This month marks the first anniversary of Britain’s first national lockdown, and one year since the closure of our galleries… where did this time go? While contemplating the pandemic’s disorienting effect on time, a wonderful – and wise – artist friend told me that the average day in 2021 will indeed be shorter, if only by milliseconds, than any year previously. We might, according to scientists, for the first time in history be experiencing a ‘negative leap second’: a lag in atomic time, due to the acceleration of the earth’s rotation. To me, it certainly has felt, and still feels, as though time – this novel pandemic time – has become both more elastic-elusive and more rigid simultaneously: evaporating into a temporal black hole, so much faster than ‘normally’.
It does feel strangely comforting to consider that not even time itself escaped 2020 unscathed, as we find ourselves living – collectively and individually – through this painful year of global, coronavirus-induced turmoil, with serial lockdowns, a string of once-unimaginable restrictions and new routines involuntarily placed on our everyday lives. This was also the year of viral mutations and the tragic loss of too many lives, when contested monuments fell, racial and social justice movements were reignited, cultural and other institutions may have finally woken up to perpetual cycles of systemic exclusions, and Brexit actually happened.
"We must not underestimate the intense emotional and intellectual labour that underpins the ‘making’ of new work in this current climate"
With our galleries closed, we have invested our curatorial time into developing artistic programmes remotely and embracing what we refer to as Autograph’s satellite ‘agency’ model: a space of ‘making’ – myriad tentacles moving in concurrent, productively aligned directions – with commissioning at its core. Hence, in May 2020, we began a new project entitled Care | Contagion | Community – Self & Other.
After a year of working closely with visual artists Mohini Chandra, Poulomi Desai, Joy Gregory, Othello De’Souza-Hartley, Sonal Kantaria, Ope Lori, Dexter McLean, Karl Ohiri, Silvia Rosi and Aida Silvestri on this project, we are incredibly proud to share their work with you as part of a dedicated digital dissemination programme over the coming weeks.
Through their individual creative-activist practices, the ten artists, whose work covers a variety of mostly, though not exclusively, lens-based media – photography, film and video, with elements of performance art, collage, objects, drawing and painting – have reflected on the impact of Covid-19 in distinct, yet interconnected, ways: some have used their time to realise an existing project idea, imbued with new meaning in this current pandemic context; others responded to the commission theme more directly, drawing on their immediate surroundings as generative backdrops for contemplating questions of ‘home’, the challenges of isolation, the absence of touch, privilege, or the importance of personal relationships and support structures.
Collectively, the works produced are profoundly personal meditations on (shifting) conditions of existence: generous invitations, or perhaps gentle provocations, for us to think, carefully, about what it means to be human and to care for one another. They constitute a variety of artistic offerings and critical enquiries: among them, a sociological equation for humanity; a pandemic visual diary; an experimental body of photo-paintings that delve deep into Britain’s imperial past to expose striking parallels with the present; a series of therapeutic auto-portraits; and a performative exercise in critical pedagogy.
Family members appear as co-protagonists, and collaborators, in intimate portrayals, in the charged space between absence and presence. Some of the artists sought stillness in open spaces, in the family archive, in empty bedrooms, or purpose-built enclosures and mise-en-scènes: alone with their cameras, their voices, their bodies, tentacled by the experience of solitude. Others found solace in the collectivity experienced in urban parks, through (socially distanced) encounters with strangers, or the photographic exposures of masked loved ones, their eyes reflections of pertinent matters of care, community and caution. Some were inspired by the dis/quiet engendered by nationwide lockdowns, seeking respite in the serenity of deserted landscapes, in cumulus clouds, in the slow movements of wild grass and unruly foliage, connecting local histories and diasporic cultural narratives. Others, again, were incited to artistic re/action by the continual noise of pandemic news headlines, contentious rhetoric and alarming statistics.
Sometimes this space of ‘making’ becomes a mode of self-care, directed inward – a restorative praxis of healing and critical reflection – and at other times it holds up a doubly reflective mirror to the outside, inviting us to consider our own, entangled, deep-rooted or newly sanctioned vulnerabilities, responsibilities, affinities and sense of self within these fragile, changing eco-systems of past, present and future histories…
Here, notions of exposure and contagion – that is, both its original etymological meaning, comprised of ‘together with’ and ‘to touch’ and its more common definition of disease spreading by close contact – are palpable, appearing as both metaphor and occasionally as material presence: for example, in the form of coloured coronal splashes on print surfaces and as part of intricate artworks, literally inoculated by – infected with – bacteria. The very idea of togetherness is of course deeply precarious in this pandemic time of restricted connectivity, but especially so in relation to the concomitant exposures of societal divisions, socio-economic inequalities and the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on communities of colour and essential workers on multiple frontlines.
