’s use of perspective.


I have a bit of a problem with these enormous blockbuster exhibitions. I begin with over two hours until the museum closes and think this is plenty of time, scrutinising each work as I go along, then by the time I get to room 7 of 12 I only have half an hour left and have to whizz round.

So I had to whizz round the three final rooms. They addressed gender, race, and the AIDS crisis. I can see that placing these issues at the end of the show could drag you back from the sober artiness of all the minimalism/photorealism/art chat of the middle rooms (which were nice enough but they didn’t exactly call to me). There are risks though: a) you’ll be too tired/rushed from the previous 9 rooms and b) it can look smooshed onto the end as a kind of whoops we’d better include some women/POC. Both of these happened. I wasn’t impressed by the compression of women, POC and the LGBTQ community into the smallest rooms of the show after rooms and rooms of white men. But this is the BM and white men predominate blockbuster exhibitions anyway so it isn’t a monumental shock.

Anyway. I mostly came to this show for the promise of Kara Walker, having never seen any of her fantastic political historical silhouettes in real life.

Her No World from An Unpeopled Land in Uncharted Waters, 2010, depicts a black woman’s silhouette beneath the ocean, a slave ship held aloft above the waves by a pair of human hands, with a slave owner and slave girl dancing on land. Walker’s work unapologetically addresses America’s history of slavery and racism. The wealth of a slave ship is saved from destruction by the death of a black woman. Her hands could drag the ship beneath the waves, but only the future slaves will drown with her, and the slave owner would still be dancing safely in his plantation.

This is the first point that slavery is addressed in this show ABOUT AMERICA, and it’s in room 11 of 12. Room 1 was pretty blunt in its discussion of death and suicide and the falsity of the notion of the American Dream, but slavery is still somehow too taboo to address properly because it makes the (mostly white and middle class) audience of these blockbuster exhibitions feel uncomfortable. It’s particularly noteworthy that the British Museum, arguably the epitome of the theft of the British Empire, puts slavery as a footnote to the history of America.

I suppose it’s a step in the right direction that gender, sexuality and race are being discussed in such an old school establishment as the BM but it would be better it if these issues were dealt with as an ongoing and central aspect of life, not separate issues of relevance only to minority groups. It was a bit like ‘here is an exhibition of proper art, and also some black art, some queer art and some women’s art’, because these three ‘types’ of art are a) subplots within art as if e.g. women aren’t half the world’s population and b) these artists aren’t proper artists because they deal with their lived experiences life instead of things like the problem of form.

There was some sick pieces on show – I have now seen Warhol’s iconic Marilyn in the flesh – but the layout of the show emphasises the long way still to go for women, POC and queer folk to be appropriately valued in art.