In Maximillian William’s recent exhibition, Embodying Anew, work by Thaddeus Moseley, Magdalene Odundo and Simone Leigh challenges Western appropriation of African aesthetics and celebrates the cultural practices of indigenous Africa.
The group exhibition Embodying Anew, held at Maximillian William, London, featured Thaddeus Mosley, Dame Magdalene Odundo DBE, and Simone Leigh. Three artists of the African diaspora whose work and lives are separated by nearly two decades of African and African-American culture, craft, and sculpture – each finding equilibrium in the not-so-grey areas of Western appropriation of African aesthetics, spirituality, and humanity that developed modernist culture and beyond.
The five artworks within the space are a breath of fresh air, completely divided from the art world’s current suspicious attraction to figurative paintings by Black artists. Or rather, anything that has to do with the Black body.
I had the pleasure of viewing the exhibition via a Facetime call with Chloe Austin, the Exhibitions and Research Manager of the gallery. Initially she drew my gaze to Thaddeus Mosley’s Repetitive Reference (2015), a seven-foot walnut sculpture made of hand-chiseled forms affixed with organic mortise and tenon joints, which is perfectly balanced in the space. The base of the freestanding vertical figure has a widow’s peak of a curve on its left side, with a mirroring arch on its right; while the center takes on the body of a perched bird leaning forward, with its tail fanned behind it. An antelope shaped horn is fixed to the left side of the rounded center, inspired by Malian sculptural headdresses which take the form of theCi Wara divine being, an example of which is held in the collection of the Met (Headdress: Male Antelope (Ci Wara)).
With this in mind, titling the piece Repetitive Reference feels like a tongue-in-cheek ode to the plethora of ways Mosley’s work can be reduced in critiques by merely crediting his inspirations to the likes of Brancusi when there are many other references in play. Such as the practice of Siras Bowens, an African-American who, one day, was called upon by ancestral spirits to source wood and create sculptures in Sunbury, Georgia, honoring the dead. It was the connection Bowens’ had to the African indigenous that shaped how he transformed his wooden sculptures into fluid totems.
Based on how the sculpture is presented in space, I imagine how a Brancusi reference can make its way into conversation. Isolated to the left side of the room, a soft glow appears on Repetitive Reference, or rather, a somber spotlight. Instantaneously, images of Brancusi’s Bird In Space (1928) come to mind along with all the ways the sculpture had been displayed: isolated, in a corner, or on a pedestal in the center of the room; glowing under a smooth, fluorescent spotlight. Though Brancusi’s Bird in Space strips all recognizable traits of an actual bird, the sculpture’s response to light within a setting implies a bird’s movement without wings. Within the gallery, Mosley’s Repetitive Reference embodies the fluidity of a real bird with an applied focus on lightness and density. Under the low light, Mosley’s sculpture feels as if it should be married to nature, like a bird. Or perhaps, like a ceremonial offering to his ancestors.
Improvisational with his cuts, Mosley’s artwork is jazz in the form of sculpture. The Pittsburgh-based artist operated out of his hometown of Pittsburgh for the entire scope of his practice. Uninterested in the rat race of the art market, Thaddeus Mosley relinquished the pressure of having to keep up, which came at the expense of going under-acknowledged for quite some time. However, it takes someone with an eye to find great artists within the blindspots of history and bring them into prominence, instead of following market hype.
Some might say the search for the perfect body lies within our minds-eye. For Magdalene Odundo, the search for the perfect body lies amongst her fingertips. Untitled (1984), Asymmetrical Reduced Black (1992) and Untitled (2009) are three ceramic vessels the artist has made within twenty-five years, and each of them is a continuous reworking of the last.
Untitled (1984) is a warm terracotta body met with a mystic intensity of what looks like a black polished hand, brushed to delicate, wispy perfection. The vessel’s tilted mouth reveals its inside, which resembles a singer preparing to modulate to a higher pitch. In contrast, the peak formed at the mouth’s edge mirrors the ridge at the neck, which seamlessly disappears into the body.
Asymmetrical Reduced Black (1992) takes on the look of an alien form disguised as ceramic. Is it in the potency of the black base colour fused with a cosmic grey gradient, the aftermath of a beautiful burnish? Perhaps it presents itself in the drooping mouth or through the cryptic knots on the left side of its curved, elongated throat. Or, maybe it’s found in the sleek adornment of two gauged rings on the throat’s right that differ in size. The vessel’s belly completes this outlandish feel, and in fact, it’s where the colour-fused galaxy is the most prominent.
