Culture& Recommends – 2020 highlights

Culture& Recommends – Highlight 1 – Kehinde Wiley’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ at the William Morris Gallery

For his exhibition at William Morris Gallery the New York-based artist came to Dalston, North London and, from photos of a number of local African and African Caribbean women, produced six portraits that respond to the decorative tropes of William Morris’ arts and crafts designs as well as Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s (1892) novella ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’.

The Gilman story is a series of diary entries by a woman, struggling with what appears to be postnatal depression, whose physician husband has ordered her to take a ‘rest cure’, which turns out to be confinement in a nursery whose excessively patterned wallpaper gradually becomes a metaphor of her drift into psychosis.

Gilman’s protagonist might as well be referencing a William Morris pattern when she describes the wallpaper in the room as ‘an interminable string of toadstools, budding and sprouting in endless convolutions’. So Wiley uses Morris designs, suffused with yellow, not just as a backdrop for his portraits. The patterns are vibrant organisms that swirl around and festoon his subjects – a gesture not only against a modernist tradition that abhors ornament but also a repositioning of black women as subjects with power and agency within the canon of feminist discourse.

Image: Kehinde Wiley, Portrait of Savannah Essah, 2020. Installation photograph by Errol Francis Photography

Culture& Recommends – Highlight 2, Toyin Ojihodutola’s  ‘A Countervailing Theory’ at the Barbican Centre

‘A Countervailing Theory’, opened at the Barbican Centre earlier this year, a commissioned set of work by the acclaimed artist Toyin Ojihodutola; on display in the centre’s ‘Curve Gallery’, which re-opened from the first National Lockdown with the show.

There are 40 drawings on display of varying sizes, all produced between 2019-2020, illustrating a beautifully constructed mythology set in what is now Nigeria’s Plateau State, with clear references to afro-futurism, the geography of place and the philosophy of power. The works, are displayed in series, and feature a class of female warriors ruling over male labourers; with both groups highly separated by a strict code of social rules. As you move left from drawing, to beautiful drawing you see the story arc and the wonderful care of each work.

The drawings and storytelling are made all the richer by Peter Adjaye’s perfectly composed soundscape ‘Ceremonies Within’, the audio and visual art are wonderfully harmonious, the work so detailed and deep we could have stayed for hours had the 30 minute limit not been in effect, to allow for the next group of socially distanced visitors to enter and bringing us back to 2020.


Chila Kumari Singh Burman transforms the front of Tate Britain for this year’s Winter Commission.

Remembering a brave new world combines Hindu mythology, Bollywood imagery, colonial history and personal memories. Inspired by the artist’s childhood visits to the Blackpool illuminations and her family’s ice-cream van, Burman covers the façade of Tate Britain with vinyl, bling and lights. She changes the figure of Britannia, a symbol of British imperialism, into Kali, the Hindu goddess of liberation and power. The many illuminated deities, shapes and words are joined by Lakshmibai, the Rani (queen) of Jhansi. Lakshmibai was a fierce female warrior in India’s resistance to British colonial rule in the 19th century.

Burman is celebrated internationally for her radical feminist practice, spanning printmaking, drawing, painting, installation and film. Her Punjabi and Liverpudlian heritage enrich her self-expressive work. Burman mashes up stereotypes to create new identities, beyond the limitations imposed on South Asian women in a British cultural context.

The commission opened to coincide Diwali, the Festival of Light. It is a celebration of new beginnings, the triumph of good over evil, light over darkness. remembering a brave new world takes inspiration from the luminous struggles and victories of the past to offer hope for a brighter future. On view until 31 January 2021.

Image: Errol Francis Photography