These matters, and many more, are explored imaginatively, (other)wisely and sensitively by the diverse constituency of talented artists who collaborated with us on Care | Contagion | Community – Self & Other. In order to provide further context to their commissions, we engaged in critical dialogues with the artists, and also invited a number of different voices – poets, scholars, curators and fellow creative practitioners from a variety of cultural and professional backgrounds – to respond to each artist commission with a short, written text.
These insightful mini essays – which include personal reflections, scholarly treatments and poetic interpretations – are published alongside a series of in-conversations between the artists and Autograph’s artistic programming team: director Mark Sealy, curatorial project manager Bindi Vora and myself. They offer considered insights into the artists’ thinking, their mode(s) of working, the creative process of ‘making’ and, at times, the effects of the past year on their artistic practice and applied methodologies. Reflective records of mutual exchange, they also serve as testament to both long-term, ongoing dialogues – developed, in some instances, over many years, decades even – and new relationships forged through this commissioning project.
Throughout the coming months the commissions will be showcased in different ways. Firstly, the digital dissemination of the commissions online: from today, one artist commission will be released each week as part of a ten-week series, complete with accompanying essays and in-conversation texts. Second, the artworks will be presented physically in a forthcoming exhibition at Autograph’s gallery, curated in two thematic chapters between early autumn 2021 and spring 2022. And third, all artist commissions will be published in a printed catalogue, consolidating all the textual and visual elements, later this summer to coincide with the opening of the first exhibition chapter in September.
In remembrance of the unfathomable numbers of people worldwide who have tragically lost their lives to Covid-19 since last year, it seems fitting that we launch Care | Contagion | Community – Self & Other with Othello De’Souza-Hartley’s commission, Blind, but I can See (2020): a moving tribute to the artist’s late father Nevil Hartley, a charismatic leadership figure in north London’s Afro-Caribbean community. When I spoke with Othello about his practice, he poignantly expressed how, following the death of his father, he consciously chose to make new work, rather than dwell on feelings of loss or losing himself in mourning:
‘it is times like these when I appreciate being a creative person, and fortunately, in moments of grief, I can turn to my creativity and pour my emotions into my practice’.
We must not underestimate the intense emotional and intellectual labour that underpins the ‘making’ of new work in this current climate, with all its attendant traumas – personal, psychosocial or physical – and taxes and dis/stresses. These are not easy times in which to create or to write...
It has been a great privilege, and pleasure, for us to assist members of our artistic community during these unprecedented times, and to partake in this crucial – and pleasurable – process of ‘making’: to help enable – or amplify – moments of creative reflection and support the production of new artworks. While the resulting commissions are as diverse as the artists’ respective practices – both thematically and conceptually – they all show a profound sense of commitment, and care. We are excited to be sharing them with our audiences at this stage, even as we are still locked in the seemingly continual warp of pandemic time stretching and evaporating ad nauseum, but with high hopes of impending abatement on the horizon, a vaccine now on offer, one. (pandemic) year on.
So, on behalf of Autograph and my colleagues, I would like to thank all the artists – Mohini Chandra, Poulomi Desai, Joy Gregory, Othello De’Souza-Hartley, Sonal Kantaria, Ope Lori, Dexter McLean, Karl Ohiri, Silvia Rosi and Aida Silvestri – as well as the writers – Raymond Antrobus, Krasimira Butseva, Anthony Downey, Loren Hansi Gordon, Sushma Jansari, Dave Lewis, Tarini Malik, Anne McNeill, Lola Young and Campbell X – for collaborating with us on Care | Contagion | Community – Self & Other, and for making, and responding to, such thoughtful, courageous work that speaks to pertinent matters of personal, social and visual justice. We thank you for your brilliance, your generosity, your vision – for your creative time during this pandemic. And for trusting us with these conversation(s) – with your words, your voices – and with your artworks, which will be preserved in Autograph’s permanent collection for future generations to explore and learn from, and with.
If you are reading this, I also thank you, in advance, for coming on this journey with us as we publish / spotlight one new artist commission on our website each week between now and June, when we will hopefully be able to reopen the gallery. And lastly, to borrow artist Aida Silvestri’s words, I thank you for caring enough to look.
Take good care...
We are marking the launch of the commissions for Care | Contagion | Community — Self & Other in a ten-week series of newsletters and announcements on social media. Each week, we'll feature a new artist commission and publish the accompanying texts about that work.
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Autograph is a place to see things differently. Since 1988, we have championed photography that explores issues of race, identity, representation, human rights and social justice, sharing how photographs reflect lived experiences and shape our understanding of ourselves and others.Donate Join our mailing list