Untitled (2009) is the perfect example of a ceramic birthed in a new generation. Where Odundo’s previously mentioned vessels hold references to antiquity, and Pueblo-style pottery, Untitled (2009) has come of age in a new millennium. The brilliance of the terra sigillata delivers a magnetic luster convincing itself, and me, of a more contemporary vessel with a solid connection to African tradition. Its stretched mouth reminds me of the lip-plates of Mursi women who would pierce and stretch their lips to hold a clay plate, expressing beauty norms and social status within their community. Effortlessly, an elegant elongated neck reappears with three small bumps on each side – each peck resembling something close to a navel.
Odundo’s incorporation of visual and tactile bodily elements on her vessels embodies precisely what a vessel should be: a body. When it comes to making, the world starts where her hands begin. Simone de Beauvoir once said, ‘one is not born, but rather becomes a woman’. In the case of Dame Magdalene Odundo DBE: one does not become a potter to create pots, but instead becomes one to create themselves and others. With influences ranging from Degas’ Little Dancer Aged Fourteen (1880-81) to the ceramics of the Nigerian potter Ladi Kwali to ancient Roman vessels, Odundo comes out on the other end to face the absolute truth with a broad understanding of history. Everything is as deeply connected as we are, once we look beyond the categories of separation.
Simone Leigh’s Stretch (GREEN) (2020) is complementary to Odundo’s work, each being an anthropomorphic reference to a female body. Covered in a speckled, sage-green tea dust glaze is a bust of a female figure with thick lips, a broad nose, no eyes, and an afro. This figure is precisely what the world has come to expect of Leigh, just as we’ve similarly come to expect the wall figures of Kara Walker to depict the lurking repression of an anti-Black world shaped by the antebellum period. Like Walker, Leigh attempts to unpick and present this dark period and its legacy in her practice. Walker’s silhouette figures are characters flattened in dimension and identity. There is no particular person in which one can fully extend blame or sympathy; against a white wall, their figures are almost camouflage into one evil. Leigh’s characters are also universal; their worlds take on a different form through the three-dimensionality of their skin and its scope of an inward gaze.
The salient stoneware is a testament to Leigh’s abstract and surrealist devotion to render the interior/exterior worlds of Black women. The sculpture’s stylized neck mirrors that of Odundo’s Untitled (2009), although I’d like to imagine the space within the stretch to be an endless well of agency. Possibly in reference to the moments of having been silenced, withholding our tongues due to a respectability politic, or an overflow of immense stories relating to oral tradition.
A focal point of Leigh’s sculptures is based on how her figures take on an architectural form of a place, time, or space that either subjects Black women or allows them to survive. In her previous sculptural presentations – Brick House (2019) and in her Guggenheim exhibition, Loophole of Retreat (2018) – Leigh’s figures had a momentous body. Here we are presented with a fragment. A beheading of any kind is enough to signify a world of violence. Despite the absence of a body, Stretch (GREEN) commands a serene authority we’ve seen translated through bronze or marble busts of famous white men. After nearly a year of global protests in solidarity of Black lives, civilians took to the streets to actively dismantle, dethrone, and dump statues of imperialist figures into the abyss. White men will no longer occupy the visual and imaginative language of freedom. While the rest of the world reckons with this new awakening, Simone Leigh, ever ahead of the curve, will continue to use visual and imaginative language to center the world of Black women.
The esoteric themes of balance, revision, and harmony are guided by a solid vernacular each artist has crafted for themselves throughout their practice. Each artwork’s earth-centric color palette adds balance to the mediums presented within the show, from the browns to the centering sage green, to the infectious oranges and carbon black.
The theme of harmony becomes more apparent in how the artworks complement each other within the space. Apart from Mosley’s sculpture, the ceramic and stoneware pieces are presented underneath display cases in dim light to protect their properties – ironic that it’s similar to how museums have always displayed artefacts from Africa and Oceania. However, these objects are not bound to this space, nor were they forced to be there.
Embodying Anew is a formal incarnation of the vast range of ancient and modern influences, which each artist has encountered and let go of to find a language more spiritually aligned to the medium of their choosing: wood, terracotta, and stoneware. These hold rich ties to the ceremonial practices of indigenous Africa but are not restricted to the entire scope of art history. It is the process of shedding skin to become reborn. It’s a revelation between the body, the earth, and the celestial spirit that reckons with constructed models of universality in modern abstraction.
Embodying Anew was on shown at Maximillian William, London, 6 May – 19 June 2021.
Feature image: detail from an installation view of Simone Leigh’s Stretch (GREEN) (2020). Stoneware and tea dust glaze. Private Collection, London. Photo: Lewis Ronald.