Camelia Gupta feels changed by a major retrospective from photographer and digital artist Roshini Kempadoo
Bluesheets: A Bit of the Other, 1994 © Roshini Kempadoo
Roshini Kempadoo: Works 1990 – 2004, at the PM Gallery and House until September 18, provides a major retrospective of this internationally-acclaimed photographic and digital artist, organised by OVA - the Organisation for Visual Arts.
Kempadoo works from a documentary tradition but intervenes to dismember and complicate narratives of race, colonialism and identity. She is concerned with physical landscapes and those who occupy them.
It’s a stroke of genius to display her work at the PM Gallery, sited as it is within Pizthanger Manor House. The house was built by architect Sir John Soane as his country residence and is a riot of Classical features and innovation. It’s a very personal vision.
LAP1 © Roshini Kempadoo
The artist herself appears in several pieces and Kempadoo’s status as a UK-born, Carribean/mixed race woman is at the root of much of her work. This is work that is not afraid to be direct, angry, and politicised, you sense that for Kempadoo the personal really is the political. She uses vocal and textual extracts to humanise major historical/political narratives.
Much of the imagery is forceful and I can feel the passion and anger in much of the work. An image from ECU: European Currency Unfolds, 1992, juxtaposes a five-pound-note spilling from a purse with an illustration of rope-bound hands. Overlaid with a vibrant red tone that recalls blood, the Queen regards from within an image that is both voluptuous and deeply shocking.
On the day I visit, it’s sweltering. Through the open back entrance, next to this image, I see an orderly English garden, a gardener trimming the grass. The smell of cut grass and roses is an almost shocking reminder of the complexity that Kempadoo highlights. I’m viewing bloody images of colonialism in an English ‘country’ house, set in a beautiful park, now enclosed by a modern city.
Couple: European Currency Unfolds, 1992 © Roshini Kempadoo
Kempadoo’s commitment to political critique is apparent in a series titled 'Impressions Passing', 1992. These are a series of four black as white citations of images of blackness, with captions emphasising the way the images have become a part of a colonial project of fixing identity. In one we see a tabloid cover of the pop star Yazz. Headline: "From Black Beauty to Blonde Bombshell". Kempadoo’s caption: "White is the norm against which everything else is measured and has no need of self-definition".
Kempadoo’s work is generally saved from didacticism by it’s insistence on the slipperiness of identity, and the variety of images and textures she employs.
The exhibition continues into Pitzhanger Manor-House itself, in what is by far the most effective part of the show. After immersion in a beautiful but harrowing complexity, passing into the manor house enacts a culture shock on the viewer. Suddenly a couple of empty rooms are much more than that, their distinctive Englishness, the aesthetic statements made by the dark wooden mantelpiece are made visible. 'English' has been held up to examination, its normality questioned.
Ident6: Identity in Production 1990. © Roshini Kempadoo
Endless Prospects’ locates this critique in the library of the Manor. Panels of vibrant tropical images fill arch-shaped recesses whilst drumbeats and voices fill the air. The artist places a large circular video screen onto the ceiling of the inner room, on which collages of landscapes form and fade. The library has a very strong Western Classical aesthetic, it’s an opulent hideaway.
A voice describes the landscape and hypnotic drumbeats draw me in. A snatch of dialogue catches my attention: "It’s like I’m sitting between two heavens".
That’s what Kempadoo gives us. The installation contrasts how differing cultures use landscape/architecture to construct spaces for pleasure and escape. Pitzhanger is an English country idyll imbued with a characteristic sense of foreign cultures as spheres for dominance, titillation, adventure.
Jaganview02 and 03: endless propects, 2004. © Roshini Kempadoo
Kempadoo’s Caribbean is fervent in its pursuit of pleasure and dreamspace, and a necessary survival tactic for the subjugated - except that this time, it’s the Carribean invading, pushing insistently into an Englishman’s castle. It’ becomes a tussle between cultures and is both disorienting and wonderful.
Roshini Kempadoo weaves 'fact' and fiction, documentary and artist-created materials into a fascinating and angry examination of black and white histories and ways of being and living.
Leaving the exhibition, back in the 'real world', I notice the different tribes. An old Caucasian man moves out of the way as a gang of South Asian lads show off their ‘bhangramuffin’ finery. I feel changed.
Another scrap of dialogue from ‘Endless Prospects’ comes to mind: "I don’t want no fence, just a gate." Sounds good to me.